Rising Wildfire Risks Prompt States to Look for New Approaches to Resilience

Innovative land use planning and smarter budgeting could help curtail threat

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Rising Wildfire Risks Prompt States to Look for New Approaches to Resilience
Ground view of an airplane overhead dropping water to suppress a wildfire. The sky is consumed with fire and smoke.
A plane drops water on the Clear Fire near Anderson, Alaska, on July 6, 2022. Alaska had the most acres burned by wildfires in the U.S. in 2022, with nearly 600 individual wildfires ravaging more than 3 million acres
Eric Kiehn with Northwest Incident Management Team 10

In recent years, wildfires in the U.S. have grown larger and more intense, with many sweeping through communities, putting lives at risk, and imposing profound and long-lasting impacts on natural ecosystems. From 2017 to 2021, the average annual acreage burned by wildfire in the U.S. was 68% greater than the yearly average from 1983 to 2016. In 2023 alone, wildfires caused devastating economic losses and death tolls from Maui to the Great Smoky Mountains. Every year, American taxpayers bear the cost of these disasters: The U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service nearly doubled their combined spending on wildfire management from 2011 to 2020.

Federal Spending on Wildfire Management Has Grown Significantly Since Fiscal Year 2011: Funding over time for wildfire management activities by the U.S. Forest Services, Department of the Interior, and Federal Emergency Management  Agency

Why are wildfires getting worse?

While many lawmakers and government agencies have focused on suppressing and recovering from fires, state resilience officials are looking ahead, namely by advancing planning and mitigation measures to address the root causes of wildfire and reduce the effects.

At a December 2023 virtual meeting of the State Resilience Planning Group (SRPG)—a Pew-convened network of resilience officials—Frank Frievalt, director of the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Fire Institute at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), explained three main factors causing the U.S. to experience bigger and more frequent wildfires:

  • Growth in the fuel load, such as wood debris or dry vegetation, which can cause wildfires to burn hotter, larger, longer, and faster. In some places this growth has resulted from past land management decisions, such as a century of fire suppression throughout federal and private lands in fire-dependent landscapes.
  • Increased development in wildfire-prone landscapes, referred to as the wildland-urban interface. From 1990 to 2020, 6 million homes were constructed in areas with a higher tendency of fires.
  • An increase of the vapor pressure deficit—a measure of the amount of moisture that the atmosphere can draw out of vegetation, which is linked to air temperature and climate trends—is accelerating and increasing the drying of wildfire fuels.
Aerial view showing a cul-de-sac at the edge of a neighborhood where most homes have been destroyed by wildfires. Some brown patches of land and stands of trees are also visible.
Wildfires in October 2007 destroyed numerous homes in northern Rancho Bernardo, a community within San Diego. Rancho Bernardo’s neighborhoods in the wildland-urban interface were particularly at risk due to the proximity of homes to flammable brush that can feed and spread wildfire.
Sandy Huffaker Getty Images

Frievalt noted that these factors compound to cause community-scale fires that, beyond severely damaging homes and businesses and threatening lives, can wreak havoc on local economies and public budgets. He only sees this phenomenon getting worse.

“There is serious fire activity coming that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” Frievalt said. “There is a big cost to not taking mitigation action, and we must adapt to what is coming.”

A groundfire snakes between a heavily treed, mountainous area. The ground is covered in leaves, which is bordered by a gravel road where rescue workers stand.
In November 2023, about 670 acres in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, west of Washington, D.C., burned from wildfires fueled by drought conditions. The severity of multiple fires throughout the state led Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to declare a 30-day state of emergency.
National Park Service

Measure and manage wildfire spending

Pew research has found that bigger and more destructive fires like the ones Frievalt described are stressing budgets at all levels of government. Our 2022 report “Wildfires: Burning Through State Budgets” examines the fiscal impact wildfires have on states and provides recommendations for how they can better manage this growing risk. For example, we found that states need better data to measure and manage wildfire costs and their effect on budgets, as well as to ensure sufficient investment in cost-saving mitigation to reduce wildfire risk.

The report states that better tracking and reporting of wildfire-related spending is key to proactive state budget planning in the face of growing risk. But capturing that spending can be a challenge, since wildfire management activities are carried out by multiple state agencies; happen before, during, and after fires; and draw on a mix of funding sources. Better tracking would help states understand how spending fluctuates over time and identify funding needs, including those for mitigation.

Pew’s research also found that states’ current approaches to wildfire management budgeting are struggling to keep up with the real and growing need for resources. Many states appropriate the same amount of funding every year or use backward-looking estimates to determine how much to allocate for wildfire activities. These estimates fall short of what’s needed, which forces states to routinely require supplemental appropriations during and after fires.

Pew recommends that state policymakers review their approach to wildfire budgeting, consider using forward-look data to better anticipate wildfire costs, and focus on long-term wildfire planning. Doing so would minimize the disruption of supplemental appropriations during times of crisis and address overall risk.

Align stakeholders around wildfire mitigation and invest

States are well-positioned to work with communities, private landowners, and other stakeholders to address the root causes of wildfire. This includes large-scale management, such as prescribed burns or pruning lower branches and thinning dense forest to limit the vegetation that can burn in a fire. Wildfire resilience also relies on targeted parcel-level mitigation actions, such as choosing fire-resistant building materials and creating a buffer in vegetation around buildings to slow or stop the spread of fire.

To address the factors contributing to the largest wildfires at multiple scales, the WUI Fire Institute at Cal Poly encourages coordination of policy and planning among the stakeholders, landowners, and agencies that contribute to mitigation actions. Frievalt shared advancements in applying graph modeling to predict the spread of wildfire in detail, down to individual properties. Stakeholders and governments can use innovative modeling of wildfire pathways to target mitigation actions like retrofitting fire-prone structures and removal of fuels to disrupt the spread of even the largest fires.

The U.S. needs to invest more in mitigation, and that's starting to happen: The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act included over $5 billion in wildfire mitigation funding. Some states have also stepped up: Washington committed $500 million for mitigation over eight years and California allocated $2.7 billion over four years. However, across state budgets, mitigation continues to lag behind investments in wildfire suppression. This imbalance compounds other barriers to implementing mitigation activities, such as limited trained personnel to scale these efforts.

Many states with historically low wildfire risk are anticipating the need for proactive policies and funding to help prevent fires and mitigate the expected rise in that risk. The widespread impact of wildfire smoke during the summer of 2023 especially rang the alarm for states in the Eastern U.S. that fires are a threat.

Effectively tackling wildfire risk is complicated, but states can make progress by better tracking spending, investing in mitigation, and working with partners to advance resilience. A growing body of research, shifting priorities in wildfire funding, and successful resilience approaches in fire-experienced places is helping map a way forward for states and communities throughout the country.

Kristiane Huber is an officer working on climate resilience with The Pew Charitable Trusts' U.S. conservation project and Colin Foard is a senior manager with Pew’s managing fiscal risks project.

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Wildfires in the United States have become more catastrophic and expensive in recent years, with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service nearly doubling their combined spending on wildfire management in the last decade. Wildfire management consists of preparing for, fighting, recovering from, and reducing the risk of fires. To execute these activities, states, localities, the federal government, and Tribes, as well as nongovernment entities such as nonprofit organizations and private property owners, participate in a complex system of responsibilities and funding dictated by land ownership and an interconnected set of cooperative agreements.

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