Media coverage of wildfire often focuses on the brutality of death and destruction – but alongside these horrific outcomes is the often overlooked and underestimated danger of smoke. This insidious threat isn’t localized to the fire itself but can spread across the country. Worse, we don’t have a coordinated response. This report explores what is being done at the federal level to address wildland fire smoke, what’s missing, and makes recommendations to address this national health issue.
As the wildfire season has grown longer in the West, smoke events now sometimes stretch for weeks and across the continent. As a result, millions of people are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution on a near-annual basis. Wildland fire smoke is a chemical stew, but the component that is most well-studied and considered the most immediately threatening is fine particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter and smaller (PM2.5). These particles are small enough to bypass the body’s natural defenses, burrow deep into the lungs, and even pass into the bloodstream where they set off a systemic inflammatory response. Smoke exposure leads to increased frequency and severity of asthma attacks, worsened COPD symptoms, increased risk of stroke and heart attack, increased susceptibility to infectious disease, and increased hospital visits and deaths. Recent research finds that repeated smoke exposure may also increase the risk of developing dementia. Thousands of deaths and hospitalizations occur each year from wildland fire smoke exposure, with most of the impacted persons living far from an active fire. Those most at risk from wildland fire smoke include children and youths under 18, older adults, pregnant people, people with heart or lung disease, outdoor workers, and persons of low socioeconomic status.
The federal government’s efforts to protect the populace from wildland fire smoke health impacts are made difficult because exposure to wildland fire smoke is influenced by many factors, including fire and smoke characteristics; the indoor environment; time and activity levels spent outside; use of respiratory protection; and the knowledge, belief, and ability to reduce exposure. Understanding and addressing these factors requires a broad array of specialties, including atmospheric science and chemistry, forestry and fire science, building and aerosol science, epidemiology and health effects research, air quality monitoring, risk communication, and social science.
Because there is no one federal office, department or agency with the expertise to address all facets of smoke exposure, collaboration across multiple entities is necessary. However, because coordination across agencies is often not formalized or even funded, projects are scattered across the federal science agencies, often with experts from multiple offices collaborating as needed on an ad hoc basis.
Consequently, information about how federal entities are addressing the impacts of wildland fire smoke is scattered across dozens of agency websites and hundreds of public reports. Without a comprehensive accounting of federal action on wildland fire smoke, it may be difficult for researchers, grantees, and policymakers to collaborate across the landscape, diagnose inefficiencies, and propose innovative solutions. It may also be challenging for communities to know where to turn when seeking knowledge and tools for responding to the rising smoke threat.
Importantly, federal wildland fire smoke efforts are often distinct from wildfire management strategies. The latter do not usually consider potential smoke impacts when prioritizing initial attacks or determining suppression strategies. Rather, land managers are generally more focused on addressing future wildfire smoke impacts by using beneficial fire in hopes it will reduce future wildfire smoke emissions.
To answer the question, “What is the federal government doing about wildland fire smoke, and who’s doing it?” we conducted an analysis of public-facing materials to understand a broad suite of federal wildland fire smoke activities. Then, we grouped them into four main categories of action: research; guidance preparation and dissemination; situational awareness; and direct community assistance. Finally, we identified opportunity areas for additional federal action to improve health outcomes for the most vulnerable. Note that this analysis is based on publicly available information to the best of our knowledge at time of publication. It may not encompass all wildland fire smoke efforts at all agencies.
More about this analysis can be found at the end of this report.
The most cross-cutting federal wildland fire smoke effort is research. Numerous agencies are conducting and participating in studies dedicated to smoke composition, movement, measurement, health impacts, climate change implications, and ways to mitigate public exposure. (For a sense of scale, see “Wildland Fire Smoke in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.” Published in late 2022, the assessment runs 346 pages and outlines research efforts dedicated to understanding wildland fire smoke and its impacts.)
Scientists from land management (USFS, BLM, NPS), earth sciences (NOAA, NASA, USGS), health (CDC, EPA), and other (DOE, DoD, DHS, NIST ) agencies all take part in wildland fire smoke research, with frequent collaboration across agencies and offices (e.g. FASMEE and FIREX-AQ, below). In addition, federal agencies frequently partner with state, local, Tribal, university, international and nongovernmental partners. The federal government also sponsors wildland fire smoke research and innovation at universities and other non-governmental organizations, with federal grants coming from NSF, NIH, EPA, DoD, CDC-NIOSH, USFS and DOI (via the Joint Fire Sciences Program), HRSA, NASA, NOAA, and others.
Insights from these efforts inform public health guidance, improve smoke forecasting and communication, and may help the federal government develop meaningful policies and procedures to mitigate current and future smoke impacts.
