Charred chairs are about all that is standing after a building in Santiam Canyon was destroyed by wildfire in September 2020. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon, joined in a recent call for federal agencies to activate a Congressionally mandated committee to address wildfires, saying the Biden administration was tardy.

Bentz and 10 other U.S. representatives said in a March 8 letter they wanted an explanation for why no appointments had been made yet to the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.

The new commission was mandated by the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November.

Bentz, however, had voted against the very legislation that created the commission.

The letter was directed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The federal legislation was signed into law Nov. 15 and its provisions required appointment of the new commission within 60 days.

“Given the urgency surrounding the upcoming wildfire season and the imminent threat that wildfires pose to communities in our districts, we are concerned by the fact that your agencies have missed the deadlines” to appoint the commission, according to the letter from representatives.

The letter also asked “when will the commission present its plan to address wildfire risks prior to the summer months, which are expected to be hot and dry.”

But the law requiring creation of the commission also gave it a year to develop its recommendations, which would be well after the 2022 wildfire season.

And though members haven’t yet been appointed, Bentz and his colleagues asked what the commission would do to address large fires on federal lands and to “promote mechanical fuels treatment” in the forests.

Bentz didn’t respond to written questions about his vote against wildfire funding and seeking clarification on expecting the commission’s results ahead of this year’s fire season.

Two days after the date of the letter, the Agriculture Department announced it was seeking applicants for seats on the commission.

“While the delay was unfortunate, this is a step in the right direction,” Bentz said in a press statement.

The commission’s role “is to recommend long-term strategies in how lands and wildland fire are managed to address the growing wildfire crisis,” according to an email from Larry Moore, Agriculture Department communications coordinator.

“These recommendations will take time and thoughtful discussion among a diverse set of commission members to properly develop, which is why the commission is allotted up to a year for their development and submission to Congress,” Moore said.

He said the agency has been working since December to establish the commission and that Bentz’s letter didn’t prompt the announcement.

“The timing of the letter from Congressman Bentz was coincidental,” Moore said.

Joining Bentz on the letter were U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republicans from Washington, Ken Calvert, Jay Obernolte and Doug LaMalfa, Republicans from California; Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, Matthew Rosendale Sr., R-Montana, Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, and Pete Stauber, R-Minnesota.

“I am grateful to Rep. Bentz for leading the charge to address the threat wildfires pose to rural communities throughout the West,” Newhouse said in a statement.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that Bentz opposed includes more than $1 billion to address wildfire issues.

“The funding will allow the agency to get funds directly to state and local partners through the establishment of the Community Wildfire Defense Grants program in addition to providing funding for increasing the face and scale of fuels treatments,” Moore said.

Among provisions in the federal appropriations is $500 million in part for “mechanical thinning and timber harvesting in an ecologically appropriate manner that maximizes the retention of large trees.”

Federal agencies also are directed in the legislation to convert at least 1,000 seasonal firefighter jobs into year-round positions.  

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