A bill recently introduced in the California General Assembly would strengthen accountability and decision-making around wildfire activity by requiring improved reporting of spending data on the significant investments the state is making to reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires. The measure, introduced by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D), aligns with recommendations laid out in a 2022 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts titled “Wildfires: Burning Through State Budgets.”
Nationally, wildfires are becoming bigger and more destructive, leading to growing public spending on an array of interventions. Pew’s report recommends that states take three critical steps to ensure they are managing wildfire costs effectively: improve tracking and reporting of spending data; evaluate fire suppression budget practices to ensure appropriations align with actual spending needs; and maximize investments in mitigation activities such as removing flammable brush and prescribed burning, which research shows can reduce the frequency and severity of future fires.
Pew’s recommendation to improve spending data tracking is most relevant to the California bill, and reflects Pew’s findings that comprehensive and ongoing tracking and reporting of wildfire spending is often lacking at both the state and federal levels. Pew’s report points out that missing data obscures the true costs of fires, limits possibilities for measuring the impact of mitigation, and makes it harder for policymakers to determine how to distribute scarce resources among the different phases of wildfire management.
To address these issues, the bill identifies eight state and federal programs that play an important role in wildfire mitigation in California. These include programs that treat high-risk land to reduce the size and intensity of future fires, and that strengthen communities to reduce property damage when fires do occur. The bill also requires annual public disclosure of details about the funding associated with the state’s wildfire response. That disclosure would include the amount of funding committed to a specific use; the identity and location of organizations that ultimately receive the funding; and descriptions of projects, including location, schedule, and anticipated benefits.
If passed into law, the bill would help California:
- Better gauge return on investment. Although wildfire experts agree on the need for mitigation, governments have very few rigorous cost-benefit analyses of these activities, particularly at the state and local levels. Improved transparency on spending, tied to project locations, could provide the foundation for future cost-benefit analyses that would greatly help policymakers decide how much to invest in such projects.
- Improve coordination between and across governments. In California, as in many states, numerous entities and agencies share responsibility for wildfire management. Fire does not obey jurisdictional boundaries, so coordination among local, state, and federal officials, and among agencies within each level of government, is essential to successful mitigation. Improved disclosure about where funding is being deployed could help neighboring jurisdictions coordinate their projects.
- Measure progress toward meeting mitigation needs. California and the federal government recently made major investments in wildfire mitigation. The state committed $2.7 billion to wildfire and forest resilience programs and the U.S. Congress allocated nearly $4 billion toward wildfire mitigation through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. But it is not yet clear how much of the enormous need for wildfire mitigation that this funding will address. Additional data on how much work is completed with existing funding will help inform policymakers’ consideration of future investments.
- Ensure equitable distribution of funding. Smaller, more rural, and lower-income communities have often struggled to access mitigation funding. Improved data that links spending amounts to project locations would allow timely analysis of how these funds are being distributed and create opportunities to assess targeting and make improvements where those distributions fall short of expectations.
Options for creating more informative data
Beyond the proposals in the legislation, California could take additional steps to improve its mitigation spending data reporting in ways that align with Pew’s research, such as:
- Incorporating flexibility in program definitions. This legislation identifies the specific programs involved in wildfire mitigation that are required to report additional spending data. California would benefit from flexibility to adjust this list as new mitigation programs are implemented and old programs wind down. Recent new federal programs established under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act are just the most recent examples of how quickly new programs can emerge. Without flexibility to adjust to include new programs, data reported under this legislation could eventually become less relevant and comprehensive.
- Expanding reporting beyond mitigation. Improved data collection and reporting is needed across all phases of wildfire spending, not just mitigation. In our report, we recommend a similar effort to coordinate collection and reporting of spending data on wildfire prevention, preparedness, suppression, and recovery activities. These efforts would help all stakeholders better understand the total cost of wildfires and the effectiveness of mitigation spending in managing the growth of wildfire expenses over time.
- Funding source tracking. The wide range of funding sources—such as state general funds, special revenue sources, or federal programs—makes it difficult for policymakers and the public to understand who is ultimately paying for wildfire-related expenditures. By reporting details about funding sources, California would help policymakers better understand the budget impact of wildfire programs, which in turn could lead to better decisions and more effective mitigation. Funding source information would also add clarity to the amount of responsibility being borne by different levels of government.
Colin Foard is a manager and Peter Muller is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ fiscal federalism initiative.
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