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.

Deadline nearing for wildfire defense grants

The USFS Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program helps communities and tribes reduce their wildfire risk and become more fire-resilient. The program prioritizes its grant funding to low-income communities in high or very-high wildfire hazard potential areas, or those that have been affected by a severe wildfire that has increased its wildfire risk.

Wildfire Defense Grants

The program’s two goals are to develop and/or revise Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs) and to implement projects from said plans. The program also helps communities restore and maintain landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and improve wildfire response.

Eligible at-risk communities include:

      • Local governments representing communities at risk of wildfires
      • Native American/ Indigenous Tribes
      • Non-profit organizations that assist at-risk communities
      • State forestry agencies
      • Alaska Native Corporations

Interested applicants can read details at grants.gov and find instructions in the “notices of funding opportunities” to apply. Applications are accepted until 11:59 p.m. ET on October 31. To apply, follow the instructions online or search for the grant opportunity number specific for your notice (USDA-FS-2023-CWDG-TRIBES, USDA-FS-2023-CWDG-CWSF, USDA-FS-2023-CWDG-NEMW, USDA-FS-2023-CWDG-SGSF).

Check here to see whether your community is eligible to apply.

The maximum amount of funding that a community can receive is $250,000 for creating or updating CWPPs and $10 million for a project described in a community’s CWPP that is less than 10 years old.

Wildfire Defense Grants

Applicants are highly encouraged to coordinate with their state forestry agency in proposal development. Forest Service staff are also available to assist with coordination, can provide liaison support for Tribes, and can assist with application submission if needed.

A virtual information session is scheduled for October 25 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. ET and you can register [HERE].

Wildfire Defense Grants

The USDA recently selected 100 applicants for funding, including applicants across seven tribes and 22 states. Every applicant selected was in a high or very high wildfire hazard potential area, and 86 percent of applicants met the definition of an “underserved community.”

Kansas launches wildfire risk tool

Kansas residents can now easily find their local wildfire risk through a new tool released by the state’s Forest Service.

The Kansas Wildfire Risk Explorer at kansaswildfirerisk.org allows residents to enter an address, city, or specific coordinates into an interactive map to see whether their current risk is low, moderate, high, or extreme. Residents can then generate a report specific to their area, along with precautions they can take to be prepared if a wildfire burns nearby.

Kansas wildfire risk assessment
                                                   Kansas wildfire risk assessment

“As a homeowner, you are not powerless in your defense against wildfires,” the website says. “By taking a proactive approach to wildfire mitigation, you can significantly increase your safety and your home’s likelihood of survival during a catastrophic wildfire event.”

Wildfire in Kansas, photo courtesy State Fire Marshal's Office
Wildfire in Kansas, photo courtesy State Fire Marshal’s Office

The tool began development in 2018 in conjunction with Kansas State University as an evolution of the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS), which uses National Weather Service forecasts to predict fire danger.

In addition to wildfire risk, residents can also use the tool to evaluate “Wildfire Effects,” or areas where drinking water, infrastructure, and multiple environmental factors would be adversely affected by wildfires. This layer also shows areas where wildfire suppression would be especially difficult because of steep terrain or very dry vegetation.

The risk viewer also shows historical ignition patterns. This layer doesn’t map probability, but shows where ignition rates and frequency have been higher. The map shows that most ignitions have happened on the outskirts of the state’s most populated cities.

Kansas recorded more than 8,000 wildfires in 2022, about 3,000 more than the state’s yearly average. The last time the state hit its average of ~5,000 wildfires was in 2021 when two people died, 20 people were injured, and over 185,000 acres were burned, according to the Kansas Fire Marshal. Around 95 percent of the state’s wildfires were caused by humans.

 

 

GOATs help with fire prevention

New teams of wildfire prevention experts are sprouting up across the world, but they aren’t made up of hotshots or forest managers — they’re herds of goats.

Michael Choi is the creator of Fire Grazers Inc., a fire brush management company that deploys free-range goats in fire-prone areas around California to clear dead vegetation and prevent wildfires.

“Our goal is to assist in the management of fire-hazardous zones through fuel modification, thereby addressing an accelerating regional problem that threatens the livelihood and prosperity of many residents of California,” Choi said on his website. “Our grazing goats can clear an unbelievable amount of brush and weeds. A well-sized herd can complete a job in a single day that would take two or three times as long with a landscaping crew.”

Before and after views with GoatsRock fire prevention.
Before and after views with GoatsRock fuels reduction.

 

Goats’ mountain climbing expertise gives them a leg up on other wildfire managers. Some areas that may be treacherous for humans are easily scalable for goats, including steep hillsides and canyons.

Fire Grazers Inc. has been around since the early 2010s, but Choi’s technique is getting noticed across the world. Chile’s goat brigades have prevented both wildfires and erosion in the country’s forests, Nevada deployed goats in Reno through a state-funded program, and the City of Quesnel in central British Columbia announced in June it had deployed a herd of 132 goats to eat vegetation in and around designated Fuel Management Trails.