There are far too many research efforts to summarize, even at a high level. See this table for an overview of where federal agencies and offices intersect with research topics. Below are some selected highlights:
FASMEE and FIREX-AQ
FASMEE (primary agency: USFS) and FIREX-AQ (primary agencies: NOAA and NASA) are large-scale, multi-year collaborative research efforts that combine data from satellite, aerial and ground measurements to improve our understanding of fire behavior and the resulting smoke’s movement, composition and impacts. An important end goal of these efforts is improved smoke modeling. Smoke modeling will help alert communities to future smoke impacts and help land managers plan prescribed fires to minimize smoke impacts.
In addition to participating in the above smoke modeling projects, the EPA conducts and participates in an array of wildland fire smoke research. EPA’s wildland fire smoke research catalog includes work on health effects, interventions, and risk communication to reduce smoke exposure, pollution monitoring, and characterizing smoke pollution chemistry and concentrations (i.e. smoke “emissions”). Some recent projects include an evaluation of DIY air cleaners, a characterization of emissions from fires in the wildland urban interface, an analysis of indoor air quality in commercial buildings during smoke events, and development of a community health vulnerability index for wildland fire smoke.
Joint Fire Science Program
The Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) is funded by DOI and USFS. Since its establishment in 1998, JFSP has invested more than $25 million in wildland fire smoke research conducted by agency and nonfederal partners. JFSP also hosts the Fire Science Exchange Network to provide “the most relevant, current wildland fire science information to federal, state, local, tribal, and private stakeholders within ecologically similar regions.”
Wildland Urban Interface Fires
Smoke from burning vegetation is composed of toxic chemicals. As more fires burn into the wildland urban interface (WUI), concern is mounting about additional harm from burning metals, plastics and other artificial components in the built environment. To better understand smoke in the WUI, NIST, NIEHS, and the CDC sponsored the 2022 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) consensus study report: The Chemistry of Fires at the Wildland Urban Interface, which “evaluates existing and needed chemistry information that decision-makers can use to mitigate WUI fires and their potential health impacts.” One of the knowledge gaps identified in the report is a characterization of the amount and type of pollutants generated when fires burn homes, vehicles, and other anthropogenic materials. To begin addressing this gap, EPA recently compiled emission factors for hazardous air pollutants that may be found in WUI fires. And, while much of NIST’s work in fire has been focused on residential and commercial structure fires, the agency has started modeling WUI and landscape fires and researched how smoke may impact evacuations.
NASA Health Research
A (perhaps unexpected) source of wildfire smoke public health research funding is NASA. While much of NASA’s wildland fire smoke research efforts revolve around atmospheric science and the physical characteristics of smoke, NASA has been funding Health and Air Quality Applied Science Team (HAQAST) projects since 2016 as part of its Applied Science program. Not all HAQAST projects involve wildland fire smoke, but NASA recently funded a project examining the health burden of the 2017 wildfires in California. NASA also recently funded a study examining the impact of smoke from Alaska wildfires on respiratory and cardiovascular health.
Wildland Firefighter Exposure
Among those most exposed to wildland fire smoke are wildland firefighters. Recent research by CDC-NIOSH (in collaboration with USFS and DOI) aims to understand the impacts of repeated smoke exposure on wildland firefighter health. This will build on previous USFS and JSFP research on wildland firefighter smoke exposure. Because wildland firefighters often do not have access to adequate respiratory protection for their occupation, DHS is funding efforts by an industry partner to develop a respirator to meet these firefighters’ unique needs.
Guidance preparation and dissemination
When wildland fire smoke enters a community, residents need to know about health risks and how they can limit their exposure. Federal public health agencies (EPA and CDC) have largely assumed the task of preparing wildland fire smoke guidance and providing it to the public and to state, local, and Tribal agencies.
The following is a broad summary of the federal government’s guidance preparation and dissemination efforts at the time of publication.
Resources for Public Health Officials and Physicians
EPA’s comprehensive Wildfire Fire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials (developed in collaboration with experts from CDC, USFS, and non-federal partners) addresses health concerns, outdoor activities, indoor air quality, respirators, interpreting air quality data, protecting vulnerable persons, pets and livestock, and more. Because medical training does not typically cover air pollution health impacts, EPA and CDC have created a course for physicians and other medical professionals so they can better prepare their patients for wildland fire smoke events.
Resources for the Public
EPA and CDC also provide fact sheets by topic that are available for public dissemination. CDC-NIOSH has guidance available for protecting outdoor workers from smoke and, as the certifying body for respirators, provides the public and workers with information about respirator selection and use.
Resources for Communities
EPA has compiled resources for communities into their Smoke Ready Toolbox, which serves as a catchall for interested persons to learn about smoke and how they can protect themselves and their community. In addition, both EPA and CDC have created resources targeted at children to help them navigate fires and smoke.Experts from multiple federal agencies contribute to the creation of guidance; however, outside the health agencies, few federal agencies provide that guidance to the communities their programs serve. When they do, it is often buried as a blog post or news post rather than a static page. There are some limited exceptions: NPS and FEMA include information on their websites about respirators for the public in the event of wildland fire smoke; USFS provides smoke preparedness information on the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and the Wildfire Risk to Communities sites; DHS provides information about respirators and indoor air quality on Ready.gov; and the DoD provides a fact sheet for military personnel about wildland fire smoke (though it has incomplete health impact information and does not include recommendations related to clean indoor air).
