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, the acres charred nearly 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). In 2018, the numbers improved only slightly to 58,000 fires and 8.8 million acres burned but includes the deadliest fire in California history, the Camp Fire, which started Nov. 8 and killed at least 88 people and destroyed about 14,000 homes and more than 500 commercial structures.

Wildfires create additional issues beyond the destruction of property:

Weather 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.

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. 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 20 years. Several leaders in the Forest Service, USDA and U.S. Rural Development have asked Congress to use emergency funding appropriations for wildfire suppression, as it does for other disasters.

Key Facts

Humans cause nearly 85 percent of wildland fires through unattended campfires, burning of debris and agricultural land, electrical lines and arson.

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.

FEMA provides Fire Management Assistance Grants to state, 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 as well as mobilization and demobilization activities.

State and local governments 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

To support the recovery efforts for the fires in California, please donate to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s (CDP) California Wildfires Recovery Fund.

To bring relief to fire-ravaged areas for the immediate future and for long-term prevention and recovery efforts, donors 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, nonprofit organizations. That amount may not cover what is needed and monies that are allocated may be slow to arrive.
  • Support local agencies on the ground throughout the disaster life cycle, especially ones that work with vulnerable populations. Those in already precarious situations—such as the elderly, sick, undocumented and mixed status families and people living in poverty—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 impacts.
  • 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 promising practices in wildfire and drought mitigation. Simple efforts such as clearing flammable materials from 100 feet around the house may help prevent property damage,. Fires can also be started by misuse of equipment such as grills, that 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 contingencies for displaced workers, back up of data and alternate facilities for continuing operations in the event of property damage.
  • Consider the needs of volunteer fire departments. As volunteers, they often lack the structural support of larger departments and their resources may have been depleted during the wildfire.
  • Support the creation of “smart growth” efforts. Smart planning can help mitigate wildfires or prevent them altogether.

What are funders doing?

Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), through the Midwest Early Recovery Fund, gave:

To support recovery from the 2017 Northern California wildfires, CDP awarded:

  • A $38,430 grant to Abode Services to support the rapid rehousing of 40 families and individuals rendered homeless by the wildfires.
  • A $100,000 grants to Internews Network to support the development of a two-way conversation between the Latino community and local government, media, and nonprofit organizations in Sonoma County.
  • A grant of $25,000 to On The Move to support fire-affected families for at least six months with emergency financial assistance and comprehensive case management.
  • A $15,000 grant to UpValley Family Centers to support 450 low-income individuals, immigrants, seniors and families with children who live or work in Napa County.

In 2018, CDP launched the CDP California Wildfires Recovery Fund to support recovery efforts in California following the devastating impacts from the Camp, Woolsey and Hill wildfires. The following seven grants were awarded from the fund:

  • $250,000 to Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP) to support the reconstruction of affordable multi-family housing in Paradise destroyed by the Camp Fire.
  • $500,000 to Butte County Office of Education’s Response and Recovery Project to support expanded mental health outreach, assistance and services for school-aged children and their families across Butte County.
  • $250,000 to the Workforce Housing Project to establish temporary housing for displaced individuals and families trying to maintain their livelihoods in Paradise and surrounding communities destroyed by the fire.
  • $30,000 to Disaster Leadership Team to continue providing direct mentorship support to the Camp Fire Long Term Recovery Group and Los Angeles Region Long Term Recovery Group.
  • $114,656 to Camp Fire Long Term Recovery Group to support their Camp Fire Resource Center which will become the “storefront” for community recovery resources, services and assistance for the entire county.
  • $250,000 to Ventura County Community Foundation to support local nonprofits providing housing and/or mental health support or services in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
  • $143,140 to United Policyholders to scale-up their Roadmap to Recovery program in Los Angeles and Ventura counties in addition to increasing available resources for wildfire recovery in the housing sector in southern California.

In 2019, CDP launched the CDP 2019 California Wildfires Recovery Fund to address the overwhelming impact of the Kincade Fire. The following six grants were awarded from the fund:

The Howard G. Buffet Foundation gave $1 million in 2017 to the Working Ranch Cowboys Foundation to assist ranchers affected by wildfires across the Southwest and Great Plains.

In 2017, the James Irvine Foundation gave $750,000 to support medium- and long-term rebuilding efforts for Latino immigrant families and farmworker communities affected by California wildfires. The money focused on supporting low-income immigrant families in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation gave $925,000 to the Bay Area Council Foundation in 2018 to provide data, research, analysis and other technical support for rebuilding, recovery and the allocation of disaster recovery resources.

The Wal-Mart Foundation, in 2018, gave $1 million to the North Valley Community Foundation to support wildfire relief efforts and help address the increased needs of the local homeless population affected by the Camp Fire.

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(Photo: Damage in a Paradise, California neighborhood following the 2018 Camp Fire. The blaze is the deadliest to ever hit the state, killing at least 88 people and burning more than 18,000 structures. Source: U.S. Air National Guard, Senior, Airman Crystal Housman CC BY 2.0)