Wildfires have scorched an average of almost 6.2 million acres from 2006 to 2016, mostly in the western United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In 2017, those numbers doubled, with about 10 million acres burned in nearly 60,000 fires. Kansas, Montana, and California all saw near record blazes, and 2017 was the second most active year for wildfires on record (the most active was 2007).

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Kansas firemen were put to the test in 2017, battling wildfires over 20 counties covering 650,000 acres and impacting more than 70,000 people.

Thinking Through Wildfires

One exacerbating factor in the growth of wildfires is an increasing wildland-urban interface, or human development near wild lands. The expanding interface not only makes human-caused wildfires more likely, it has the potential to make fires both more damaging and deadly. Human error and causes are behind more than 90 percent of the nearly 60,000 annual wildfires in the United States, many times through unattended campfires, burning of debris and acts of arson.

In addition to destroying homes and businesses, smoke from wildfires can pose health risks to older adults, children and those with heart or lung diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Burned vegetation also increases the risks of flooding and mudslides.

Weather also can significantly affect the frequency and severity of wildfires. Prolonged drought can extend prime wildfire season, making blazes more likely. Additionally, high temperatures and low humidity can quickly dry out vegetation, which then becomes potential fuel.

Government response

Federal, state and local governments are responsible for wildfire prevention and suppression in the United States.

The federal government spent more than $2 billion putting out fires in 2017, making it the most expensive year on record. Currently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can tap emergency funds for hurricane or tornado response, but the U.S. Forest Service has to use other program budgets – including fire prevention – if it runs out of firefighting funds.

Currently, the U.S. Forest Service’s fire suppression efforts are funded based on a 10-year rolling average. That means the Forest Service has to use money budgeted for fire prevention and other department activities to fight wildfires. Fire suppression needs have grown from about 20 percent of the Forest Service’s budget to more than 55 percent during the last twenty years. Several leaders in the Forest Service, USDA, and U.S. Rural Development have asked Congress to use emergency funding appropriations for wildfire suppression, like it does other disasters.

FEMA provides Fire Management Assistance Grants to states, local and tribal governments for the mitigation, management, and control of fires. The grants award 75 percent of the need and require the states to fund the remaining 25 percent. In some cases, this is a significant burden to state budgets. Eligible firefighting costs may include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; tools, materials and supplies; and mobilization and demobilization activities.

State and local government spend an additional $2 billion per year on fire prevention and suppression activities. U.S. Rural Development and USDA are also very involved in fire recovery, particularly when the blaze affects rural areas.

How to Help

Donors wanting to bring relief to fire-ravaged areas for the immediate future and long-term prevention and recovery efforts could:

  • Award loans and grants for rebuilding damaged homes and businesses. Currently through the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, there is a $2 million cap on disaster loans for businesses or private, non-profit organizations. That amount may not cover what’s needed, and monies that are allocated may be slow to arrive.
  • Support local agencies on the ground throughout the disaster life cycle, especially those that work with vulnerable populations. Those in already precarious situations—such as the elderly, sick, undocumented and mixed status families, and poor—may find their circumstances worsened in the face of disaster. Mental health providers, food banks, and organizations working with children or the elderly, for example, must have plans in place to mitigate the disaster’s
  • Fund drought mitigation efforts. These may focus on sustainable agriculture, water conservation, or even land use. An emerging area for research, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, is land use patterns that “maintain the integrity of watersheds and that have a smaller paved footprint result in greater resilience in the face of drought.”
  • Invest in public awareness and educational campaigns as well as dissemination of best practices in wildfire and drought mitigation. Simple efforts such as clearing flammable materials from 100 feet around the house may help prevent property damage, for example. Fires can also be started by misuse of equipment such as grills, which can be averted with proper knowledge.
  • Assist businesses in developing business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans to reduce economic impact.  These plans should include, for example, contingencies for displaced workers, back up of data, and alternate facilities for continuing operations in the event of property damage.
  • Learn about the needs of volunteer fire departments, whose efforts may have been depleted during the wildfire.
  • Support the creation of “smart growth” efforts. Smart planning can help mitigate wildfires, or prevent them all together.

Noteworthy Funding

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, $1.9 million over five years for the University of California to the to develop system for forecasting fire season severity and droughts in several tropical forest and savanna regions, based on satellite measurements and computer modeling.

The Hearst Foundation, Inc., $75,000 to San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden for a demonstration firesafe garden.

The Wilburforce Foundation, $40,000 to University of Montana to determine the probability of whether a treated forest will experience a wildfire.

Center for Disaster Philanthropy, grant of $31,000 to Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas for a human impact assessment following record wildfires in 2017; a grant of $18,000 to Montana Community Foundation to host a convening on issues, resources, problem solving following record wildfires in 2017; a grant of $20,000 to Oklahoma Conference of Churches to fund an emotional and spiritual care study in Northeast Oklahoma after a significant uptick in the suicide rate following fires in the area.