To prepare for and respond to wildland fire smoke, the public and decision makers need to know current and projected smoke levels. Multiple federal agencies work to provide air quality monitoring data, smoke forecasts, and satellite imagery to the public, and their efforts rely on frequent interagency collaboration and data sharing.
The following is a broad summary of the federal government’s situational awareness efforts.
Air Quality Monitoring
Air quality monitoring data provides real-time information about how much smoke is currently impacting communities.
Real time air quality monitoring data allow the public to understand current conditions. EPA, USFS, NPS and state, local and Tribal air pollution control programs deploy and maintain particulate pollution monitors that can measure the PM2.5 levels in wildland fire smoke. EPA provides access to PM2.5 air monitoring data from permanent monitors across the country via Airnow.gov and its apps. For wildfires, however, the agency directs the public to the Fire and Smoke Map. This map is a public-facing collaboration between EPA and USFS that provides near real-time data about both smoke pollution and fires based on the user’s location. The Fire and Smoke Map incorporates air quality data from permanent monitors, temporary monitors, and Purple Air sensors; heat detections from NOAA and NASA satellites; fire information from the National Interagency Fire Center; smoke forecast from the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program; and smoke plume overlays from NOAA’s Hazard Mapping System.
EPA’s color-coded Air Quality Index provides the public with pollution severity indicators and associated protective measures, which allows individuals and decision makers to understand current health risks and implement exposure reduction strategies.
Satellite Imagery and Heat Detections
Satellite imagery shows current smoke conditions and smoke movement as fires burn across the landscape. Satellite-based heat detections show real time fire activity and can be used by smoke forecasters to anticipate smoke production. These data are also incorporated into smoke models discussed below.
Smoke forecasts in the form of models and narratives provide information about how much smoke is expected to impact an area. Multiple agencies contribute expertise or funding to smoke modeling work, including NOAA, EPA, USFS, NIST, DOE, NASA, and DoD.
NOAA develops smoke forecasting models such as HRRR Smoke and RRFS Smoke, and provides air quality forecasting guidance. Forecasters with NOAA’s National Weather Service issue air quality alerts on behalf of air pollution control agencies and sometimes include projected smoke impacts in their narrative forecasts.
USFS led the creation of the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program, which embeds Air Resource Advisors (ARAs) into teams of officials managing active wildfires (known as incident management teams). The USFS gathers ARAs from an array of federal agencies (including USFS, NPS, and EPA), state, Tribal and local governments, and the private sector. ARAs provide daily smoke outlooks to the public and incident management teams and deploy air quality monitors. USFS also created the BlueSky smoke modeling framework, which supports ARA efforts and is available to the public. USFS incorporates EPA’s CMAQ smoke model into BlueSky’s framework to provide daily smoke projections.
Direct community assistance
With no end in sight to repeated smoke exposures and research showing that a significant amount of smoke comes indoors, there is growing recognition that communities need to prepare for smoke not only outside but also in their homes, schools, and businesses. This necessitates upgrading existing building filtration and ventilation systems, distributing air cleaners to vulnerable community members, having respirators available for outdoor workers, setting up respite cleaner air shelters, and more.
Federal agencies such as EPA and USFS encourage the creation of smoke-ready communities, but so far, direct community assistance in the form of monetary or expert technical assistance has been limited. Unlike hazards such as flood and fire, there are no smoke-specific community resilience grants available from FEMA, and smoke-related efforts are not explicitly included among FEMA’s eligible fire-mitigation projects.
This section describes federal community assistance efforts currently underway to address wildland fire smoke.
EPA has provided technical assistance to communities interested in turning schools into neighborhood cleaner air and cooling centers. They have also partnered with USFS to help two counties develop smoke preparedness plans as part of a research study. EPA recently launched the Wildfire Smoke Preparedness in Community Buildings Grant Program, which provides eligible entities a chance at a part of $10.67 million to improve public health protection against wildland fire smoke. The agency anticipates funding 13-18 projects.
While EPA’s Environmental Justice Grant program is not specifically targeted at wildland fire smoke, some communities have successfully applied for EPA Environmental Justice Grants to implement smoke-preparedness projects.
EPA also maintains an air sensor loan program to assist communities seeking more information about local air quality impacts, including from wildland fire smoke.