Quesnel’s strategy has been a success. While multiple wildfires burned around the area of the city in 2023, none threatened the city’s residents. The Quesnel Cariboo Observer reported that multiple wildfires west of Quesnel in August triggered evacuations in the nearby town of Eliguk Lake in August. Two other evacuations in July were triggered by the Townsend Creek Fire. British Columbia had its worst fire season on record in 2023, with over three million hectares burned.

Quesnel still stands. The city sits in one of the lowest-priority fire danger areas of the province, according to Canada’s Government. The goats are looking to keep it that way.

https://goatsrock.com/uploads/3/5/2/6/35260684/img-8939_orig.jpg
Some of GOATSROCK’s herd — Michael Choi

 

Hotshots working under an ‘unsustainable system’

The first-ever review of the interagency hotshot crew program found that hotshots have been working under an “unsustainable system” and recommended 50 changes to improve current labor conditions.

The review, requested by the National Interagency Hotshot Crew Steering Committee, began on July 16, 2021, and the report was finalized in August.

Geronimo Hotshots
Geronimo Hotshots on the Big Windy Complex, Oregon, 2013.                                  USFS photo by Lance Cheung.

“The hotshot program is at a crossroads. In a time where more wildland firefighting capacity is needed, applicant lists for hotshot crews are less robust and the workforce is diminishing,” the report says. “If these challenges are not addressed in a timely manner, the current unsustainable system may leave crews unable to provide the leadership, expertise, and capabilities required in today’s wildland fire environment.”

The report summed up its recommendations in 12 points, which included:

    • Develop a specific wildland firefighter job series and increase pay
    • Provide a $40,000 minimum annual supply budget to each crew
    • Require a three-day rest and recuperation period
    • Allow crewmembers to attend personal events
    • Modify the hiring process
    • Start an outreach program to increase recruitment
    • Create a 30-day process to fill key vacancies
    • Update and clarify the Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations (SIHCO) so they are no longer misinterpreted by host units
    • Create an annual charter and program of work for the hotshot crew program to further limit gaps between leadership and the field
    • Update the repair and procurement processes for hotshot vehicles
    • Develop a minimum facility standard for hotshot crew facilities
    • Add housing, modify housing costs and create a consistent housing policy

The review addressed potential challenges to meeting the recommended changes, including lack of investment, systemic pushback, and cultural norms. Hotshot crew superintendents also said they’d prefer freedom and flexibility to make decisions for their own crews.

Without the recommended changes, the committee said agencies may not be able to sustain the current number of crews.

“It is important to acknowledge that while the fundamental reasons hotshot crews exist have not changed, the environment they operate in has,” the report said. “Unprecedented environmental challenges and increased social and political expectations contribute to IHCs finding themselves in high demand and short supply.”

The committee said similar reviews should be conducted by other program managers before the recommendations are broadly applied.

Utah wins Bronze Smokey for prevention

Utah burned much more than usual in 2020 and, more than ever before, humans were to blame. The state had its worst year of human-caused wildfires on record that year, when 1,500 wildfires burned more than 100,000 acres of land across the state. Officials say 1,143 of those fires were caused by humans, beating the state’s previous single-year record by more than 250.

Utah wins a Bronze SmokeyUtah launched a statewide campaign called “Fire Sense” to reduce human-caused wildfires, and it was incredibly effective. The state marked a 60 percent reduction in human-caused wildfires in the two years following the start of the program. In 2023 that number has gone down even more, with only 295 of Utah’s 772 wildfires recorded as human-caused as of October 6.

A Bronze Smokey
A Bronze Smokey

The program was recently awarded a Bronze Smokey, which is a national award for statewide service, for its by-the-numbers success.

“This is a great honor for Fire Sense,” said Kayli Guild, the Fire Prevention and Communications Coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL), after receiving the Bronze Smokey. “We launched this campaign to raise awareness surrounding the impact our behaviors as humans have on wildfire starts. Over the past two years, we have seen a drastic decrease in human-caused starts as we have seen Utahns implement Fire Sense.”

Fire Sense is basically a PSA package geared toward educating Utah’s residents about how they can help avoid starting wildfires throughout the state. All of the usual bases are covered, including telling people to put out their campfires, not drag chains, and not fire guns on hot and windy days. The execution of the project, however, seems to be what made it so effective.

“This strategy worked because Fire Sense is common sense!” according to FFSL . More details on the Fire Sense program are available from the utahfiresense.org website.


Smokey Award Levels:

Gold: This is the highest honor given to organizations or individuals for outstanding wildfire prevention service that is national in scope over at least a two-year period. A maximum of three Gold Smokey Bear awards may be given annually.

 

Silver: This is the highest honor given to organizations or individuals for outstanding wildfire prevention service that is regional (multistate) in scope over at least a two-year period. A maximum of five Silver Smokey Bear awards may be given annually.

Bronze: This is the highest honor given to organizations or individuals for outstanding wildfire prevention service that has impact within a state over at least a two-year period. A maximum of 10 Bronze Smokey Bear awards may be given annually.