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Congressional Research Service

CRS Report RL30755
Forest Fire / Wildfire Protection

Historical Background
Concerns and Problems
Fuel Management
Fire Control
Wildfire Effects
Roles and Responsibilities
Current Issues

CRS Report RS21544 Wildfire Protection Funding

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Order Code RL30755

CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web

Forest Fire/Wildfire Protection

Updated February 14, 2005

Roles and Responsibilities

Landowner Responsibilities.

Individuals who choose to build or live in homes and other structures in the wildland-urban interface face some risk of loss from wildfires. As noted above, catastrophic fires occur, despite our best efforts, and can threaten houses and other buildings. To date, insurance companies (and state insurance regulators) have done relatively little to ameliorate these risks, in part because of federal disaster assistance paid whenever numerous homes are burned (such as in Los Alamos in May 2000). However, landowners can take steps, individually and collectively, to reduce the threat to their structures.

Research has documented that home ignitability — the likelihood of a house catching fire and burning down — depends substantially on the characteristics of the structure and its immediate surroundings. [59] Flammable exteriors — wood siding and especially flammable roofs — increase the chances that a structure will ignite by radiation (heat from the surrounding burning forest) or from firebrands (burning materials carried aloft by wind or convection and falling ahead of the fire). Alternate materials and protective treatments can reduce the risk. In addition, the probability of a home igniting by radiation depends on its distance from the flames. Researchers found that 85%-95% of structures with nonflammable roofs survived two major California fires (in 1961 and 1990) when there were clearances of 10 meters (33 feet) or more between the homes and surrounding vegetation. [60] Thus, using fire resistant materials and clearing flammable materials — vegetation, firewood piles, etc. — from around structures reduces their chances of burning.

In addition, landowners can cooperate in protecting their homes in the wildland-urban interface. Fuel reduction within and around such subdivisions can reduce the risk, and economies of scale suggest that treatment costs for a subdivision might be lower than for an individual (especially if volunteer labor is contributed). In addition, as noted above, narrow and unmarked roads can hinder fire crews from reaching wildfires. Assuring adequate roads that are clearly marked and mapped can help firefighters to protect subdivisions. Finally, communal water sources, such as ponds and cisterns, may improve the protection of structures and subdivisions.

State and Local Government Roles and Responsibilities.

In general, the states are responsible for fire protection on nonfederal lands, although cooperative agreements with the federal agencies may shift those responsibilities. Typically, local governments are responsible for putting out structure fires. Maintaining some separation between suppressing structural fires and wildfires may be appropriate, because the suppression techniques and firefighter hazards differ substantially. Nonetheless, cooperation and some overlapping responsibilities are also warranted, simply because of the locations of federal, state, and local firefighting forces.

In addition, state and local governments have other responsibilities that affect wildfire threats to homes. For example, zoning codes — what can be built where — and building codes — permissible construction standards and materials — are typically regulated locally. These codes could (and some undoubtedly do) include restrictions, standards, or guidelines for improving fire protection in the wildland-urban interface.

The insurance industry, and home fire insurance requirements, are generally regulated by states. State regulators could work with the industry to assure that wildfire protection and home defensibility are considered in homeowners’ insurance. Road construction and road maintenance are often both state and local responsibilities, depending on the road; these roads are usually designed and identified in ways that are useful for fire suppression crews. State and local governments could further assist home protection from wildfires by supporting programs to inform residents, especially those in the urban-wildland interface, of ways that they can protect their homes.

Federal Roles and Responsibilities.

The federal government has several roles in protecting lands and resources from wildfire, including protecting federal lands, assisting protection by states and local governments, and assisting public and private landowners in the aftermath of a disaster. These programs and their funding levels are described in CRS Report RS21544, Wildfire Protection Funding.

Federal Land Protection.

The federal government clearly is responsible for fire protection on federal lands. Federal responsibility to protect neighboring non-federal lands, resources, and structures, however, is less clear. This issue was raised following several 1994 fires, where the federal officials observed that firefighting resources were diverted to protecting nearby private residences and communities at a cost to federal lands and resources. [61] In December 1995, the agencies released the new Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy & Program Review: Final Report, which altered federal fire policy from priority for private property to equal priority for private property and federal resources, based on values at risk. (Protecting human life is the first priority in firefighting.) Funding for fire protection of federal lands accounts for more than 90% of all federal wildfire management appropriations. As noted above, fire appropriations have risen dramatically over the past decade, especially for federal land protection.

Cooperative Assistance.

The federal government also provides assistance for fire protection. Most federal wildfire protection assistance has been through the Forest Service, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also has a program to assist in protecting communities from disasters (including wildfire).

