U.S. must shift from ‘reactive to proactive’ to manage wildfire crisis

The U.S. faces a wildfire crisis that costs the federal government $2.5 billion a year — a crisis that a recent report [PDF] concluded the feds can’t face alone.

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021 created the federal Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission and charged it with recommending improvements to federal agencies’ management of wildfire across the landscape. The commission was tasked with creating new policy recommendations to address the wildfire crisis.

The commission released the culmination of its efforts in September, and it includes numerous proposed changes that forest managers and wildland firefighters have been suggesting for decades. The commission ultimately found that many of these changes are needed soon to adequately reduce the risk of wildfires throughout the U.S.

“The Commission urges Congress to take swift action to advance the holistic solutions needed to reduce the risk of wildfire to the nation,” the report says. “Only through comprehensive action can we hope to prepare for the wildfires of today and, critically, the wildfires of tomorrow.”

The commission listed 148 recommended changes in its report, which focused on eight points:

    • Shift focus from fire response to pre-fire planning and risk mitigation
    • Treat the wildfire crisis as a public health crisis
    • Unify local and federal resources
    • Improve community and ecosystem resilience in post-fire areas
    • Increase pay and hiring for wildland firefighters
    • Update the fire management system with current technology
    • Significantly increase investments to reduce long-term costs and risks
    • Enhance work across jurisdictions

“Rather than selecting one or more potential recommendations to carry forward for implementation, the Commission urges audiences of this report to take an ‘all of the above’ approach,” the report says. “There is no single solution to the wildfire crisis; the scale of the issues necessitates solutions that are integrated, comprehensive, and broad in scope. The urgency of this need cannot be overstated.”

September 2012 Mustang Complex, Idaho -- Kari Greer photo
Black Mountain Hotshots, September 2012 Mustang Complex, Idaho      — Kari Greer photo

The suggestions were similar to another report released in September by the National Interagency Hotshot Crew Steering Committee, which also recommended that Congress increase investment in wildland firefighters along with hiring and pay.

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5 thoughts on “U.S. must shift from ‘reactive to proactive’ to manage wildfire crisis”

  1. It’s becoming more obvious that getting Federal Firefighters out from underneath the line officers needs to happen. You can’t be proactive when you don’t have a workforce. You can’t have a strong workforce without strong leaders. Why should some 30 year old GS-13 forest ranger, with a bachelors degree in botany be in charge of 100’s of skilled firefighters on their local forest. We need to start by uniting the federal fire programs under one fire agency. DOI and USFS have continually showed they don’t understand the problem and they are not advocating for the right fixes. I really dislike the Cal-Fire model, but there is a reason they are getting stronger every year, while federal agencies continue to get weaker.

  2. What stunning and novel recommendations! Why didn’t we have such advice 40 years ago? Oh, that’s right ……. we did. The real question for today is whether our “leadership” will lead and make the hard decisions.

  3. I think it is important to highlight the fact that the commission identified beneficial fire use as a key to being proactive:

    “Use of Beneficial Fire
    In fire-adapted ecosystems, it is critical to dramatically increase both the frequency and
    scope of beneficial fire to mitigate wildfire impacts to both landscapes and communities.
    In addition to this wildfire mitigation function, the landscape-scale use of beneficial fire is
    necessary for improving ecosystem structure and functions, remediating the effects of decades
    of fire exclusion, restoring watersheds, and respecting Tribal sovereignty. The deficit of
    naturally ignited and human-managed fire has already brought deep and long-lasting negative
    consequences, and the cost of continued inaction – of failing to return fire to the landscape – is

  4. We need to make several more changes- that should have happened yesterday- if we want to protect national forest/public lands and communities within these areas including:

    1) Evaluate and revise the ordering, delivery and supply of resources system (i.e. revise or scrape VIPER) which is broken and a great source of inaction. VIPER is a failure in years of above average fire demands. As part of that revision, re-establish a local procurrement process (referred to as militia ordering in the old days) to bring local resources on as needed. This is not to replace the national ordering process but to fill gaps as national resources are marshalled and delivered to the incident(s). If you have any experience in the fire industrial complex you know how flawed the current system is, how much money is spent, and how it is failing “low prioirty” needs. I can go on on this topic but the take away is there is no interest in the national leadership to address this critical flaw….

    2) Introduce prescribed fire in the western Wildernesses (CA at least) in the fall when weather conditions are favorable. Fire off ridges and let it back down as they will. This is one of the rare instance that I see the value of the fire drones (sorry drone nerds but the results to date suggest far greater damage then benefit from their use- in my opinion). We need to accept the impacts of fall burning in the Wilderness lands because we are converting the mixed-conifer forests within western Wildernesses at an astronomical rate under our current firing practices (I have written of that impact in other posts).

    3) Accept that we may need to use a lot of fire in achieving #2 above. This will require a change in philosphy and job evaluations for fire managers. For the past 70 years we have strived to do burns of all types in a single event. This puts pressure on fire managers to achieve a desired future condition in an “economical” fashion, to do that managers try to get all burning done in a single burn operation. If we want to reintroduce natural buring patterns while maintaining forest health, in Wilderness areas, we have to accpet that we might burn the same area 2 to many times over a single decade during favorable fall weather conditions. The one and done approach is not realistic and puts to much pressure on managers.

  5. How about allowing the landscape to become the multi-story, range of severity and much more mature/ old larger diameter with mature cohorts for cycling much needed dead wood/biochar recruitment into the soil and that means the greatest risk to forests and climate impacts is LOGGING. Not wildfire.


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