As a significant step forward in acknowledging smoke as a wildfire hazard, USFS now includes smoke-ready planning and implementation projects as eligible for Community Wildfire Defense Grants (CWDGs), which fund community wildfire fire protection plan (CWPP) development and revision as well as implementation of projects identified in existing CWPPs. However, USFS’s requirement that all implementation projects be identified in pre-existing CWPPs is a significant hurdle for accomplishing community smoke preparedness under the CWDG. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003 that drove the creation of CWPPs prioritizes hazardous fuel treatments and reducing structure ignitions. HFRA makes no mention of smoke, and smoke preparedness is not included in existing CWPP guidance. Unsurprisingly, out of $197 million awarded to 100 projects in March 2023, only a single funded CWDG project mentioned smoke preparedness in its CWPP planning project summary. No funded implementation projects include smoke preparedness efforts. (It is possible successfully funded CWPP updates will result in smoke preparedness planning that was not included in the short project summaries available online.)
The CDC provides Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) funding to state, local, and territorial public health departments. The PHEP program is designed to “strengthen national preparedness for public health emergencies including natural, biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear incidents.” While PHEP funds are not targeted specifically for wildland fire smoke response or preparedness, they are designed for flexibility and have been successfully used to purchase air purifiers and HEPA filters. In 2017, the Missoula City-County Health Department (MCCHD) in Missoula, Montana overdrew its PHEP budget to purchase air purifiers for communities hit with hazardous smoke. The following year, MCCHD used PHEP funds to purchase replacement HEPA filters and additional air purifiers.
American Rescue Plan Funding for Schools
In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocated billions of dollars to “keep schools safely open” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools can use ARPA Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which the Department of Education administers to states and school districts, can be used to support HVAC and filtration improvements in schools. In fact, schools are projected to spend almost $10 billion on HVAC upgrades using these funds.
While these ESSER funds are focused on reducing the spread of COVID-19, filters recommended for the fine particles in wildland fire smoke are the same ones recommended for viruses. Consequently, schools that upgrade their filtration using these funds (and in accordance with EPA or ASHRAE guidance) will also likely be better protected from wildland fire smoke. While there are many factors beyond filtration that impact indoor air quality, HVAC maintenance and filter upgrades are important interventions.
A Note About Beneficial Fire
A growing push is underway to restore ecosystem balance and reduce hazardous fuel buildup via beneficial fire, which includes cultural fires, prescribed fires, and wildfires with ecosystem benefits that are controlled but allowed to burn. These interventions, in addition to more frequent and intense wildfires, will mean additional smoke creation for years to come.
The drive to put more fire on the ground is aimed at reducing the severity of future fires and protecting “communities, critical infrastructure, watersheds, habitats, and recreational areas.” Additionally, a small but growing body of research is suggesting prescribed fire may reduce future wildland fire smoke emissions. Unsurprisingly, studies project less smoke impacts from prescribed burns than would be seen from a wildfire in the same place (which generally consume more fuels and produce more smoke).
This is a nuanced discussion, since beneficial fire creates its own smoke and there is no guarantee a wildfire will occur in a burned area before the benefits from the prescribed fire wear out and require a reburn. Prescribed fires also don’t protect communities from all future smoke impacts. An area treated with prescribed fire can still burn; even if it doesn’t, communities can still be impacted by wildfire smoke that has traveled from a fire burning thousands of miles away. In addition, questions remain about the public health impacts from prescribed fire, and much is needed to be done to protect communities from prescribed fire smoke, particularly at the scale needed to address the wildfire crisis. Recent studies from Australia have indicated health impacts from prescribed fire smoke can sometimes exceed that from wildfire smoke, and if climate change continues to worsen, the increased health burden of wildfire smoke will “undermine prescribed burning effectiveness.”
Still, if prescribed burns can limit fire duration and severity, they will lead to less smoke overall than if they had not been conducted. Wildfires may also progress more slowly across the landscape if they encounter patches of land previously treated with prescribed fire, buying more time for response and producing less smoke overall. As a result, prescribed burning is considered a tool in the arsenal to reduce future wildland fire smoke impacts. While this may be promising, currently, reduced future smoke is more a side benefit of prescribed fire rather than an objective for the burns. Most prescribed burns are planned for community fire protections and ecosystem benefits rather than reducing the probability of long duration smoke events impacting communities. Agencies conducting prescribed burning include USFS, BLM, BIA, NPS, FWS, and DoD.
Several of the topic areas described above are conducted by the federal government in support of prescribed fire.
The federal government has shown interest in better understanding smoke and its potential impacts on United States residents. However, there are gaps in federal actions and resulting opportunities that, if taken, could lead to stronger protections from the known health impacts of wildland fire smoke. If the government takes a more proactive role in reducing public exposure to smoke, future fire seasons may bring less illness and death.
Policy to Protect Vulnerable Populations
Notably, policies or rules to protect workers or school children are not on the list of federal smoke-related actions. The federal government is investing heavily in smoke research, situational awareness, and hazardous fuels mitigation but has thus far not implemented rules mandating protection from unhealthy air quality. As a result, states have stepped in with piecemeal protections, and a person’s level of regulatory protection depends on their jurisdiction.
