Wildfires in the United States 102: Policy and Solutions
This explainer details the primary policy tools that can be used to reduce the negative impacts of wildfires throughout the country.
Wildfires have been increasingly frequent and damaging in the United States in the past decade. While fires play an important ecological role in some ecosystems, they also pose an increasingly dangerous threat to communities across the country. A variety of policies are available to reduce the likelihood a fire will ignite, mitigate the damage caused when fires occur, and help people recover after a fire is extinguished. This explainer details the primary policy tools that can be used to reduce the negative impacts of wildfires throughout the country.
As described in “Wildfires in the United States 101: Context and Consequences,” a primary driver of increasing wildfire activity is climate change. Hotter, drier conditions enable fires to ignite, spread, and intensify more easily. There are countless policy tools available to slow climate change, primarily through reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. Many of these options are described in RFF’s Federal Climate Policy Toolkit.
Benefits of Fuel Treatments
Adding to the effects of climate change, wildfire activity in some parts of the United States has been exacerbated by fire exclusion. Without fire on a landscape, vegetation can accumulate, which fuels larger and more intense fires. Reducing the amount of fuel in fire-prone areas through fuel treatments—projects to remove or redistribute flammable vegetation—can slow the spread of fires, reduce their intensity, and make them easier to control. Fuel treatments can be designed to promote landscape resilience to fire or to assist in fire suppression efforts, though these objectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Fuels Management Techniques
Fuel treatments include mechanical treatments and prescribed burns. Mechanical treatments may include forest thinning and harvesting, mowing, or moving fuels into piles. In a prescribed burn, fires are lit intentionally when fire conditions are mild, and fire removes hazardous fuels under controlled conditions. As well, fuels can be removed in managed wildfires—fires that start accidentally but are allowed to burn with careful oversight.
Mechanical and fire treatments have different benefits and may be combined for increased effectiveness. In some cases, mechanical treatments performed prior to prescribed burns to reduce risk associated with the prescribed fire. Notably, fire treatments are less expensive than mechanical thinning. Prescribed fires can also have benefits unrelated to impacts on fire hazard, such as promoting tree growth and minimizing spread of forest pests and disease.
US fire management has varied significantly over time and across regions. As discussed above and in “Wildfires in the United States 101,” fire exclusion has resulted in heavy fuel loads and higher fire danger in the West since the 19th century. Through much of the 20th century, prescribed fires were not generally used on federal lands the western United States, because fires were viewed as universally dangerous and destructive. In contrast, the southeastern United States—where a greater portion of forestland is privately owned and where the use of fire is more culturally accepted—maintained the nation’s largest prescribed burning program (though even in that region, the scale of prescribed burning failed to keep pace with historic burning). Today, the Southeast continues to lead the nation in use of prescribed fire, burning 6 million acres per year, compared to 2.5 million acres in the West.
There are also differences within the western United States as to where and how fuel treatments are implemented. In dry western forests where fire has historically been more limited by availability of fuels than by climate, fuel treatments are designed to promote landscape resilience to fire and may be broader in scale. Elsewhere, in places where accumulation of fuels is not a primary driver of fire hazard (such as in the chaparral shrublands of Southern California, where fire now recurs more frequently than it had historically), fuel treatments are implemented in strategically targeted fuel breaks—areas where fuels are removed to provide opportunities for fire suppression near homes and other values at risk.
Barriers to Fuels Management
Public land management agencies face a significant backlog of areas in need of fuel treatments and other restoration activities. According to the US Forest Service (USFS), between 65 and 82 million acres of national forest land—as much as 42 percent of total USFS landholdings need forest restoration treatments. However, on average, only 45 percent of the area that historically would have been burned in a fire or otherwise disturbed is burned or treated each year, meaning backlog of acres is still growing.
Both public and private land managers face various challenges in increasing the pace and scale of fuel treatments on the landscape. One is cost: prescribed fires and mechanical thinning projects are often expensive to implement. In theory, thinning projects can harvest timber products that can be sold to cover project costs; however, thinning often removes small, low-value timber, and project costs often exceed market values. Small, private landowners may lack incentive to implement expensive fuel treatments, while public land management agency budgets are insufficient to work at the necessary scale. Over the past ten years, USFS and various land management agencies within the Department of Interior spent under $500 million per year on average on hazardous fuel reduction projects. The USFS estimates that federal funding of $5–6 billion per year over the next ten years would be required to treat all of the highest-priority areas for wildfire risk reduction.
