Fire management and the presidential election

As we have said often here at Wildfire Today, we do not get into politics unless it directly affects firefighters or fire management. And there is nothing more political than a presidential election.

However, I ran across an op-ed written by Ken Pimlott, former chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who mentioned that one candidate has a wildfire plan. I do not recall any major candidate saying much about wildland fire, so it got my attention.

To be clear, Wildfire Today is not endorsing any candidates, but in an effort to inform voters we will be happy to write about all substantive written positions related to fire that are taken by presidential candidates as long as they have more than 2 percent in a reliable nationwide poll on the election such as this one at fivethirtyeight.

We have already covered the incumbent’s plan, the proposed budget for next fiscal year.

The candidate Chief Pimlott wrote about is Mike Bloomberg. Below is the text from his “Wildfire Resilience” webpage:

Lead a Nationwide Effort to Strengthen the Nation’s Resilience against Wildfires

Responsibility for preventing and fighting fires crosses multiple jurisdictions and interests — federal, state, local, private and tribal. In the West in particular, multiple landowners can be involved between the point where a fire starts and where it causes the most damage. This kind of large-scale action demands strong leadership and coordination. To ensure our country is protected from future harm and is equipped to mitigate future damages, Mike knows that it’s up to the federal government, as the majority landowner of forests in the West, to take the lead. Mike’s plan will:

  • Make fire resilience a top priority of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as other federal land management agencies. Task the agency with coordinating the development of a far-reaching new plan for firefighting and fire prevention for each Western state.
  • Increase collaboration among all levels of government, and public and private sectors. The Forest Service will work with other federal partners, local communities, state and local agencies, tribal leaders, environmental groups, private timber companies, rural land owners, utilities and the insurance industry to develop region- or state-specific plans with the goal of reducing life and property loss by half within four years.
  • Improve community resilience and prevent redlining by the insurance industry. Collaborative fire protection plans will include measures to reduce risk to communities and property, minimize damages in case of fire, and thereby improve the chances of getting or maintaining insurance, so that current homeowners who don’t have alternatives aren’t left without the ability to insure for disasters.

Robustly Fund a Full-scale Campaign to Bolster Forest Ecosystems and Communities

Managing forests to reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfires not only reduces hazards and saves lives, but also creates local jobs in rural communities and improves forest and ecosystem health. Mike’s plan will:

  • Double federal funding for fire resilience and management to $10 billion and devote half to forest restoration and mitigation efforts. This would increase spending on prevention roughly tenfold, while still raising firefighting budgets. According to the GAO, while federal agencies estimate more than 100 million acres of land they manage are at risk from fire, they were only able to treat 3 million acres in fiscal year 2018. Bigger budgets would fund state-by-state efforts to vastly increase the pace and scale of fire resilience and forest restoration, including in wildland-urban interface areas. The program would include exploring the use of forest resilience bonds that leverage public and private sources of investment to fund fire prevention work.
  • Increase FEMA’s mitigation budgets and the share of total fire spending made available to communities to strengthen resilience. Making homes and communities more fire-safe would save lives, create jobs, reduce the costs and dangers of firefighting, strengthen insurance networks, and bolster local and regional economies. Fireproofing homes, expanding access roads and defensible spaces, developing evacuation plans, and otherwise strengthening community resilience can save lives, create jobs, reduce the costs and dangers of firefighting, and strengthen insurance networks. One dollar spent on fire mitigation saves more than $3 in costs. Yet currently, the federal government sets aside only 6 cents of every dollar in federal disaster aid to fund pre-disaster mitigation activities.
  • Endorse Sen. Kamala Harris’s Wildfire Defense Act, and the similar House bill sponsored by Rep. Jared Huffman. The Act would invest $1 billion a year in funding community-based wildfire plans. Also, work with insurance companies to ensure they take account of such plans in assessing community and home resilience, and in order to incentivize good building.
  • Provide federal loans and grants, including to local utilities, to reduce the risk from downed power lines. Money could be used on strategic plans to reduce the potential for power lines to start fires, including work to maintain corridors, insulate exposed power lines, and install sensors that can quickly identify maintenance and risk-reduction needs, as well as shut off power to damaged lines. Improving line safety would directly address one of the most common causes of wildfires.
  • Support the development of microgrids in high-risk areas to minimize power outages and enhance communities’ capacity to quickly respond and coordinate in the event of an emergency.

Invest in the Staff, Data and Technology Needed to Fulfill this Mission at Scale

Managing forest land for resilience and prevention, and making communities more fire-resilient, will require employing thousands of people in rural communities. Mike’s plan will:

  • Create the Wildfire Corps – a new, thousands-strong federal, state, and tribal partnership. The government would train, employ, equip and embed a skilled workforce, prioritizing hiring in rural and forest communities, to lead efforts towards fire resilience; restore healthy forest ecosystems; and, when fires break out, provide enough firefighters to offer communities greatly enhanced wildfire protection.

At the same time, we should deploy the most advanced systems to detect and prevent the spread of fires. Mike will:

  • Use data and technology to detect and mitigate fires and to improve firefighting techniques.
  • Partner with state authorities to ensure that the best, most up-to-date fire-risk maps are available.
  • Deploy the best-available data systems, including satellites, aircraft, artificial intelligence and communications technology to help predict and detect the start and spread of fires and to improve firefighting techniques.
  • Engage the private sector by providing challenge grants for companies to develop innovative new technologies and open-source data and systems to improve detection and monitoring of fires, as well as communications among first responders.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.