Currently, only California and Oregon mandate employers protect workers from wildland fire smoke. (Washington is in the process of finalizing a similar rulemaking to replace an emergency rule that expired in September 2022.) Protections vary among these states based on air quality, work environment, and enforcement.
This fragmented landscape could be rectified by a federal requirement to limit worker wildland fire smoke exposure. In a 2022 consensus study report, a NASEM committee recommended OSHA set standards for wildfire smoke exposure and mandate employers protect workers. As part of that report, the committee also recommended that Congress expand OSHA’s authority to cover “unpaid volunteers, family members of farm employees, domestic workers in residential settings, gig workers, and many workers now categorized as independent contractors,” all of whom are not currently protected under OSHA authority.
While there are no EPA or OSHA indoor air quality standards for particulate matter or wildland fire smoke, ASHRAE is preparing guidance for commercial buildings that localities can adopt to better protect indoor workers and school children from smoke’s harmful effects. (Formerly known as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, ASHRAE develops and publishes standards and guidance for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) industry.) In 2021, ASHRAE released a framework for commercial buildings and schools to protect occupants from wildland fire smoke. At time of publication, ASHRAE’s formal guidance, Guideline 44-202x: Protecting Building Occupants from Smoke During Wildfire and Prescribed Burn Events, is available for public review. Experts from several federal agencies (EPA, NIST, CDC-NIOSH, GSA) are members of the ASHRAE committee that created the forthcoming guidance. States and localities can adopt or encourage the adoption of this guidance to help their communities better prepare for smoke events.
Funding and Legislation for Community Assistance
While FEMA provides multiple funding opportunities for pre-and-post fire hazard mitigation work, wildland fire smoke is not identified as a hazard that can trigger a federal emergency declaration under the Stafford Act and FEMA does not currently fund wildland fire smoke mitigation projects. The S.2387 Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act of 2023 aims to address this by authorizing the President to declare a smoke emergency and enable FEMA and other federal agencies to “provide emergency assistance to states and local communities that are or will be affected by the emergency, including grants, equipment, supplies, and personnel and resources for establishing smoke shelters, air purifiers, and additional air monitoring sites.“
Another introduced bill, the Cleaner Air Spaces Act of 2023, would direct $30 million to air pollution control agencies via EPA grants for smoke preparedness activities.
In fact, multiple bills have been recently introduced in Congress to address community wildland fire smoke protections and smoke forecasting. None of these bills have made it out of committee as of publication.
It is beyond the scope of this piece to analyze proposed legislation. However, effective community assistance will require additional resources. While the federal government has shown interest in helping communities, a lack of dedicated funding means state, local and Tribal governments interested in smoke-readiness must mine their own budgets, apply for competitive grants from government and nonprofit organizations, and occasionally solicit donations to protect vulnerable community members. As a result, a community’s wildland fire smoke protection often depends on the capacity of state and local government staff and nonprofit partners to apply for grants.
In rural areas, that capacity can be particularly hard to come by. For example, the five-person Central Montana Health District provides public health services for five counties. Also in Montana, the single public health nurse for Granite County is based out of neighboring Deer Lodge County. Communities without persons able to engage in the competitive funding environment for wildland fire smoke response will have lesser public health protections.
Local health departments and air pollution control programs receive federal funding, but it is already too little for the programs to function without additional grants and state and local support. Public health has long been chronically underfunded in the United States., and local health departments do not have the resources on hand to deal with the added threat posed by increasing wildland fire smoke. The federal government is investing billions of dollars to address fuel buildup in our forests in the hope it will lead to reduced catastrophic fire and smoke. Programmatic funding to help communities prepare now for smoke could go a long way to reducing impacts from the smoke we are currently experiencing.
Improved Respirators for the Public
Several agencies recommend the public use NIOSH-certified N95 respirators to protect themselves from the fine particulate matter in wildland fire smoke. However, these respirators are designed for workers, not the public. A 2022 NASEM consensus study report sponsored by EPA, CDC, DOS, and the CDC Foundation identified several shortcomings of N95s as the only respirator for public use, including comfort, limited sizing, incompatibility with facial hair, and incompatibility with some outdoor occupations, such as wildland firefighting. Also, in a work environment with a respiratory protection program, workers undergo a “fit test” to ensure the respirator seals tightly to their face and, when used correctly, will provide the promised protection. The NASEM committee recommended the government establish a research and approval program to guide the development of innovative respiratory protective devices designed for a wide range of public users, including infants, children, and the frail elderly that can provide adequate protection in absence of formal fit testing.
As a positive step toward following some of the NASEM report’s recommendations, NIOSH (collaborating with NASA and Capital Consulting Corporation) recently launched a crowd-sourcing competition to improve respirator fit evaluations and make them more user-friendly for the public. However, there remain many recommendations in the NASEM report that the federal government could take on to improve the public and workers’ protections from wildland fire smoke.
