With Wildfire Costs Rising, Commission Provides Roadmap to Improve Management

New recommendations on spending, coordination, and risk management reflect Pew input

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With Wildfire Costs Rising, Commission Provides Roadmap to Improve Management
  A helicopter drops a large plume of water on a smoldering wildfire, with scorched trees, some chain-link fencing, and the silhouette of a firefighter visible in the foreground. The plume is refracting light from the sun, which sits behind a small mountain on the horizon beneath a cloudless sky.
A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in Jurupa Valley, California, on June 17, 2022. A new congressionally commissioned report recommends steps the federal government can take to better track spending on wildfire management.
Qian Weizhong Getty Images

The federal government should take steps to better track its spending on wildfires across agencies and make wildfire grant programs more accessible to communities, according to a new report from the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission. The report also recommends increased and sustained federal investments in risk-reducing wildfire mitigation, and incentives for state and local governments to invest in these risk reduction activities.

The report, released in late September, contains 148 recommendations, some of which reflect input provided to the commission by The Pew Charitable Trusts based on its research on wildfire spending and budgeting.

Congress created the commission in 2021 in response to the growing threat and cost of wildfires. The nonpartisan 50-member work group is composed of representatives from federal agencies; state, local, and Tribal governments; and experts from the private sector. In endorsing the recommendations, which cover a comprehensive set of wildfire policy areas, the group considered comments from various stakeholders. Several of the recommendations focus on the impact of wildfires on public budgets and, if implemented, would address fiscal challenges identified by previous Pew research. Several specific examples are detailed below.

Improving wildfire spending data

Pew’s research has found that federal, state, and local spending on wildfires is insufficiently tracked and reported, creating a data gap for policymakers at all levels of government. That spending can be difficult to track because it involves a complex set of activities executed by multiple agencies and entities across federal, state, local, and Tribal governments.

Recommendation 123 would begin to address this at the federal level by creating a budget “crosscut” for wildfire spending—a standard method of reporting to show how much federal agencies are spending on wildfire management, broken down by types of activities and geographic allocation.  This approach has been used to track other cross-agency expenses and could form the basis for deciding where additional investment is most needed and for evaluating the return on investment for federal spending. It could also serve as a model for states and localities looking to better understand their own wildfire expenses. 

Investing now to reduce future wildfire risk

A growing body of evidence shows the value of investing in mitigation activities, such as forest management and fire-resistant construction and landscaping, in reducing the severity and costs of future fires. Pew’s research found that although mitigation funding has risen in recent years, the scale of the problem requires additional investment. 

And, according to the commission report, although the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provide as much as $24 billion in funding for forest management and wildfire activities, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior estimate that they need more than triple that amount over the next 10 years to effectively address wildfire risk. The commission, which emphasized that the need is ongoing and that Congress cannot effectively address it with a one-time investment, made a number of recommendations related to increasing sustained mitigation funding.   

For example, Recommendations 124, 130, and 132 call for recurring funding—on par with the amounts allocated under the IRA and IIJA—to finance new projects and ensure appropriate maintenance of already completed projects.

Furthermore, given that states, localities, and other entities also play key roles in wildfire management and mitigation, the commission recommended federal action to incentivize those governments to fund mitigation as well. The commission acknowledged that some state, county, regional, and municipal governments already fund mitigation and, in Recommendation 134, urged federal incentives, such as matching funds, to encourage sustained investments at all levels of government. 

As Pew shared in its comments to the commission, sustained funding, whether from state or federal dollars, would help states begin to implement the scale of mitigation investment needed and allow them to commit to building and retaining a workforce with the expertise necessary to get the most value from that funding.

Simplifying access to federal funds

Pew research also found that state and local governments face challenges in accessing and utilizing federal funding. These challenges stem from delays in federal reimbursements for firefighting services and trouble accessing and managing federal grants to under-resourced communities. 

Wildfire response in the U.S. relies heavily on cross-jurisdictional resource sharing under cooperative agreements, which often call for the federal government to reimburse state, local, and Tribal governments for help in mitigating and fighting fires. But that reimbursement can take months—or even years—and the commission found that this delay might deter these governments from assisting in future wildfire responses. 

According to the report, some states, including California, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington, provide an advance on reimbursements to their local governments until the responsible government eventually pays. In Recommendation 50, the commission suggests that Congress could provide funding to help states establish revolving funds to provide similar advances to other jurisdictions. States with the fiscal capacity to do so could begin to implement this recommendation on their own as well. 

To help state, local, and Tribal governments access federal grants for fire risk reduction and recovery, the commission recommended two approaches, both under Recommendation 142. First, federal agencies should streamline grant applications by reducing the quantity of information required and should redesign programs to enhance access for disadvantaged populations. The commission also called on the federal government to provide more technical assistance to help affected communities navigate the process.

Pew appreciates the work of the commission and its efforts to incorporate input from a broad swath of internal and external contributors. The report establishes a way forward for policymakers to address some of the key challenges the nation faces in creating a more wildfire-resilient future.  

Andrea Snyder is a senior associate, Peter Muller is an officer, and Colin Foard is a manager with Pew’s fiscal federalism initiative.

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