FS efforts are operated through a cooperative fire protection program within the State and Private Forestry (S&PF) branch. The coop fire program includes financial and technical assistance to states and to volunteer fire departments. The funding provides a nationwide fire prevention program and equipment acquisition and transfer (the Federal Excess Personal Property program) as well as training and other help for state and local fire organizations. The 2002 Farm Bill (P.L. 107-171) created a new community fire protection program under which the FS can assist communities in fuel reduction and other activities on private lands in the wildland-urban interface. One particular program, FIREWISE, is supported through an agreement with and grant to the National Fire Protection Association, in conjunction with the National Association of State Foresters, to help private landowners learn how to protect their property from catastrophic wildfire.

Funding for cooperative fire assistance rose substantially in FY2001, from less than $30 million to nearly $150 million. Funding has declined since, but remains substantially higher than the $15-$20 million annually in the 1990s.

FEMA has programs to assist fire protection efforts. [62] One FEMA program is fire suppression grants under the Stafford Act (the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, P.L. 93-288; 42 U.S.C. 5187). These are grants to states to assist in suppressing wildfires that threaten to become major disasters. Also, the U.S. Fire Administration is a FEMA entity charged with reducing deaths, injuries, and property losses from fires. Agency programs include data collection, public education, training, and technology development. [63]

The federal government has one other program that supports federal and state wildfire protection efforts — the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The center was established by the BLM and the FS in Boise, ID, in 1965 to coordinate fire protection efforts (especially aviation support) in the intermountain west. The early successes led to the inclusion of the National Weather Service (in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce) and of the other DOI agencies with fire suppression responsibilities (the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Office of Aircraft Services). (FEMA is not included in the NIFC.) NIFC also coordinates with the National Association of State Foresters, to assist in the efficient use of federal, state, and local firefighting resources in areas where wildfires are burning.

Disaster Relief.

The federal government also provides relief following many disasters, to assist recovery by state and local governments and especially the private sector (including the insurance industry). The federal land management agencies generally do not provide disaster relief, although there has been some economic assistance for communities affected by wildfires, as described above. Wildfire operations funding includes money for emergency rehabilitation, to reduce the possibility of significant erosion, stream sedimentation, and mass soil movement (landslides) from burned areas of federal lands. While not direct relief for affected communities, such efforts may prevent flooding and debris flows that can exacerbate local economic and social problems caused by catastrophic fires.

FEMA is the principal federal agency that provides relief following declared disasters, although local, state, and other federal agencies (e.g., the Farm Service Agency and the Small Business Administration) also have emergency assistance [64] programs. The Stafford Act established a process for Governors to request the President to declare a disaster, and public and individual assistance programs for disaster victims.

If the risk of catastrophic fires destroying homes and communities continues to escalate, as some have suggested, requests for wildfire disaster relief would also likely rise. This might lead some to argue that a federal insurance mechanism might be a more efficient and equitable system for sharing the risk. Federal crop insurance and national flood insurance have existed for many years, while federal insurance for other catastrophic risks (e.g., hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, volcanoes) has also been debated. [65] An analysis of these alternative systems is beyond the scope of this report, but these might provide alternative approaches that could be adapted for federal wildfire insurance, if such insurance were seen as appropriate. Some observers, however, object to compensating landowners for building in what critics identify as unsafe areas. [66]

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59 See Jack D. Cohen, “Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes: Where and How Much? Proceedings of the Symposium on Fire Economics, Planning, and Policy: Bottom Lines (San Diego, CA: April 5-9, 1999), Gen. Tech. Rept. PSW-GTR-173 (Berkeley, CA: USDA Forest Service, Dec. 1999), pp. 189-195. (Hereafter referred to as Cohen, “Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes.”)

60 Reported in Cohen, “Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes.”

61 Bob Armstrong, Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, “Statement,” Fire Policy and Related Forest Health Issues, joint oversight hearing, House Committees on Resources and on Agriculture, Oct. 4, 1994 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1995), p. 9. Serials No. 103-119 (Committee on Resources) and 103-82 (Committee on Agriculture).

62 The annual funding for these three programs is not distinguished in the agency’s annual budget justification, and thus is not included in this report. See CRS Report RL32242, Emergency Management Funding for the Department of Homeland Security: Information and Issues for FY2005, coordinated by Keith Bea.

63 See CRS Report RS20071, United States Fire Administration: An Overview, by Lennard G. Kruger.

64 See CRS Report RL31734, Federal Disaster Recovery Programs: Brief Summaries, by Ben Canada.

65 See CRS Report RL30739, Federal Crop Insurance and the Agriculture Risk Protection Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-224), by Ralph M. Chite.

66 Personal communication with Tim Hermach, Founder and President, Native Forest Council, Eugene, OR, on October 18, 2000.

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