Literature Review: Wildfire Disaster Planning and Management


In the last twenty years, the frequency and intensity of wildfires has drastically increased in the United States. However, federal funding for wildfire relief is often not granted to affected areas due to provisions in the Stafford Act that require a wildfire be declared a disaster prior to receiving aid. The Stafford Act authorizes the President to issue disaster, emergency, and fire management declarations to enable federal agencies to provide help to state and local governments dealing with catastrophes (Bea 2010). This legislation places an emphasis on methods of suppression as opposed to prevention of wildfires because state and local governments only receive funding after a fire has been declared a disaster. The literature ultimately agrees upon three themes: the current disconnect between government organizations must be resolved, prevention plans opposed to fire suppression must be enacted, and political bias and unequal regional funding must be stopped. Policy changes toward more centralized management procedures should be adopted to address the current ineffective practices in relation to wildfires.

The ongoing relationship between various government organizations and institutions with regards to wildfire response is disjointed and generally ineffective in coordinating responses. Current intergovernmental arrangements are structured with the federal government maintaining primary control over fire policy while simultaneously attempting to stretch fire-fighting resources by strengthening the capacity of state and local organizations to deal with disasters. However, minimal information about risk or response is shared between agencies and levels of government resulting in unproductive aid for affected partners (Davis 2001). Current analyses of institutional interaction and solution integration across levels of government are limited in terms of community fire resilience. It thus becomes vital that rural communities be included in state and national institutional fire management planning, as local institutions and organizations play a key role in structuring social opportunities to proactively learn and adapt to wildfire disasters (Abrams et al. 2015).

The accepted approach to wildfires in the United States today is one of retroactive action. The United States lacks a commitment to risk reduction by emphasizing response and recovery rather than actions to build ecosystem resilience (Charnley et al. 2015). For a century, management agencies have observed a policy of aggressive wildfire suppression. However, this is one of the major factors that has increased the intensity and damage associated with a small number of wildfires that have been unable to be suppressed, resulting in a positive feedback loop that demands more suppression, increasing future risk (Calkin, Thompson, and Finney 2015). Reallocating fire suppression funds to developing policies and market incentives informed by the interdisciplinary work of social, political, and cultural research to find more economical fire solutions would be a major step toward increasing effectivity of proactive solutions to wildfire outbreaks (Charnley et al. 2015).

One would think FEMA funding for natural disasters would be given equally to all communities in need, but many reject this notion of a purely altruistic model (Garrett and Sobel 2003). Studies have found that funding is often politically motivated, and that there are many factors that affect the President’s decision making with regard to FEMA funding. It was found that “swing states” often receive more funding for disasters as a result of their political importance, and disaster expenditure is higher in states having congressional representation within FEMA oversight committees (Garrett and Sobel 2003). This idea of political bias further questions the effectiveness of federal aid compared to a private relief system (Salkowe and Chakraborty 2009). However, a private relief system financed by the private capital market raises limitations pertaining to allocation of funds as well, but perhaps these issues will be less politically charged. A solution to this gap in existing research is thorough cost-benefit analysis to determine how and where funds will be divided geographically throughout the country when disaster strikes.

Some disagreements about the proper management strategies for wildfire prevention emerged in the literature. As addressed above, most academics agree that management should evolve toward proactive action. However, one study suggests that post-disaster relief is still economically preferable as long-term investments in prevention technology still remain more costly than insurance payouts following disasters (Kellenberg and Mobarak 2011). In addition, disagreement about the most effective source of funding and reorganization is prevalent throughout the selected articles. Some argue that private market capital should be used to incentivize long-term disaster plans (Hesseln 2001). Others advocate for a restructuring of Forest Service and Interior Department budgets (Turner and Bell 2016).

Ultimately, the literature indicates that the current state of disaster funding for wildfires is in disarray, as recently exemplified by President G.W. Bush’s efforts with Healthy Forest Initiative. The system is too centralized at the federal level, leading to minimal focus on fire prevention and ineffective methods of suppression and, arguably, unfair regional allocations of funds. The issue, now, lies in determining the best approach to wildfire prevention and management. It’s possible that the Stafford Act, which gives the President absolute authority in disaster situations, is flawed and needs to be reconstructed to prevent misinformed, biased, federal agencies and political actors from exacerbating the wildfire funding epidemic.


Abrams, Jesse B. et al. 2015. “Re-Envisioning Community-Wildfire Relations in the U.S. West as Adaptive Governance.” Ecology and Society 20(3). (February 9, 2018).

Bea, Keith. 2010. Federal Stafford Act Disaster Assistance: Presidential Declarations, Eligible Activities, and Funding. Library Of Congress Washington DC Congressional Research Service. (February 9, 2018).

Calkin, David E., Matthew P. Thompson, and Mark A. Finney. 2015. “Negative Consequences of Positive Feedbacks in US Wildfire Management.” Forest Ecosystems; Beijing 2(1): 1–10.

Charnley, Susan et al. 2015. “A Burning Problem: Social Dynamics of Disaster Risk Reduction through Wildfire Mitigation.” Human Organization 74(4): 329–40.

Davis, Charles. 2001. “The West in Flames: The Intergovernmental Politics of Wildfire Suppression and Prevention.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 31(3): 97–110.

Garrett, Thomas A., and Russell S. Sobel. 2003. “The Political Economy of FEMA Disaster Payments.” Economic Inquiry 41(3): 496–509.

Hesseln, Hayley. 2001. “Refinancing and Restructuring Federal Fire Management.” Journal of Forestry; Bethesda 99(11): 4.

Kellenberg, Derek, and A. Mushfiq Mobarak. 2011. “The Economics of Natural Disasters.” Annual Review of Resource Economics 3: 297–312.

Salkowe, Richard S, and Jayajit Chakraborty. 2009. “Federal Disaster Relief in the U.S.: The Role of Political Partisanship and Preference in Presidential Disaster Declarations and Turndowns.” Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 6(1). (February 9, 2018).

Turner, Rebecca, and Andrew Bell. 2016. “Wildfire Funding Policy Update.” American Forests 122(1): 14–15.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *