Author(s): Meghan Housewright. Published on May 1, 2018.

Line Item: Wildfire

How the Policy Institute can help communities and fire departments make wildfire the budget-line priority it needs to be

Around budget time each year, municipalities across the country debate where and how to spend their limited resources, with many different departments vying for money to advance their efforts. The process is important, not just for funding government, but also for signaling priorities. In my opinion, budgets are more telling than any law on the books—and time and again, when asked, citizens tell us that public safety should be a priority.

In a recent survey, the city leaders of Rapid City, South Dakota, asked 1,400 randomly selected residents how they would choose to allocate $1,000 of their tax dollars. The third most popular answer was on fire department services—covering response, prevention, code compliance, and life safety education—garnering an average of $127.44, or about 13 percent of that imaginary $1,000. The fire department trailed only law enforcement ($146.43) and street repair ($136.51). In the same survey, 53 percent of residents said that they’d opt for raising taxes before cutting fire services.

But while it’s clear that the public and government leaders value fire services, city budgets too often overlook wildfire, one of the fastest growing fire safety threats. As pointed out in “Build. Burn. Repeat?,” the cover story in the January/February issue of NFPA Journal, the number of homes lost to wildfire in the U.S. has risen dramatically in recent years. However, more money for local wildfire prevention and mitigation efforts has not been forthcoming from local governments.

A recent study, “Wildfire risk reduction in the United States: Leadership staff perceptions of local fire department roles and responsibilities,” co-authored by NFPA senior researcher Hylton Haynes, looked at local wildfire prevention trends from the perspective of fire service leaders. Fire officials interviewed for the study said they feel a responsibility to reduce wildfire risks in their communities and are eager to do more, but that they are hindered by a lack of money. They all identified uses for additional funds: hiring more personnel, conducting needed wildfire risk assessments, offering more brush pickups, buying additional equipment, and more.

The study also found that politicians lack awareness of the importance of mitigation activities led by fire departments. Rapid City, which lies at the edge of the Black Hills National Forest and has experienced recent wildfires nearby, did not even mention wildfire risk reduction activities or ask residents about it in its recent survey. Maybe it should have.

To move the needle, Haynes and his co-authors recommend that simpler methods be developed to collect data to calculate the impact of fire department mitigation efforts. Having real proof of economic impact in the form of a cost/savings analysis is one way to get politicians to take mitigation efforts seriously. Better tools to assess and communicate benefits of such efforts can also help identify the right amount of money to request.

However, even with the strongest possible case, local officials are still swimming in requests for more money and usually don’t have any more to give. Grants are one way to pay for these needs, but those can be fickle and unsustainable. Relying on grants to fund wildfire risk reduction work signals that wildfire is not a priority. A priority is a dedicated budget line. But how do communities get that line?

Fire departments cannot be shy in lobbying community leaders to better fund wildfire mitigation—they will never get the money they don’t ask for. For communities at risk, wildfire mitigation should be a top priority for the departments and all local officials. The Policy Institute looks forward to collaborating on ways to help fire departments bolster their case. However, we won’t be able to reverse the escalating fire problem until impacted communities give wildfire risk reduction the attention it demands in their local budgets.

MEGHAN HOUSEWRIGHT is director of the NFPA Policy Institute.