From Suppression to Mitigation: America’s Evolving Wildfire Risk
The wildfire risk in our country is evolving. Once thought to have a geographically limited impact on the Western United States (US), the thick yellowish haze draped over New York City in late Spring seemed to indicate that wildfire impacts are more far-reaching. Over the past four decades, the burned area from wildfires has roughly quadrupled in the US. The unprecedented wildfires in Maui are the deadliest in a century – surpassing the 1918 Cloquet Fire in Minnesota and the 2018 Camp Fire that devastated the town of Paradise, California. Fires are also growing larger; in 2020, California experienced its first gigafire as the August Complex Fire burned more than a million acres of land.
Wildfires are fueled by climate change – hotter, drier conditions and more intense storms, which produce more lightning, are increasing the risk. Also, the growth of non-native and/or invasive plants can accelerate the spread of severe wildfires. Not to say, wildfires do not have manmade causes, including utility equipment malfunction and arson, but the climate impacts continue to fuel many of these blazes. Given the evolving threat of wildfire and that one-third of the US population lives in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) – fire suppression alone will not solve our nation’s growing wildfire risk.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has multiple funding streams that offer communities the opportunity to mitigate the wildfire threat and build resiliency. While the FEMA 406 Mitigation program may not have a full range of options, the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) program offers more encompassing risk reduction measures, including:
|Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP)*||Provides eligible states, federally recognized tribes, territories, and local governments with funding to implement long-term hazard mitigation planning and projects following a major presidential disaster declaration.|
|HMGP Post Fire||Provides eligible states, federally recognized tribes, territories, and local governments with funding to implement long-term hazard mitigation planning and projects following a Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) declaration.|
|Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities(BRIC)||A nationally competitive program that provides funds on an annual basis for capability- and capacity-building (C&CB) activities and high impact, climate adaptive infrastructure projects.|
|Congressionally Directed Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM)||Revitalized in Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 as a direct Congressional appropriation to selected projects across the country. The program, authorized by Section 203 of the Robert T. Stafford (“Stafford”) Act, makes funds available for mitigation activities that reduce natural hazard risk to people, structures, and infrastructure.|
*As of the March 2023 HMA Guidance, prescribed burns and fire flow (fire suppression) projects are not eligible through FEMA’s mitigation programs.
The above-noted mitigation programs offer a wide range of potential eligible activities to mitigate natural hazards. To mitigate wildfires, communities can layer non-construction and construction activities to successfully address their comprehensive wildfire risk.
Planning – development and/or revision of Hazard Mitigation Plans as well as planning annexes with an emphasis on wildfire and/or community wildfire protection plans.
Project scoping – to design future wildfire construction projects, including:
- Undergrounding utilities;
- Ignition-resistant materials/infrastructure (e.g., ignition-resistant utility poles, residences, and public and commercial buildings);
- Developing post-wildfire flood and erosion control measures;
- Adding defensible space;
- Removing standing burned trees;
- Replacing and mitigating burnt water systems;
- Building code enhancement and implementation
- Updating to wildfire warning/notification systems;
- Removing non-native species and hazardous fuels reduction/vegetation management;
- Purchasing generators for Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) or high wind events; and
- Developing and disseminating wildfire public education/training materials.
Our future is dependent on our ability to mitigate and adapt. The wildfire risk in our country is evolving, and without the utilization of timely and robust mitigation interventions, the impacts of wildfires will be felt throughout our country. With the major disaster declaration in Hawaii (DR-4724), and as emergency response eventually becomes long-term recovery, FEMA’s mitigation programs will be available to provide eligible states, federally recognized tribes, territories, and local governments with funding for solutions to address these growing risks nationwide.
Amelia Muccio is the Director of Mitigation at Hagerty Consulting and a subject matter expert in disaster recovery. With over 15 years of experience in public health, disaster preparedness, mitigation, and financial recovery, Amelia has helped clients obtain $5 billion in federal funds after major disasters, including Hurricane Sandy and Harvey and the California Wildfires.