Fuel treatments also frequently face regulatory hurdles, which can increase project costs. Prescribed fires and managed wildfires face opposition due to actual and perceived risk of losing control of the fire. Additionally, before implementing prescribed burns, land managers must go through a permitting process that generally includes considering a project’s risks and potential air quality impacts. Both mechanical thinning and prescribed fire projects may also be subject to regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which can slow project implementation.
Policymakers can reduce the barriers to fuels management projects by educating the public about prescribed fire, allocating more funds for burns, and changing burn regulations and permit restrictions. These challenges and policy options are explored by Miller and colleagues (2020).
Funding for Wildfire Management
States are responsible for managing and responding to fires that begin on state, local, and private lands (in 2020, this amounted to 30 percent of burned acreage). The federal government, conversely, is responsible for wildfires that begin on federal lands (70 percent of burned acreage).
Federal spending on wildfire management has increased substantially over the past decade, with funding going towards fire suppression, response preparedness, fuel reduction, and other activities. From 2009 through 2018, the federal government spent under $500 million per year on fuel treatments but more than triple that on suppression—over $1.5 billion per year on average. Most of the federal funding is allocated to the USFS, with a significantly smaller portion allocated to the Department of the Interior.
State-level funding for wildfire management varies widely, but states that experience significant wildfire risk spend billions each year on preventative measures and fire response. In California, the state most at-risk for wildfire damages, the state government budgeted $2.1 billion for wildfire response in FY2020, with an additional $373 million for emergency funding.
Both state and federal governments are dealing with the problem of varying but increasing year-to-year costs for fire suppression, and limited funding for prevention. As wildfire activity accelerated in the latter decades of the twentieth century and the first few decades of this century, USFS and Department of Interior were frequently forced to divert funding from other programs and activities to cover costs of emergency wildfire spending. This stretched agency budgets and left essential programs and activities—including fuel treatments—underfunded. In 2018, Congress passed a “Fire Funding Fix,” which established a disaster fund for agencies to use during severe wildfires.
Supporting and Expanding Firefighting Personnel
More intense fire seasons mean more firefighters are needed to effectively manage them. This requires an increase in funding at both the state and federal level. Wildland firefighters work long hours in stressful conditions, often for relatively little pay. Many federal firefighters are also considered “temporary” workers and do not have access to federal employee health care and other benefits. Policy changes that provide more support, such as increasing pay, resources, and other benefits, can reduce turnover and burnout, which may increase the effectiveness of fire management teams.
Other management choices can also help firefighting teams to be more effective. For example, proactively positioning firefighters near fire-prone areas can enable quicker responses to fires that ignite.
Awareness and Restrictions of Dangerous Activities
The top causes of these human-ignited fires are debris burning and arson; however, many fires are lit unintentionally by vehicles, railroads, or other equipment; campfires; or fireworks. When conditions are especially dry in fire-prone regions, governments may choose to restrict the use of fire and equipment, or even restrict access to public lands under specific conditions or in areas that are prone to fire. California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington provide examples of these actions.
The Role of Utilities
Utilities play a small but significant role in wildfire ignition; although sparks from powerlines are responsible for relatively few blazes, the fires they ignite tend to be disproportionately harmful, burning larger areas than other fires on average. In order to limit ignitions caused by utilities, policymakers have the option to enact policies that require utilities to shut power off when fire danger is high (such as when there are high winds and hot, dry conditions). This strategy—which some utilities have already implemented in multiple states—is controversial, as shutoffs can be harmful to human health and the economy. To reduce risk, utilities can also remove hazardous fuel near powerlines and more carefully monitor and update transmission equipment. In some cases, they may also be able to bury powerlines underground, though this option is frequently cost-prohibitive in rugged wildlands where wildfire hazard is high.
