As Danger Season Begins, Congress Must Pass Stronger Wildfire Policies

May 11, 2023 | 10:43 am
Fire consumes a forest of pine trees, and smoke fills the air during the 2013 Alder Fire in Yellowstone National ParkMike Lewelling, National Park Service/Flickr
Shana Udvardy
Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst

Danger Season has begun, and wildfires are already burning: this is the climate crisis’ reality check to Congress that stronger federal wildfire policies are still needed.

There are currently dozens of fires burning in the United States, and residents in New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas are living under red flag warnings for fire weather. To our north, a state of emergency exists in some parts of the province of Alberta in Canada due to 88 wildfires that have burned close to one million acres and forced an estimated 24,000 people to evacuate their homes. After several years of dangerous and costly wildfires back-to-back here in the United States, the recent seasonal outlook for potential wildland fires this Danger Season finds that much of the western United States can expect normal or below-normal fire activity between May and August this year. However, “normal” fire activity in a changing climate can still be quite dangerous. The good news is that the Biden administration and Congress have made important strides on advancing policies and resources to help communities and the federal government mitigate wildfire risk. But there’s still a long way to go.

A snapshot of recent progress on wildfire policy

On Earth Day 2022, President Biden signed an executive order committing his administration to “Strengthen America’s Forests, Boost Wildfire Resilience, and Combat Global Deforestation.” This order increased the base pay for federal firefighters to $15 per hour.

A few months later the White House outlined a broad range of wildfire risk reduction efforts, much of which wouldn’t have been possible without historic levels of funding  and policies under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

Highlights include:

  • A two-year temporary pay increase to support wildland firefighters through September 2023.  
  • Robust investments in wildfire mitigation programs to help communities.
  • Investment in federal agencies for wildfire prediction, detection, and modeling.
  • The creation of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission to bring together federal, state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector to recommend strategies to improve upon federal wildfire risk management.

The historic Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) also provides critical resources for wildfire risk reduction, including:

  • $1.8 billion targeted to the US Forest Service (USFS) for hazardous fuel reduction on US Forest Services land within the wildland-urban interface (WUI).
  • $2.2 billion for state and private forestry conservation programs.
  • $550 million for competitive grants to non-federal forest landowners.

President Biden’s appropriations request for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 budget would invest more resources for “modernizing the wildland fire management system.” For example, the request includes:

  • $1.4 billion investment in federal wildland firefighter salaries and other expenses.
  • $323 million targeted towards hazardous fuels reduction.
  • $53 million to invest in the rehabilitation of burned forest areas.

Now’s a good time to sustain this momentum

While I am pleased to see the efforts by Congress and the Biden administration to provide resources for wildfire mitigation, given the realities of climate change, we must be honest and ask: is it enough? Human-caused climate change is exacerbating wildfire risk. The combination of warmer temperatures and drier conditions leads to drier vegetation that’s more flammable for a longer period of the year. In fact, Western forests are now 50 percent drier due to climate change.

Scientists are also noting that climate change is exacerbating the number, size, and severity of wildfires as well as the length of wildfire season. Many of these changes are linked to a long-term increase in vapor pressure deficit, a measure of the atmosphere’s ability to dry out the vegetation that eventually becomes fuel for fires.

According to applied scientist Natasha Stavros at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, wildfires are …“bigger, more severe, and faster than ever before, and more destructive.” In light of the latest science and realities of climate change, we can and must do more at the federal level. Congress and the administration must continue its work by:

  • Meeting US commitments to reduce heat-trapping emissions

The United States must rapidly cut heat-trapping emissions 50–52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050. To do this, efforts must include: implementing the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, enacting strong carbon pollution and methane standards and enacting policies to advance clean electricity, energy efficiency, zero-emission vehicles, mass transit, electrification of buildings and industrial processes, and investing in healthy soils and forests.

  • Reducing Human-Ignited Wildfires 

Climate change is making conditions more conducive to wildfire, but people are responsible for igniting most fires in western North America. Failures of electricity infrastructure for example, have kindled some of the largest and deadliest wildfires on record. Congress and states should pass legislation directing utility companies to plan and implement measures that prevent energy infrastructure from sparking fires, and ensure critical equipment is functional.