Improved/Comprehensive Communication to Inform the Public About Health Risks and Mitigation Strategies
This review of publicly available information about the federal government’s engagement with wildland fire smoke took us through hundreds of websites and publications. A significant amount of work has gone into characterizing wildland fire smoke movement and identifying prescribed burning windows. Work is also being done to understand the tradeoffs of prescribed fire and wildfire smoke emissions. Meanwhile, significant efforts have been put toward understanding the health and economic burden of wildland fire smoke and how we can better protect people from its harms.
During wildfires, smoke is treated as a hazard across agencies, and the public receives information about how to protect themselves from its impacts. During prescribed fires, the smoke is treated as more of a nuisance or a throwaway concern from land management agencies. News releases about upcoming prescribed fires may mention smoke being visible or present over roadways, but rarely include any recommendations for protective measures the public can take to minimize potential health impacts. Meanwhile, the USFS Wildfire Crisis Strategy documents lean heavily on the need for more prescribed fire, but do not mention the impact from prescribed fire smoke on the public.
In addition, there are many government sites and documents with advice for reducing wildfire risk and creating fire adapted communities (FACs), but often, this advice is limited to protection from flames. (Of note, on the USFS FAC site, the only mention of smoke states: “Fuel reduction projects often involve smoke, so its important residents understand the value of fuel treatments and tolerate the temporary inconvenience of smoke that could reduce the long-term risk of wildfire.”)
These are missed communication opportunities. Anywhere we talk about fire, we should talk about smoke and how to stay protected from its impacts. The more the public sees the government treating smoke seriously and offering practical guidance for staying protected from its impacts, the more likely we can reduce harms from both wildfire and prescribed fire smoke and increase the amount of prescribed fire on the landscape. On a positive note, fireadapted.org, run by the Fire Adapted Communities Network (which counts several federal agencies and collaborations among its members), includes public health and smoke concerns as a key component to fire preparedness.
The EPA, CDC and partner agencies have done the work to create actionable guidance for the public. Anywhere the government writes about wildland fire, it should include the health risks associated with the smoke and the steps the public can take to prepare.The government and media will often breathlessly recount the number of homes lost to fire, but data relaying the number of deaths and illnesses caused by wildland fire smoke are generally missing from public discourse. Too often, this information is relegated to estimates in academic journals and increases in odds and relative risk ratios that are not lay friendly. A recent FAS policy recommendation would see the CDC and EPA create a nationwide data dashboard showing mortality and morbidity attributed to wildland fire smoke. This type of data, presented clearly to the public, could help policy makers and the public better understand the significant harms of wildland fire smoke, which would hopefully lead to more investment in community protections on both the federal and local level.
Wildland fire smoke is a health threat that will return year after year. More wildlands and more homes will burn, and residents across the country will bear that burden via smoke that pools in valleys and travels thousands of miles. The federal government has shown interest in understanding and forecasting wildland fire smoke, and many agencies are taking part in researching smoke’s health impacts and relaying guidance to the public. However, there remain significant funding gaps, both for agency actions and for community assistance. Despite annual death tolls in the thousands, smoke from wildland fires takes a backseat in many fire-oriented federal discussions (for example, EPA and CDC only recently gained seats on the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, which has been around for decades). Hopefully, this will begin to change. The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, tasked by Congress to form “federal policy recommendations and strategies on ways to better prevent, manage, suppress and recover from wildfires,” is expected to release their recommendations this fall. With a workgroup focused on public health, we look forward to seeing how the Commission recommends improving the government’s response to the wildland fire smoke crisis.
Impact Fellow Sarah Coefield contributed to this issue brief during her residency at FAS and prior to beginning her assignment at the Environmental Protection Agency.
About This Analysis
NOTE 1: This investigation did not dive into budgetary expenditures, which likely vary widely among agencies. For many agencies, wildland fire smoke work is more tangential to their overall mission. In addition, for EPA, at least, wildland fire smoke work is conducted on the side without a dedicated funding source or staff position.
NOTE 2: This is only an overview of activities by the federal United States government. State, local, Tribal, university, nonprofit and international experts are active in the wildland fire space and contribute significantly to the breadth of wildland fire smoke knowledge and efforts to protect public health.
NOTE 3: This analysis is based on publicly available information to the best of our knowledge at time of publication. It may not encompass all wildland fire smoke efforts at all agencies.
- BLM: Bureau of Land Management
- CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- EPA: Environmental Protection Agency
- FEMA: Federal Emergency Management Agency
- GSA: General Services Administration
- HRSA: Health Resources and Services Administration
- NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- NOAA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- NPS: National Park Service
- DHS: Department of Homeland Security
- DoD: Department of Defense
- DOE: Department of Energy
- DOI: Department of Interior
- USGS: United States Geological Survey
- NFS: National Science Foundation
- NIEHS: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- NIH: National Institutes of Health
- NIOSH: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
- NIST: National Institute of Standards and Technology
- OSHA: Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- USFS: United States Forest Service
The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission called for input from diverse stakeholders and FAS, along with partners Conservation X Labs (CXL), COMPASS, and the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), answered the call.
