Early season wildfires have already created a path of destruction across our country, with the total number of acres burned so far this year 72% above the 10-year average. Forecasters are predicting higher than normal fire potential for much of the West this year, in large part driven by the climate crisis which has exacerbated historic drought conditions, above average temperatures, and below normal precipitation throughout the West, the Plains, and Texas. To address the escalating wildfire challenge, the Biden-Harris Administration has launched multiple simultaneous initiatives to enhance prevention, preparedness, and response by strengthening our wildfire response capabilities, increasing pay and support for our wildland firefighting workforce, providing historic levels of funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to reduce wildfire risk, increasing community resilience to wildfires, and leveraging new technologies and scientific research to keep Americans safe.
President Biden has directed his Cabinet officials, White House Homeland Security team, and the National Climate Task Force to build on his 2021 wildfire initiatives this year by ensuring wildfire prevention, preparedness, and response is a top priority, and bringing a whole-of-government approach to increasing our Nation’s resilience to catastrophic wildfires.
As part of those efforts, today Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall and Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm convened a meeting with CEOs from the electricity sector and administration officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration to discuss actions being taken to protect communities from wildfires, as well as opportunities for additional public-private collaboration. Here is a summary of the Biden-Harris Administration’s recent actions:
Helping Communities Across America Prepare For and Respond to Wildfires
Strengthening our Wildfire Response Capacity
Provide robust response through a record 16,700 Federal firefighters and additional surge capacity: Federal firefighters, working alongside their state, Tribal, and local counterparts, support a robust, multi-agency effort to combat wildfires. Since 2021, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) have worked to increase their target capacity to 16,700 Federal firefighters, with the ability to activate an additional 13,000 employees across their agencies to support wildfire response efforts across the Nation. USFS and DOI can surge an additional 11,000 administration personnel, mostly retired agency personnel, from outside of their agencies to support incident management teams and other firefighting functions. DOI Bureau of Indian Affairs is able to coordinate with Tribes to add an additional 500 Tribal firefighters to support firefighting response as needed.
Increase pay and support for wildland firefighters: Earlier this month, the Biden-Harris Administration announced $600 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to increase pay, create new programs to support mental wellness and healthcare, and establish a new category of jobs in the Federal government for wildland Federal firefighters. These unprecedented actions on behalf of the wildland firefighter workforce, many of which have already begun, are significant steps forward that are delivering an immediate, temporary pay raise to Federal wildland firefighters across the Nation, and setting Federal agencies on a path to continue working with stakeholders towards an updated, competitive, and equitable pay structure. These measures also create a support system that will address the many challenges that have plagued our wildland firefighter workforce for decades.
Accelerate transition to a more permanent firefighting workforce: With wildfire activity now continuing year-round, having a permanent, professional firefighting workforce is essential to addressing the threat. Thanks to the BIL, USFS and DOI are authorized to convert 1,000 employees from seasonal to permanent appointments, which can expand the permanent workforce capacity and adds to the 1,000 Federal employees who were converted over the past few years. Additionally, USFS will work to increase the size of their Hot Shot Crews—the most experienced and advanced firefighters in the wildland system—from 20 to 25 people per crew, enabling staff to better manage work-life balance, mental health, and wellness, while ensuring adequate capacity is available to meet the increasing demands for the fire year.
Increase training to State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial (SLTT) Partners: The National Fire Academy is increasing its training capacity by bolstering the number of personnel dedicated to delivering wildland-urban interface (WUI) awareness and command training for SLTT partners. The National Fire Academy (NFA) curriculum incorporates training and education for the full spectrum of community risk reduction for the WUI, and delivered training to over 96,000 students in Fiscal Year 2021. The NFA offers these trainings in multiple mediums to ensure access to the broadest possible audience.
Provide robust aviation capacity to support immediate response: Aviation assets are critical in the management of wildfires to slow or decrease the intensity of the fire and enable safe operations for firefighters on the ground. USFS and DOI share aviation resources, which this year will include dozens of fixed wing firefighting aircraft and over 200 helicopters to support our Nation’s wildfire response capabilities.
Provide trained and equipped military personnel and aviation assets to support firefighting operations as needed: The Department of Defense (DoD) is providing aircraft and personnel for wildland fire detection, monitoring, and high technology mapping to assist incident commanders with firefighting operations. DoD is prepared to provide eight C-130 aircraft and crews capable of using Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS) to conduct wildfire suppression missions. Additionally, if requested by the National Interagency Fire Center, DoD can provide firefighting support to the wildland fire management agencies, including one military unit with 200 personnel to receive training and specialized equipment to support firefighting operations as required.
