Trending Topics

‘The need for urgent action could not be greater’: Wildland fire commission shares findings with lawmakers

The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission members detail recommendations for a Senate committee


Members of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission shared their findings with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on March 12, six months after releasing its 340-page report on the state of wildland fire in the United States for consideration by lawmakers.

While the Commission recognized the long history of indigenous stewardship, the group encourages the use of beneficial fire and prescribed burns where possible to restore fire-adapted ecosystems and reduce risk of catastrophic fires. While a second National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center is in the works, the Commission wants more training.

Collaboration and planning dominate the Commission’s takeaways. “Wildfire Risk doesn’t stop at fence lines and neither should mitigation funding,” said Wyoming State Forester Kelly Norris. “Treating landscapes at high risk for wildfire in and around communities holistically, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries, is a better strategy to reducing wildfire risk.”

The Commission recommends including the forest products industry and enabling cross-boundary work through programs like Good Neighbor Authority as crucial not just for effective landscape-level treatments but for coordinating mutual-aid response. Commissioner David W. Fogerson with the State of Nevada drew Sen. Jacky Rosen’s (D-Nev.) attention to creating a Fire Environment Center modeled on the National Hurricane Center to likewise provide prediction combined with “fusion center” support seen among law enforcement agencies.

Workforce capacity and firefighter wellbeing were other issues found within the list of recommendations. “Without imminent action, federal firefighters at the time of this report’s publication face a pay cliff that will significantly impact wellbeing and morale, with further repercussions for workforce retention and recruitment,” the report reads. Meryl Harrell, Deputy Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, called on lawmakers to “pay wildland firefighters what they deserve, and ensure they have the benefits they need.”

In fact, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) has introduced a bill that would establish a National Interagency Seed and Restoration Center. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Policy, Management, and Budget Joan Mooney welcomed the idea, citing invasive species across that helped fuel catastrophic files in Maui last summer.

In short, response is but one element of forestry as the Commission sees it, albeit immediate given mandates to protect lives and property. Draining local economies and communities, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) noted that U.S. spending on fire suppression has increased by 300% since the 1980s, even after accounting for inflation.

Jamie Barnes with the State of Utah testified at a separate Senate hearing the very next day: “Many states across the Western U.S. now refer to fire season as fire year. In reality, suppression is only a fraction of the cost when assessing the full cost of wildfire. We must consider the long-term and complex costs from loss of life, safety, infrastructure and ecosystem services.”

Madelene McDonald, a Senior Watershed Scientist with Denver Water, testified: “Planning for post-fire recovery represents a critical opportunity to reduce loss. The chaotic and time-critical nature of the post-fire period and the absence of pre-planning often results in a rush to restore to the baseline or pre-fire conditions. The opportunity to use recovery to build resilience to the next disturbance is then lost.”

Recognizing in its report that recovery must not to be ignored in what the report labels a comprehensive approach, commissioners call for proactive planning that includes assessment and resilience to future disturbances from a perspective of decades, in part because the federal government is so often involved as stewards of so much land.

The Commission embraces local knowledge and ancient practices – and partner communities are eager to participate in policymaking. As Colville Tribes executive Cody Desautel stated, “Indian tribes stand ready to bring our Indigenous knowledge and modern expertise to federal forest management.” But trust must be built and often rebuilt. To that end, “Congress should reinforce requirements for coordination with tribes,” Desautel said.

Calling it a “wicked problem” at that second hearing alongside Barnes, Fogerson said he would be “remiss” to recite a top three or five or 10 of the report’s 148 recommendations. That alone is a measure of its holistic approach. “The need for urgent action could not be greater,” the Commission report warns.

Michael Kirby has worked since 2008 for a credentialed news bureau on Capitol Hill that provides digital video and information services to news organizations across the web. Kirby graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2007 with a BA in philosophy, minoring in history. He is interested in many legislative topics, and always has an eye on public safety-related news because he grew up around the firehouse.