Garamendi Introduces Military Support for Fighting Wildfires Act

WASHINGTON, DC—Today, Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA) introduced the “Military Support for Fighting Wildfires Act” (H.R.5560), with Representatives Sara Jacobs (D-CA-53) and Salud Carbajal (D-CA-24) as original cosponsors. This comprehensive bill would improve the U.S. military’s support for emergency response and provide Congressional authorization for the California Air National Guard’s “FireGuard” program in partnership with the U.S. Air Force and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Congressman Garamendi serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, which oversees the National Guard and all joint training activities like FireGuard.

“The American military has incredible capabilities for observation, which can and should be used to improve civilian emergency response to wildfires and other natural disasters with the appropriate safeguards for privacy,” Garamendi said. “As western states like California face increasingly severe and frequent wildfires due to man-made climate change, we need all the help we can get from the federal government, including the military. That is exactly what my ‘Military Support for Fighting Wildfires Act’ would accomplish, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in California’s Congressional delegation to secure the federal support needed as our state confronts the harsh realities of a new, year-round fire season,” Garamendi concluded.

Specifically, Congressman Garamendi’s “Military Support for Fighting Wildfires Act” (H.R.5560) would:

·Require the DOD to reimburse states for reasonable costs incurred fighting fires caused by military activities on state land leased or otherwise used by the DOD, including National Guard installations. This reimbursement is only optional under current law, at the DOD’s discretion.

·Provide Congressional authorization for the “FireGuard” program between the California Air National Guard and the DOD, which was recently extended by the U.S. Air Force after months of Congressional pressure to do so. This explicit Congressional authorization would obviate the need for such bureaucratic extensions in the future, allowing the program to operate on an ongoing basis. On August 16, 2021, Congressman Garamendi joined Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA28) and Salud O. Carbajal (D-CA24) and U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Alex Padilla (D-CA) in a letter urging Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin to extend the “FireGuard” program.

·Require the DOD to include an accounting of costs for wildfire response in the annual budget request to Congress, including military support for states like California and FEMA/federal land management agencies. Current law only requires DOD to account for climate adaptation and mitigation costs on U.S. military installations in the President’s annual budget request. This accounting is needed to gauge how much military support for emergency response for wildfires is provided, on a year-to-year basis.

·Specify that National Guard training for emergency response for wildfires must also incorporate best practices and recommendations by the National Interagency Fire Center, not just the National Guard Bureau under current law.

·Allow the DOD to spend the funding necessary to reconfigure excess Coast Guard HC-130H Aircraft for wildfire suppression, required by Congress to be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service or the State of California. Specify that reconfigured excess Coast Guard HC-130H Aircraft transferred may also be used for search and rescue, not just “wildfire suppression purposes” as stipulated under current law. Builds upon work by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Alex Padilla (D-CA) urging the U.S. Air Force to expedite the retrofit of seven C-130s being transferred from the Coast Guard to California to use for fighting wildfires.

·Remove the arbitrary cap (seven) on the number of excess military aircraft that DOD may transfer at no cost to FEMA or the U.S. Forest Service for firefighting. Current law only allows DOD to transfer excess military aircraft suitable for emergency response by civilian agencies. Builds upon directive report language Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA19) secured in the House-passed “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022” (H.R.4350), see last paragraph of page 32 from House Report.

·Require DOD to review existing authorities for using Air Force and Air National Guard modular airborne fire-fighting systems and other department of defense assets to fight wildfires. Congress last required the White House Office of Management and Budget and DOD to do an analysis like this back in 2004.

·Preclude the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from charging or requiring reimbursements by civilian agencies for satellite time used in emergency response for wildfires. From fiscal years 2011-2018, the FEMA paid approximately $764K in total reimbursement to NGA for disaster response, which is unnecessary, wasteful, and effectively disincentives civilian agencies from making use of available NGA resources for wildfire response.

·Require DOD to issue new guidance that provides a more streamlined approval process/expedited review of requests for the use of unmanned aircraft systems by the National Guard for emergency operations, search and rescues, and other wildfire detection/support activities. The California National Guard has used remotely piloted and unmanned aircraft systems, such as the MQ-9, for life-saving emergency operations in the past. However, these missions have only been completed a handful of times due to the lengthy approval process requiring the Secretary of Defense to sign off on each of these requests in advance.

·Direct DOD to implement its own recommendations on improving use of unmanned aircraft systems by the National Guard, from Congressionally directed review/report. Congressman Garamendi secured the provision of the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (Public Law 116–283) requiring this report to Congress and recommendations, see Section 519C.

The full text of the “Military Support for Fighting Wildfires Act” is available here.