What is Wildfire Management?

Wildfire management is a series of coordinated activities to prepare for, resolve, and recover from wildfire events. The federal agencies responsible for wildfire management include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (FS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI). FS carries out wildfire response and management across the 193 million acres of national forests and national grasslands; DOI carries out these activities on more than 400 million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges and preserves, Indian reservations, and other public lands. The federal agencies also coordinate wildfire response activities with state and local governments as needed.

American taxpayer funding generally falls into four categories: suppression, preparedness, reduction of wildland fuel (e.g., biomass, vegetation), and other wildfire activities.

  • Suppression is the work associated with wildfire response and includes postfire emergency stabilization measures. It is the work associated with extinguishing or confining a fire.
  • Preparedness comprises a range of tasks to ensure readiness for wildfire response, including workforce preparation, equipment and resource management, and wildfire outlook conditions forecasting.
  • Fuel reduction is a wildfire prevention activity intended to mitigate the risk of catastrophic fires.
  • Other wildfire activities include site rehabilitation, federal assistance programs, wildfire research, and facility maintenance, among others; the activities funded in this category varied between FS and DOI over the 10-year period.

The Challenge
Overall appropriations for wildfire-related activities have increased considerably since the 1990s.

Over the past 10 years the cost of managing wildfires on public lands and forests have doubled: from $2.9B to $6.11B. Half the cost can be atrributed to supression.

In FY2020, FS and DOI received the highest combined appropriation to date ($6.11 billion). A sizeable portion of the increase was related to rising suppression costs, even during years of relatively mild wildfire activity, although the costs varied annually.

Congress is addressing concerns about the cost of suppression activities, including the extent to which increasing suppression costs have reduced the availability of funding for other programs.

Related concerns included issues related to the number and effectiveness of aircraft available for wildfire suppression and the adequacy of efforts to recruit and retain federal firefighters; the scope and scale of fuel reduction needs, prioritization of treatments to the highest-risk locations, and effectiveness of treatments; and how much funding to provide for wildfire research, assistance programs, and postfire restoration. Some of these concerns recently sparked renewed interest, largely due to the nature of the 2020 wildfire season.

Issues pertaining to preparedness funding involve the number and effectiveness of aircraft available for wildfire suppression and the adequacy of efforts to recruit and retain federal firefighters. Issues related to fuel reduction funding include the scope and scale of fuel reduction needs, prioritization of treatments to the highest-risk locations, and effectiveness of treatments. Other wildfire funding issues include how much funding to provide for wildfire research, assistance programs, and postfire restoration.

Congressional funding for wildfire management is very complex - often involving more than one federal agency, coordinating with local govenrments, planning for the unpredictable nature of wildfire occurence, extent, severity and risk to life and property.

Solution:
Simplify the budget process and strucutre to allow for forward-thinking planning.

Separate challanges from knowns vs unknowns and plan for both with a focus on reducing unknown variables and efficiently managing the knowns.

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Terms Used in This Article
The terms wildland fire and wildfire often are used interchangeably, although each term has a distinct definition. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) defines wildland fire as any non-structure fire that occurs in vegetation or natural fuels, including prescribed fire and wildfire. NWCG defines wildfire as an unplanned, unwanted wildland fire, including unauthorized human-caused fires, escaped prescribed fire projects, and all other wildland fires where the objective is to put out the fire.

Prescribed Burning is the deliberate use of fire in specific areas within specified fuel and weather conditions

Suppresion is the work associated with extinguishing or confining a fire.

Thinning is the mechanical cutting and removing of some trees in a stand and sometimes is done for purposes such as enhancing timber production WUI-wildland-urban interface
Deeper Dive
Federal Wildfire Management: Ten-Year Funding Trends and Issues (FY2011-FY2020)
(Congresional Research Service)

Here's how wildfires get started—and how to stop them
(National Geographic)

Learn what you can do to help prevent wildfires from starting
(American Red Cross)

How do you fight extreme wildfires?
(BBC)
Worth Reading