Recruiting participants from academia, the private sector, national labs, and other nonprofits, the Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator produced 24 ideas for improving the way the country lives with wildland fire.
‘Cultural Burning’ is a phrase that is cropping up more and more in wildland fire policy discussions, but it’s still not widely understood or even consistently defined.
Liam Torpy of Conservation X Labs sat down with FAS to discuss why ‘cultural burning’ is garnering more attention in the world of wildfire mitigation and management.
FAS: Liam – thanks for joining us. To start, just give us a quick introduction to Conservation X Labs and its mission.
LT: The founders of Conservation X Labs [Paul Bunje and Alex Dehgan] wanted to create a conservation technology organization that, you know, isn’t just doing the same traditional conservation methods of protected areas and command and control. CXL wants to find innovative solutions to these problems that can harness market forces or that develop new technologies that will allow for breakthroughs–because the problems have been increasing exponentially in the conservation field, but the solutions haven’t kept pace. We’re not, in a lot of these critical ecosystems like in the American West with wildfire, or the Amazon, were simply not doing enough. And the problem is getting worse as global forces, like climate change, worsen the problem.
FAS: CXL has been convening what you call “Little Think” events – roundtable discussions aimed at surfacing new ideas in the area of wildfire management – when you decided to partner with FAS on this Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator. Cultural burning became one of the big areas of focus for the recommendations coming out of this process. Some people may be familiar with the idea of “prescribed burning” – using fire to reduce the risk of uncontrolled megafires down the road – but ‘cultural burning’ is something quite different. Can you explain what’s different and why it’s important?
LT: You can read a lot of reports, or see some statutes on the books, legally, that will oftentimes not reference cultural burning at all. Some do – but it’s kind of a footnote that’s put under ‘prescribed burning’ – many publications treat it the same way. But prescribed burning, which can have real ecological benefits, is often only measured by the government using acreage: how much land can we burn?
With cultural burning, there’s not a single definition, because each Tribe has their own version of it. But it’s often to cultivate natural resources or encourage new growth of a particularly important plant. So it’s much more targeted than prescribed burning – it’s suited to the land and the resources a Tribe has. It’s deeply rooted in place-based knowledge.
It’s also a very important method of intergenerational knowledge transfer as well. [Cultural fire practitioners] say sometimes that ‘when you burn together and you learn together’. It’s a way to teach the rest of your group of what resources there are, how to steward them, and how everybody is coming together to manage the land and take care of it.
FAS: So why is there a tension between traditional federal and state fire management methods and cultural burning?
A lot of people I think don’t really recognize this: you think that because a lot of Tribes have reservations, or Tribal trust land or some of their own free land, they can just go and burn as they wish. But the people on the ground that we’ve talked to, including some participants in this accelerator, say Tribal trust land is some of the hardest land to burn on. It’s pretty much considered federal land, administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). That means pretty much every time you want to burn on the land, you have to have a burn plan and submit that to the BIA, which is generally very understaffed. Only one person may be looking over those documents. Then a BIA ‘burn boss’ is considered the only person qualified to actually lead the burn – and that is already kind of infringing on the sovereignty of the tribe itself: having their own burn led by this outsider within the federal government. And oftentimes you have to go through a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) permitting process which is a very long and expensive process that requires public comments. There are local air districts that regulate smoke. Then you have to have an approved burn window where they say, okay, the conditions are good. And that often happens very rarely. And so a lot of tribes don’t even attempt to go through this whole process. It’s simply too much administrative burden on them.
FAS: And it’s not just the administrative burden, right? There seems to be some real hesitancy to allowing more cultural burning from the agencies who manage this land, and from communities nearby. Why is that?
LT: The public is often skeptical of both prescribed and cultural burning. They’re scared of fire because of all the megafires. So it’s can be hard to get the public support sometimes. And because of that a lot of these federal agencies that by their nature are very risk averse. They’re unwilling to move forward with some of these plans that can be perceived as risky when it’s easier just to do nothing. Their approach is just when a fire comes through, try to fight it. Say you did the best you could even though it burns down half the forest and becomes a high severity fire.
FAS: Tell us about the Accelerator participants you worked with.
LT: We talked with Nina Fontana, Chris Adlam, Ray Guttierez, and then [FAS’] Jessica Blackband worked with Kyle Trefny and Ryan Reed. Ryan and Ray are both members of Tribes, and the others non-Indigenous, but working in that sphere and trying to support cultural fire. These are already busy people, trying to kind of reestablish some of these traditions and fighting against these institutional barriers. Their first priority may not be to fly out to Washington to talk with federal policymakers or sit down at their computer and develop and research these recommendations. But they have a really deep on-the-ground perspective that a lot of people in Washington that don’t have, and that a lot of people the Commission don’t have.