Where undeveloped wildland including forests or other vegetation meets human dwellings and development is known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). This area is deserving of attention when it comes to wildfire ignitions because it’s the fastest growing land-use type in the US—and that growth is exacerbating wildfire risk and the number of homes burned. State, county, and city agencies must have more skin in the game to reduce wildfire risk by implementing land use regulations. Local governments, who are responsible for land-use zoning, must enact policies to limit new building in the WUI, and adopt the latest WUI building codes. Doing so pays off in the long run: data shows that constructing new buildings that exceed 2015 building codes in the wildland-urban interface can have a $4 return on every dollar due to losses prevented in the future. Existing property owners in fire-prone areas must also invest in making themselves as safe as possible by adopting “defensible space” mitigation measures, such as removing combustible items and installing non-combustible hardscape such as rocks surrounding their home.

  • Increasing Resources for Forest Health 

To help restore the health of Western forests, Congress should sustain funding for identifying at-risk forests and scaling up forest treatments. Ecologically-informed thinning and long-honed Indigenous practices such as cultural burning or prescribed burning, can reduce the spread and severity of fires, and provide other benefits to the ecosystem. Cultural burning has been passed down by Indigenous people for thousands of years, and refers to how controlled burns help cultivate the landscape to make it more resilient and increase biodiversity.

  • Protecting Community Health and Safety 

To reduce potential exposure to wildfires and dangerous wildfire smoke, Congress should pass legislation directing agencies to improve modelling of wildfire behavior and smoke, and real-time safety communications to the public, local officials, and wildland firefighters. Congress must also make permanent the temporary pay increase for essential federal wildland firefighters and support their health and mental well-being overall. US Senator Michael Bennet has introduced a bill that would do just that. Congress should also extend the ten-year disaster fund for the US Forest Service and the Department of Interior to sustain this financial safety net for fire suppression costs.

  • Advancing, Tracking, and Coordinating Equitable Investments 

We know that people, households, and communities with the fewest resources to cope with wildfire impacts are often those that get hurt first and worst. Analysis of the 2018 Camp Fire in California found that members of a rural, low-income community with a large elderly population, many with mobility challenges, had a difficult time evacuating, with many losing their lives. After the fire, survivors faced challenges including mental and emotional exhaustion, difficulty safely returning to their homes, and the cost and complexity of recovery. In line with the Biden administration’s Justice 40 initiative, federal agencies should target 40 percent of certain resources to underserved communities to help with wildfire mitigation and recovery. Additionally, it’s important that federal agencies ensure that these low-resourced communities are not burdened by difficult federal funding matches or reporting requirements.

The lessons learned from disastrous wildfires like the Camp Fire and the latest climate change science must inform new federal wildfire policies. The IIJA established a new commission to do just this. The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission is charged with developing policy recommendations and a comprehensive framework for coordinating fire-risk reduction measures across agencies and jurisdictions to Congress within one year after its first meeting.

The bottom line

The climate crisis demands more strategic policies to advance the resilience of wildfire-prone communities. As communities across the country grapple with the current fire risk this danger season, as burned communities from the last few horrific wildfires in the Western US continue to recover from the emotional, financial and ecological impacts of wildfires, and as our neighbors in Alberta, Canada, are living with the wildfires burning in their province, decision-makers must be reminded that climate change is already exacerbating wildfire activity now, and it’ll worsen in the future. All levels of government must do their part to help keep people safe, reduce heat trapping emissions and increase resources for adaptation measures.

The wildfire resources and policies included in the IIJA and IRA are a big down payment on reducing wildfire risk. However, additional investments by Congress and the Biden administration are needed to truly tackle this wicked wildfire problem to enable sharp cuts in heat-trapping emissions, a reduction in the number of human-ignited wildfires, forest health and diversity, an advancement in modeling of wildfire behavior and smoke, and targeted resources to the underserved and historically disadvantaged communities.