Two wildland fire workers manage a hose reel on a Type 6 engine during a controlled burn in Florida.
Keeping Lands Resilient More controlled burns like this one in Florida are only one part of the solution. More funding and coordination is needed. © Carlton Ward Jr.

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New Report Outlines Need for Investing in Wildfire Resilience

The Nature Conservancy says a paradigm shift is necessary in the ways U.S. funds and handles wildfires

As one U.S. wildfire season after another threatens to be worse than the last, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: The current strategy of dealing with catastrophic wildfires isn't working.

As the Biden administration works to implement new measures to handle wildfires and land managers in the United States are bracing for what could be one of its worst wildfire seasons, a new report by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) suggests that a paradigm shift is needed.

"Wildfire Resilience Funding: Building Blocks for a Paradigm Shift," outlines policy actions to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires. TNC recommends an investment surge of $5 billion to $6 billion per year over the next 10 years for the highest priority work of reducing wildfire risks and providing communities with much-needed resources for infrastructure and adaptation.

It is time to change the paradigm and create a new trajectory for how we manage and prepare for wildfire impacts on our country and communities.

Lynn Scarlett Chief External Affairs Officer for The Nature Conservancy

In consultation with experts on wildfire science, policy and practice – from various agencies, researchers and other organizations – TNC has specific recommendations for investments in federal programs. It also suggests the need for awareness that these investments will avoid other costs and create co-benefits, such as jobs, economic opportunities and healthy lands and waters.

“This won’t be easy, but the benefits are many,” said Lynn Scarlett, The Nature Conservancy’s chief external affairs officer. “Increased investments and improved focus on enhanced forest health, forest restoration and other strategies will reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires and result in jobs, economic opportunities, and healthier air, lands and waters.”

Last year, some 10 million acres burned in the United States, costing nearly $20 billion in damages, burning more than 17,000 structures, and tragically claiming at least 46 lives. And there are costs of health effects from smoke, as well as disruption of supply chains, transportation and labor – costs often disproportionately borne by those with low incomes with few or no means to recover from wildfires.

Last year, some 10.3 million acres burned in the United States, costing nearly $20 billion in damages, burning more than 17,000 structures, and tragically claiming at least 46 lives.

The trends continue to worsen as the West is getting warmer and drier and facing historic drought conditions. Yet wildfire resilience spending is not keeping pace with increasing costs of wildfire suppression, or the far more substantial economic impacts associated with catastrophic wildfire events. In the last 10 years, federal suppression costs alone have grown by nearly 400 percent, while wildfire resilience investments have remained essentially flat.

"Current strategies and levels of investment are leaving us further and further behind," said Scarlett. "It is time to change the paradigm and create a new trajectory for how we manage and prepare for wildfire impacts on our country and communities."

Despite much of this continent's ecosystems need for fire at regular intervals, decades of fire suppression have altered many of these lands, allowing the buildup of dense vegetation. This raises the risks of larger, more devastating fires.

Photo of a team of 5 people picking up branches in a neighborhood.
Reducing Risks Reducing wildfire risk in Utah. © Brianna Binnebose

New fire scenario modeling from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) suggests that targeted treatments on nearly 51 million acres of federal, state, tribal and private lands in the next 10 years will significantly reduce exposure in the highest risk areas. Treatments would include removal of hazardous fuels and the use of controlled burns, with an average cost of $1,000 per acre treated. Additional funding would be necessary over time to maintain treated areas and to treat new priority acres.

To meet this challenge, TNC’s new report identifies funding and priority needs for federal programs and agencies that include programs at the USFS, Department of the Interior, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, among others.

Some of these investments have been highlighted as possible priorities for broader infrastructure investments, including the bipartisan infrastructure package Congress is drafting now.

Realizing those benefits will require a comprehensive approach to improve America’s wildfire resilience – one with input and efforts from all levels of government, the private sector, communities, and other stakeholders. TNC and the Aspen Institute are launching a collaborative discussion series to drive that approach.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.