Reducing Risk and Increasing Resilience Via Historic Investments and Long-term Planning
Invest in wildfire mitigation programs: The BIL made a critical down payment on wildfire risk reduction efforts, providing over $8 billion to augment forest and land management investments, including more than $5 billion to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and DOI for hazardous fuels reduction and other wildfire mitigation programs. USDA has already announced $131 million this year to mitigate hazardous fuels in their top ten priority forest landscapes and high risk firesheds. DOI has announced BIL funding totaling $81 million to address hazardous fuels and reduce wildfire risk in priority areas across the Nation. In addition, as part of the Building a Better Grid Initiative, the Department of Energy (DOE) will make $2.5 billion in matching grants for industry and $2.5 billion in formula grants for States and Tribes available to reduce impacts to the electric grid due to extreme weather, wildfires, and natural disasters. Additionally, the President’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget request proposes a nearly 60% increase in USDA’s and DOI’s hazardous fuels treatment funding.
Treat hazardous fuels effectively: The Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior jointly released comprehensive wildfire risk mitigation plans that mark a new emphasis on the strategic development of fuel and forest health treatments at scale, using the best available science as the guide. The USFS’s plan, Confronting the Wildfire Crisis, lays out its 10-year strategy to work with DOI and other partners to treat up to an additional 20 million acres on National Forest System lands and up to an additional 30 million acres of other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands. DOI released a companion Five-Year Wildfire Monitoring, Maintenance, and Treatment Plan that roadmaps its strategy to reduce severe fire risk on 10 million acres of Federal land, Tribal forest lands, and rangeland that pose a high wildfire hazard.
Support communities in reducing catastrophic wildfire risk: The BIL established the Community Wildfire Defense Grants (CWDG), a new USDA program with $1 billion in funding over five years that will provide communities and Tribes grants to better plan and reduce the risk of wildfire. Priority funding will flow to communities that have been underserved by other resilience programs and are at the greatest risk of wildfire. Used in conjunction with other hazard mitigation programs, the CWDG Program will greatly increase the scale of wildfire reduction activities and make communities more resilient in the face of increased risk.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently announced the largest investment in its Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program in history, boosted by the President’s BIL. This funding will help communities increase resilience to wildfires, heat waves, drought, floods, hurricanes, and other hazards by preparing before disaster strikes.
Additionally, USFS is initiating emergency fuels reduction treatments to provide for the long-term survival of giant sequoia groves against immediate wildfire threats. These actions make use of the agency’s existing authorities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to conduct emergency fuels treatments as expeditiously as possible in 12 giant sequoia groves. With the emergency action, giant sequoias could receive accelerated protection by as much as 9 to 12 months in most groves and years earlier in other groves. Wildfires have destroyed nearly one-fifth of all giant sequoias in the last two years alone.
Support communities in preparing and planning for wildfires: The United States Fire Administration (USFA), in collaboration with DOI and USFS, published the Wildland Urban Interface: A Look at Issues and Resolutions report in June 2022 to raise awareness and inform future activities with Federal and SLTT partners to curb the impact of wildfire in the United States. FEMA recently launched a National Exercise Program Climate Adaptation Exercise Series to empower SLTT emergency management partners to better understand how climate change is intensifying natural disasters, including wildfires, and identify opportunities to mitigate future impacts.
Develop clean air shelters and cooling centers: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is piloting a project in Western states to use schools as clean air shelters and cooling centers during heat and smoke events and will provide grant support to States, Tribes, public pre-schools and local education agencies, and nonprofit organizations for wildfire smoke preparedness and abatement in community buildings. In addition, the EPA has developed a Wildfire Incident Action Checklist and other tools to assist local water utilities with information on actions to take to prepare for and recover from wildfires.
Form the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission: USDA, DOI, and FEMA also announced the formation and membership of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, which is tasked with forming Federal policy recommendations and strategies on ways to better prevent, manage, suppress, and recover from wildfires. Appointments to the Commission were recently announced and the first meeting is scheduled for this Fall. As required in the BIL, the commission represents Federal agencies, State, local, and Tribal governments, and the private sector.
Expand preparedness information for individuals and families: EPA and USFS continue to improve the AirNow Fire and Smoke Map, which provides smoke-related air quality information and actions to reduce exposure. EPA and USFS recently expanded accessibility by including a ColorVision Assist function. EPA also recently released the “Why is Coco Red?” picture book to help children learn about wildfire smoke and air quality, which is available online in English and Spanish. Wildfires can also create cascading impacts when heavy rains in severely burned areas cause soil erosion, flooding, and debris flows that impact both natural resources and communities. FEMA is expanding its Flood After Fire Campaign to help families in wildfire impacted areas better understand their risks.
Provide financial support for wildfire response and hazard mitigation: The Biden-Harris Administration stands ready to assist communities in need with critical Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAGs). FMAGs assist SLTT governments with the hazard mitigation, management, and control of fires that threaten such destruction as would constitute a major disaster. FEMA has approved 22 FMAGs since the start of calendar year 2022 alone.
Leveraging Technology and Research to Keep Americans Safe
Increase Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) support to wildfire response: This year USFS has doubled its Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) fleet to 31 aircraft with 35 additional aircraft on order from U.S. manufacturers. Nearly 200 new USFS and DOI UAS pilots have been trained to utilize UAS for wildfire monitoring and prescribed fire activities. Additionally, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has developed prototype, mobile UAS Pilot kits to allow wildfire incident commanders to better monitor UAS assets and enable more synergistic operations with piloted aircraft.
Expand the capacity for prediction to support wildfire response: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is refreshing Incident Meteorologist (IMET) equipment and increasing the overall capacity of the program. NOAA is also establishing a new Wildfire Testbed, which will expedite the deployment of new technologies for the fire weather community, allowing on-site IMETs to access and analyze information more quickly. NOAA has 86 certified IMETs to support on-scene weather forecasting at incidents across the country, with 32 newly trained IMETs to supplement deployments and increase future capacity.
Enhance fire detection capabilities: Recent and continued updates in satellite technology, the most recent being the launch of NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – T Series (GOES-T) on March 1, will provide high resolution fire detection and monitoring information that can sense fires as small as a house, as frequently as every minute. Additionally, the President’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget request proposes permanently sustaining a capability demonstration that leverages DoD satellite imagery to rapidly detect wildfires in their early stages, often in remote areas, so firefighters can initiate a speedy initial attack and enhance the probability of successful suppression before the spread to wildland-urban interfaces. The President’s proposal would ensure the continued availability of this important program by transferring the process of analyzing the satellite information from DOD personnel to USDA and DOI staff specially trained for this mission. DoD would continue to provide analytical personnel until the transfer has been successfully effectuated and will provide satellite imagery to USDA and DOI after the transition is complete.
Expand National Laboratory and partner research: DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is expanding its Rapid Analytics for Disaster Response (RADR) image analytics and modeling suite to help mitigate damage to key energy infrastructure. Using a combination of advanced imagery, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing, the platform will assess and predict damage, which can allow first responders and utilities to take measures to mitigate potential impacts and expedite infrastructure restoration.
DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is utilizing artificial intelligence to identify locations where the electric grid is susceptible to disruption so that those areas can be reinforced in advance to enable greater resilience. Additionally, DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is utilizing new sensor and autonomous vehicle technologies to enhance the remote inspection of electrical grid transmission lines. Finally, ORNL is also evaluating high-fidelity sensors that can be used as early indicators of electrical arcing to identify and mitigate fire risk. DOE is partnering with multiple electrical utilities and Federal agencies to advance each of these initiatives.
Advance modeling capabilities to support fire management: The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is partnering with fire science and management organizations to better understand changing fire behavior and its effects on society and ecosystems. USGS is collaborating with DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory to combine their fire and land management research with the lab’s advanced fire-atmospheric modeling capabilities. USGS has also partnered with the National Science Foundation-funded WIFIRE Commons, which enables the convergence of artificial intelligence and fire science communities, to address the interacting effects of wildfire with climate change, drought, invasive species, development in wildlands, and fuel accumulation.
Inform future wildfire initiatives through research: The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is investigating the California Camp Fire from 2018 to better understand the causes of the fire’s spread as well as aspects of the emergency response. The case study will be complete by mid-2024, and will help inform emergency managers’ efforts to plan for future wildfires. NIST is also undertaking a multi-year experimental study of fire spread from the wildlands to WUI communities, providing data on the risk to buildings as part of a collaborative effort with the USFS, USFA, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In addition, the BIL provides USFS and DOI $10 million each to invest in the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP), which both agencies fund in support of scientific research on wildland fire management. Current priority areas of research for JFSP include firefighters’ mental health, smoke emissions, carbon storage, resilience to climate change, and the effects of fire on different populations.