FAS: Can you give us an example of what kinds of recommendations emerged from the process?
LT: One thing that’s important to understand is that these recommendations are not the be all and end all of this issue. These are steps – often the most basic steps we can take to start to give cultural fire the respect and the place it deserves with fire management. Fire has been functionally banned from the land for over a century – over a century of extreme fire suppression tactics in the American West. A lot of these tribes that previously had been burning for centuries, or sometimes even millennia, weren’t allowed to continue that cycle. It was illegal – it was criminalized. And so that knowledge is just lost. And so some tribes are seeking to regain that knowledge.
There’s a Tribal Ranger Program recommended by Chris Adlam – which is modeled after Canada and Australia – creating permanent long term opportunities for Tribal members to exercise their traditions, to put fire on the land to build up that intergenerational knowledge. These would not be just short-term, one-summer, internship opportunities, but real employment opportunities that allow them to put fire on the land.
Another important recommendation, from Raymond Guttierez, is establishing a federal definition of ‘cultural fire’ and ‘cultural fire practitioner’. Right now, there’s not even really a legally recognized definition for the very practice itself – only for prescribed burning. And it wouldn’t just be one definition, it’d be regionally specific. And Tribes would help develop that in each area.
FAS: What part of the process was most rewarding for you, personally?
LT: I think one of the things that was rewarding is that these participants, in the beginning, were a little skeptical that what they had to say would actually be important, or would be more useful than the information that decision makers in Washington already had at their disposal. But they really did have a lot to say and a lot to contribute to this national conversation. And so I think it was really cool to see just how, by the end, they got validation that they have really useful information and experience that needs to be heard by people in power.
FAS: The Biden Administration has made a point of incorporating Indigenous knowledge into federal decision-making. But guidance from the Executive Branch is one thing – real impact on the ground is another. Do you think Indigenous practices, like cultural burning, are actually gaining support in the communities affected by wildfire?
LT: I think there’s also a broader movement within our society focused on diversity and equity and inclusion. Looking at the historical injustices that Tribes have faced, and trying to give them compensation when they do participate in these processes, and give their input and share their traditional knowledge – we need to make sure we are adequately valuing that. And so I think that’s also another element that’s giving this a boost. Hopefully, we see more and more people in power incorporating these ideas. And really, it’s not just about them incorporating the ideas – it’s about allowing Tribes to lead this movement, and to lead these burns. Some of it is just getting out of their way. Some of it is giving them more of a platform. But what we don’t want is just for the system in place to kind of co-opt the Tribal practices and leave the cultural fire practitioners in the dust.
But I also think having the White House make that statement about Indigenous knowledge is really significant. By getting encouragement from the top that [agencies] should look into cultural burning, or look into place-based knowledge and traditional ecological management, that kind of gives them more of a push to go and form these partnerships. And I think there’s been, there’s more and more attention on these issues. As we look at the wildland fire crisis right now, it’s going out of control. The amount of money that we’re spending on it – asking questions about whatever we’ve been doing for the last century or so is warranted. Before that century of suppression, tribes were getting more fire on the ground. People are looking at this more and more, trying to learn, and giving it the respect that it really deserves, and the attention that it deserves.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federation of American Scientists unveiled 23 actionable policy proposals developed by expert contributors. These recommendations were developed with the aim of contributing to a holistic, evidence-based approach to managing wildland fire in the United States and in response to the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission’s request for stakeholder input in its work to develop a report for Congress .
In partnership with COMPASS, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), and Conservation X Labs, FAS hosted a Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator to collect, refine, and amplify actionable, evidence-based ideas to improve how we live with fire.
The recommendations cover issues across the wildland fire policy spectrum, falling into four categories: Landscapes and Communities, Public Health and Infrastructure, Science, Data, and Technology, and Workforce. Contributors come from academia, the private sector, and nonprofits and have expertise in public health, fire intelligence, forestry, cultural burning, and more.
“The ideas we are presenting showcase how the development of evidence-based policy can be inclusive of more diverse expert input and lead to better results. We are eager to see the final recommendations the Commission ultimately relays to Congress, and how they respond” says FAS Director of Science Policy Erica Goldman.
“These are urgent issues that can only be solved through cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary collaborations. We’re grateful to be at the table and excited to see how these bold ideas can evolve and inform public policy across local and state governments,” says CCST Senior Science Officer Teresa Feo.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is a nonprofit policy research and advocacy organization founded in 1945 to meet national security challenges with evidence-based, scientifically-driven, and nonpartisan policy, analysis, and research. The organization works to advance progress on a broad suite of contemporary issues where science, technology, and innovation policy can deliver dramatic progress, and seeks to ensure that scientific and technical expertise have a seat at the policymaking table.