Federal wildfire policy and the responsibilities of community planners and homeowners

If communities are to become truly fire-adapted, suppression efforts must be complemented with other preventative mitigation measures.

fire Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California, 2009
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California, 2009. NPS photo.

This is an excerpt from an article at Headwaters Economics written by Kimiko Barrett titled “Federal wildfire policy and the legacy of suppression.” Most of the original piece lays out the history of wildfires and the related government policies. Below is the last part that covers the 2018 wildfire budgeting fix and the responsibilities of individual homeowners and the government. It is used here with permission.


…To end the cycle of deficit spending and wildfire borrowing, a massive appropriations bill was passed in 2018—which was also the worst wildfire season in decades and saw the death of over 80 civilians from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. Captured as a provision in the omnibus bill, the “wildfire fix” treats wildfires similar to other natural disasters and establishes a reserve fund to use during extreme wildfire seasons. Starting in 2020, a wildfire disaster fund of $2.25 billion was created and will be gradually increased over the following 10 years. When the Forest Service’s suppression costs exceed annual appropriations, based on FY2015 levels, funds can be withdrawn from the reserve budget rather than borrowing from nonfire programs. The spending bill also increases funding for fuels reduction projects, grants environmental review exemptions for projects meeting categorical exclusion, extends land stewardship programs, and initiates the process of wildfire risk mapping.

The 2018 wildfire fix was widely applauded by nongovernmental organizations, industries, and policymakers for stabilizing agency budgets and ending wildfire borrowing. While the new legislation provides the Forest Service with the financial flexibility to accommodate soaring suppression costs, it reaffirms the government’s prioritization of fire control and the protection of people and homes at any price.

From Federal Policy to Local Action

Continued reliability on wildfire suppression shifts responsibility for home protection from the individual homeowner and local jurisdictions to the federal government. Yet local communities bear the economic, environmental, and social costs of wildfire disasters, and some of the most essential mitigation actions need to be taken at the scale of individual communities and homes.

At the neighborhood and community scale, land use planning provides a suite of mitigation measures. Land use planning tools, such as regulations, zoning, and building codes can influence how, where, and under what conditions homes can be built in high wildfire hazard areas. Through the proactive lens of planning and anticipating wildfires, people and communities can learn to live with wildfire on the landscape.

By performing basic home mitigation measures, such as trimming trees, managing vegetation, safely storing flammable materials away from the home, and reducing other vulnerabilities within the home ignition zone (HIZ), a home’s chances of surviving a wildfire greatly increase. Constructing a home using wildfire-resistant building materials can also contribute to a home’s survivability during a wildfire.

Conclusion

Large and extreme wildfires are inevitable and efforts to extinguish them are costly, dangerous, and unrealistic. The federal government’s ongoing commitment to wildfire suppression is rooted in early 20th century policies that haven’t kept pace with current science and knowledge on wildfire behavior. If communities are to become truly fire-adapted, suppression efforts must be complemented with other preventative mitigation measures.

This post is based on an article originally published in the Idaho Law Review, Volume 55(1).

Kimiko Barrett has a deep interest in rural landscapes and the people who live there. Born and raised in Bozeman, Montana, she appreciates the outdoors and the intimate connections people have with the land. After obtaining undergraduate degrees in Political Science and Japanese, Kimi completed a Master’s in Geography from Montana State University and a Ph.D. in Forestry from University of Montana. Her doctorate research focused on climate change impacts in high mountain ecosystems and took her to remote places in the western Himalayas.

One thought on “Federal wildfire policy and the responsibilities of community planners and homeowners”

  1. Ms. Barrett’s comments are “spot on” in terms of a more holistic view of the problem and potential solutions. For too long, communities, residents and the professional planners have not been as involved in reducing risk as most of us would like. Our statistics clearly show that suppression alone is not going to cut it. We spend increasing billions of dollars on suppression but our severe fire losses continue to grow exponentially. The entire economic situation is not sustainable at these levels.
    We must have more and greater engagement at the community and homeowner level. They must become part of the overall solution so that suppression can be more effective and conducted under safer conditions for firefighters. Fire Operations folks at the local level need to see engaging their communities in preparedness is part of their job too.
    The Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, Firewise USA and IAFC’s “Ready, Set, Go” have been trying to engage local communities for years. But until the emphasis and funding equals the importance of true ignition resistance of our built environment, we will continue to spend more and lose big.

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