Land Use, Exposure, and Vulnerability
Risk of property loss in a fire is determined by the likelihood of fire (hazard), the value of property in harm’s way (exposure), and the vulnerability of property to damage or loss. While fuel management can reduce hazard, risk can be further shaped by how and where individuals and businesses choose to build. While mitigating risk should be a goal of policymakers, functioning insurance markets can help homeowners and businesses cope with the risk that remains.
Addressing the Expanding Wildland-Urban Interface
As discussed in “Wildfires in the United States 101,” the wildland-urban interface (WUI) is the land where homes and businesses coexist with wildland vegetation, and where lives and buildings are at greatest risk from wildfire. To slow the expansion of the WUI, policymakers can restrict development in fire-prone areas and increase the amount of affordable housing available in urban centers. Development restrictions may be less politically feasible and could exacerbate the housing crisis in metropolitan areas across the United States. In the short term, it may be more realistic for policymakers to change zoning laws to allow more high-density, transit-oriented housing development nearer to urban centers. In addition to slowing the growth of the wildland-urban interface, building affordable housing in urban centers would help to address the housing crisis and would have environmental and health benefits, as shorter commute times would reduce local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.
The likelihood that a building will be damaged or destroyed by a wildfire depends significantly on the materials it is constructed from, the design of the building, and the amount of combustible material in its immediate surrounding. Damage can be reduced by building homes from fire-resistant materials and ensuring that embers cannot enter the home through vents and other openings. In addition, homes can be protected by maintaining an area free of flammable vegetation or other combustible materials around the building. This buffer—known as defensible space—can prevent fire from spreading too close and provide a safe area in which firefighters can work and protect the building.
Building codes can be used to ensure that new construction is resilient to fire. For example, in 2008, California implemented building codes that mandated that new construction in high fire hazard areas be built with ignition-resistant roofs, decks, and eaves. A recent study shows that homes that were built to these new standards were significantly less likely to be destroyed than homes built before the codes passed. By changing building codes to require fire-resistant materials and other precautions for new homes, states can significantly reduce the amount of structural and economic damage wildfires cause.
While building codes do not require updates to existing buildings, policymakers can encourage homeowners to make their homes more fire-resistant by offering rebates, working with insurers to create incentive programs, or requiring homeowners to address specific issues, such as flammable roofs.
Wildfires and Home Insurance
Most home insurance policies cover wildfire damage. However, as wildfire damages have grown more and more expensive, it has become more difficult for homeowners to purchase affordable home insurance policies. Insurance companies have increased policy premiums (the amount they charge in exchange for coverage); instituted conditions for coverage (such as requiring homeowners to clear fuels around their homes); and, in some cases, refused to provide coverage for homes in areas with particularly high fire risk, which has the potential to cause significant problems for homeowners and local real estate markets.
Policymakers face challenges and trade-offs in addressing insurance affordability and availability, while simultaneously acknowledging the demand for increased construction in high hazard areas. Historically, homeowners unable to find insurance in the regulated market have been able to access “backstop” insurance, such as the California FAIR plan, which provides fire insurance to those who cannot find it elsewhere and which also charges relatively high premiums. Alternatively, regulators could allow insurers to set rates in a way that accounts for increasing levels of risk. However, while this will address availability, it will lead to high insurance premiums. Alternatives to insurance-market solutions include limiting construction in high wildfire hazard areas and providing support for people facing very high wildfire hazard and insurance costs to move to lower hazard areas.
Additional Policy Considerations
During a wildfire, heat and flames are not the only danger—smoke can negatively affect human health not only near a wildfire, but hundreds or thousands of miles away. In the long run, investments in fuels management may provide air quality benefits by reducing the intensity with which fires burn, and thus the amount of smoke they release. While prescribed fires and managed wildfires themselves emit smoke, they may do so in smaller quantities and at more opportune times, so that they are less likely to cause severe health impacts. In the short and medium run, it is likely that the United States, and especially the western US, will continue to face periodic air quality impacts due to wildfires. To cope with these impacts, policymakers can consider providing funding for improved air filtration in homes and public buildings.
Matthew Wibbenmeyer is a fellow at RFF. His research seeks to understand climate impacts and climate mitigation policies related to the forest and land sectors, with a special focus on wildfire.
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