Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on November 28, 2022.

Fiscal Folly

The US government has committed $3 billion to fund wildfire mitigation efforts, but the money is WRAPPED IN red tape


There was joy in the wildfire world last year when the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act took effect. The legislation addresses a number of complex problems facing the country and includes a significant amount of funding—more than $3 billion—across multiple agencies to apply to the wildfire disaster problem.

That initial blush has already worn off. In May, NFPA convened a summit that included representatives from nearly 40 wildfire stakeholder organizations, and the consensus on funding for community-

level wildfire risk reduction to property was anything but joyous. Yes, money is now directed toward the problem of homes at risk, what we typically refer to as the wildland/urban interface. But governments are faced with the challenge of untangling the snarls of red tape that prevent those dollars from being applied to making homes and communities more wildfire resilient.

At the May summit, participants spent an intensive day-and-a-half session digging into the gnarly issue of existing properties at risk to wildfire. The challenges of applying funding to retrofit and mitigate homes and neighborhoods quickly became clear. Funding is siloed within multiple agencies and programs. No single federal agency addresses wildfire mitigation at the community or property level. Current program requirements for environmental review conflict with state-level rules. Programs are designed to fund large-scale infrastructure projects rather than home-level upgrades across neighborhoods. Many communities, counties, and states lack the capacity to manage major grant programs or provide technical assistance to access the funds. The list goes on.

Headwaters Economics recently conducted an independent analysis of one of the major sources of hazard mitigation funding—the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency—and found that, over the past few years, projects were funded in only a few states, with grants going to relatively affluent communities. Money is scarce for high-risk rural communities that can’t meet the financial-match requirements.

This country must address the vulnerability of homes and communities to wildfire now. Decades of experience and fire science research have demonstrated that we have the knowledge and the technology to make homes safer from the wildfire threat. We know that this cannot be accomplished without mitigation applied at the individual structure and parcel level, and across adjacent properties. Despite what we know, and despite funding wildfire risk reduction measures, vulnerable populations living in wildfire risk areas today have little to no support, funding, or technical assistance to enable these urgent home safety measures.

The situation calls for dramatic change. To support this change, there should be clear wildfire mitigation leaders at all levels of government, especially at the county level. The recent growth in congressional funding for mitigation and infrastructure is important. But solving this will also require establishing a reliable, transparent, and easy-to-access strategy for obtaining those funds and implementing communitywide solutions. It also must be a long-term, sustained investment with permanent funding streams.

The report on the summit, “Policy Recommendations to Reduce Home and Community Loss from Wildfire” (available at nfpa.org/outthinkwildfire), recommends actions ranging from pilot programs at the county level to a detailed analysis of the opportunities and barriers for wildfire mitigation funding. Armed with knowledge and funding, NFPA and like-minded stakeholders now have clear direction to eliminate obstacles in the policy arena that prevent us from achieving our bold goal of ending the destruction of communities by wildfire.

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler