Wildfire Disaster Planning and Management

Memorandum

To: Senator Richard Burr  

From:

Subject: Wildfire Disaster Planning and Management

Date: March 23rd, 2018

Reorganization of Federal Support Necessary for Proper Wildfire Mitigation

The United States Department of agriculture recently announced that wildfire suppression costs exceeded $2 billion in 2017, making it the most expensive year in history (Forest Service Wildland). Wildfire suppression accounted for 55% of the National Forest Service’s budget in 2017, compared to just 15% in recent years. This reallocation of funds forces the Forest Service to continuously borrow money that is intended for forest management, leaving little funding to perform controlled burns, precautionary harvesting, insect control, and other methods of fire prevention, thereby increasing the odds for future wildfires (Forest Service Wildland). In addition, federal funding for fires that originate on nonfederal land is often granted through the Stafford Act. However, FEMA’s database shows that there have only been 30 major fire disaster declarations in the last 60 years, a small subset of the 2,200 major disaster declarations during the same period (Wildfire Suppression Spending). As a result, communities often go underfunded following an overwhelming fire episode. Continuous burning and the extension of the wildfire season due to human-induced climate change is driving up costs, thus an immediate revision to wildfire policy is necessary.

As Davidson College students and residents of North Carolina, we have a particular interest in wildfire mitigation following the devastating fires that have swept across the western half of our state in recent years. We believe that a reorganization of federal funding and support in regards to wildfire mitigation is crucial to future disaster management plans. In this memo, we evaluate the current trends in wildfire mitigation and outline three additional strategies to encourage improved fire prevention and relief on both federal and nonfederal lands. Additionally, we employ a weighted decision analysis framework to analyze the effectiveness of each of our policy options. We find that the most desirable solution to the current ineffectiveness of wildfire relief would be to pass the Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act (S.1932) and the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R.2862), both introduced in 2017.

Four Strategies for Improving Wildfire Response

Status Quo: Federal Funding Through the Stafford Act, Forest Service, and Department of the Interior-

Suppression efforts for fires that originate on federal lands including national parks and forests are currently funded through the budgets of the Forest Service (FS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI). Each agency receives annual discretionary appropriations and has two accounts for wildfire spending. The Wildland Fire Management Account receives the bulk of these appropriations and can be used for both preparedness and suppression. The Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act is a reserve fund for suppression. If both of these accounts are exhausted in a given year, the FS and DOI are authorized to transfer funds from other accounts to pay for suppression activities, an action know as “fire borrowing.” However, this results in underfunding for other crucial programs (Wildfire Suppression Spending). Likewise, the Stafford Act authorizes the President to issue disaster, emergency and fire management declarations to enable federal funding for state and local governments dealing with fires originating on nonfederal land (Bea 2010). Unfortunately, this legislation results in an emphasis on methods of suppression opposed to prevention of wildfires because affected areas only receive funding after a fire has been declared a disaster.

Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act and Wildfire Disaster Funding Act-

There are currently two bills in congress that would improve funding through the two processes described above. The Wildfire Mitigation Act was introduced in the Senate and would amend the Stafford Act to allow the President, whether or not a major disaster is declared, to provide hazard mitigation assistance to any area affected by a fire for which fire management assistance was provided under the Act (S. 1932). The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act was introduced in the House and would amend the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 to require specific adjustments to discretionary spending limits to accommodate appropriations or wildfire suppression operations in the Wildland Fire Management Accounts of the DOI (H.R.2862).  This would ultimately result in less “fire borrowing” and strain on other wildlife management programs.

Using Private Markets to Finance Emergency Fire Fighting Expenditures –

Reallocating government funding into private capital markets presents an interesting solution to managing wildfires more efficiently. This solution would also provide stability and ensure funding for future wildfires. The private market would primarily be used in the form of catastrophe bonds, government-issued bonds offered when fire damage reaches a predetermined threshold (Hesseln 2001). Private investors, principally in the form of individuals or insurance companies, could invest their money with the expectation that they would be paid back with interest. This solution is particularly attractive to low-risk investors as a result of the government’s low risk of default. There are issues, however, in accessing private markets for previously federally funded activities. First, if bonds are issued at a particular threshold of acres burned, for example, there might be the possibility of overstating damages (Hesseln 2001). Also, investors might be less inclined to invest their own money when the issue at hand is an environmental one rather than a social one. This could potentially have negative environmental effects. Nonetheless, accessing the private market presents an attractive solution, and would undoubtedly increase wildfire funding, particularly for prevention methods.

Restructuring of Forest Service and Interior Department Budgets –

The final solution is perhaps the most straightforward. Essentially, the Forest Service and Interior Department need more funding so that they are able to implement more proactive methods of fire prevention, instead of the reactive methods of fire suppression. In the current state under the Stafford Act, many disasters are only given proper attention when the President determines them to be of extreme importance, and the bulk of federal money is then spent retroactively putting out the flames (Keith Stafford Act Article). If 55% of the Forest Service’s budget is going to be suppression, as we saw in 2017, we need to increase its funding so that more preventive methods can be implemented. The issue, of course, is determining where this funding will come from, and also determining where in the country the funding will be spent, raising questions of political feasibility.

Strategy Analysis Based on Four Criteria

The analytical framework we used focused on four criteria for assessing these strategies. We analyzed the costs and benefits of the political, economic, social, and environmental components of each action. In our analysis, we weighted the political and economic categories as 0.2 and the social and environmental categories as 0.3 to add up to a full point. We will now go into detail about each criteria in order to explain how this framework informed our final policy suggestion.

Political- The status quo remains the most politically feasible option given the low level of action that and change that would be required at a federal level. However, we find the support of the two bills in Congress to be the most politically effective option as salience would likely be high because it does not require a tax increase or personal financial investment as our other options call for, yet it still addresses funding issues in affected areas.  

Economic- Considering both costs and benefits, supporting the two bills currently in Congress provides the most realistic economic benefit. Amending the Stafford Act requires essentially no funding and would allow for less borrowing. Systems involving private markets and complete budget reallocation, while providing much needed funding, could potentially be inefficient because there would be questions about where the money should go.

Social- The Wildfire Disaster Act and the Wildfire Mitigation Act would result the most social benefits as this solution would address management funding issues on both federal and nonfederal land. This option would aid remote and residential burns and protect recreational and domestic areas that support local economies and foster community.

Environmental- A restructuring of Forest Service and Department of Interior budgets would contribute to the most environmental benefits as these two agencies fund burns on park and protected wildlife lands. This option would likely subsidize more well rounded management and regrowth plans as well as the most effective prevention measures of any of the options outlined above.

The Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act and the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act are the Most Effective Strategies

As demonstrated by our analysis above and the table found below, adjusting current federal wildfire funding procedures through the Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act and the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is the most favorable option for addressing wildfire prevention and relief across the country. This action would tackle budgetary allocation issues within the DOI and FS as well as provide a better opportunity for comprehensive aid to state and local governments through the Stafford Act.  Under the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, the actual disaster response for catastrophe-level wildfire events would be issued from a different funding source than the bottom line FS and DOI budgets from which prevention and forest management projects are now funded. Additionally, through these amendments, post-disaster mitigation funding could be utilized for future fire prevention and forest health activities.

 

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