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.