Ahead of the Wildland Fire Commission Report Release, a Roundup of FAS’s Efforts to Provide Input on Wildland Fire Policy

FAS is committed to producing science-based policy recommendations that improve people’s lives – and over the last year we’ve devoted considerable effort to understanding wildfire in the context of U.S. federal policy. We hope that some of our work will be reflected in the forthcoming Congressionally authorized Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Report, anticipated for release in the coming days.

Over the past year, together with partner organizations COMPASS, Conservation X Labs, and the California Council on Science and Technology, FAS recruited diverse experts to participate in our Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator to develop actionable ideas, presented in a concise format, to inform the work of the Commission.  

In early 2023, FAS hosted a convening that provided stakeholders (including Commission members and Accelerator participants) from the science, technology, and policy communities with an opportunity to exchange forward-looking ideas with the shared goal of improving the federal government’s approach to managing wildland fire. 

Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator: Developing Actionable Recommendations

Working together, FAS and accelerator participants produced policy recommendations that provide targeted suggestions for addressing wildfire challenges in several domains, including   landscapes and communities; public health and infrastructure; science, data, and technology; and the workforce. With climate change worsening wildfire impacts, a holistic overhaul of wildland fire policy is urgent, but also within reach, if policymakers work collaboratively to implement a broad suite of changes.

FAS Wildland Fire Policy Memos

Effective wildfire management will require a thoughtful, multi-pronged approach, as detailed in these memos by Accelerator participants.

Wildland Fire in Context: Ensuring Broad Perspectives Are Incorporated 

Funding and Implementation of Wildland Fire Programs: Mapping the Landscape 

Our wildland fire work is not finished. We look forward to reviewing the policy recommendations of the forthcoming Commission Report and helping to amplify its messages in the halls of Congress and in federal agencies. We applaud the efforts of the Commission to incorporate and synthesize diverse perspectives over an incredibly short time frame and we hope that the report will be as robust and comprehensive as is required to improve how we live with wildland fire. Our staff, partners, and engaged subject matter experts, and others are sure to have thoughts, which we look forward to sharing in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Seeing Through the Haze: How the federal government does (and doesn’t) work to reduce public exposure to wildland fire smoke

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 (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).

A white truck drives alongside a column of smoke during the 2017 Jones Fire.

Wildland fire smoke is a chemical stew. 

Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash

Situational awareness/monitoring

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.

Science agencies including NOAA and NASA provide satellite imagery and analysis to scientists and the public for near real-time pollutant monitoring, smoke plume tracking, and fire detection. 

Smoke Forecasting

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 effort to protect the populace from wildland fire smoke health impacts are made difficult because exposure to wildland fire smoke is influenced by many factors.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash


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.


Next-Generation Fire and Vegetation Modeling for a Hot and Dry Future


Wildfires are burning in ways that surprise even seasoned firefighters. Our current models cannot predict this extreme fire behavior—nor can they reproduce recent catastrophic wildfires, making them likely to fail at predicting future wildfires or determining when it is safe to light prescribed fires. 

To better prepare the fire management community to operate in a new climate, Congress should establish and fund five regional centers of excellence (CoE) to develop, maintain, and operate next-generation fire and vegetation models to support wildland fire planning and management. Developing five regional CoEs (Southeast, Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, Northern/Central Rockies) will ensure that researchers pursue a range of approaches that will ultimately lead to better models for predicting future wildfire behavior, improving our ability to safeguard human lives, communities, and ecosystems.

Challenge and Opportunity

In the decade ending in 2021, total federal wildfire suppression expenditures surpassed $23 billion, which is a fraction of the total costs of damages from wildfire over that period. For example, the 2018 wildfires in California are estimated to have amounted to $148.5 billion in economic costs for the state. The costs of suppressing fire, and the societal and natural resources costs of extreme wildfire, will continue to increase with increasing temperatures. 

Fewer than 2% of ignitions become large wildfires, but it is this 2% that cause most of the damage because they are burning under extreme conditions. The area of forests burned by wildfire annually in the western United States has been increasing exponentially since 1984. While the number of ignitions remains relatively constant from year to year, climate change is drying fuels and making forests more flammable. As a result, no matter how much money we spend on wildfire suppression, we will not be able to stop increasingly extreme wildfires. Thus, we need to better understand where the risks lie on our landscapes and work proactively to reduce them. 

When vegetation—especially dead vegetation—is subjected to high temperatures, any moisture absorbed during the winter months quickly evaporates. As a result, increasingly hot summers are making our forests more flammable. Live vegetation moisture content does not react as quickly as dead vegetation, but sharp increases in air temperature when conditions are dry can make live plants more flammable as well. While this relationship between temperature and ecosystem flammability has remained consistent over time, until the past decade we had not reached a level of warming that dried ecosystems sufficiently to allow for consistent extreme fire behavior. This is in part because large dead fuels, such as dead trees and logs, did not dry sufficiently to become flammable for the majority of the fire season until recently. 

Our current operational models for simulating wildfire and vegetation are incapable of reproducing the extreme fire behavior and rapid ecosystem change that we are now experiencing. Forest growth-and-yield models, such as the Forest Vegetation Simulator, used by managers have served them well for decades. However, because they are built using statistical relationships between past tree growth and climate, they are incapable of capturing the effects of changing climate, especially extreme events, on tree growth and mortality. Similarly, our operational fire models, such as FARSITE, that are used for both management planning and simulating fire spread to plan fire suppression activities are not designed to deal with the substantial ecosystem changes that are occurring from climate change. These fire models have served us well in the past, but increasing temperature and a drying atmosphere are causing conditions that far exceed the data used to build these models. 

For example, our current operational fire models do not account for large dead trees and logs and how they contribute to fire spread or for the way fire behaves in the wildland–urban interface. Yet wildfires are increasingly burning through communities, and the number of dead trees and logs is increasing because of drought- and insect-induced tree mortality and is increasingly available to burn because of high temperatures. The 2020 Creek Fire in the Sierra Nevada, California, burned through an area of extensive tree mortality from prolonged drought and insect outbreaks. The operational fire spread model ELMFIRE, which is used to predict fire spread of active wildfires, was unable to predict the mass fire behavior created by the massive number of dead trees.

Managing wildfire risk both prior to and during wildfires requires advanced models that are able to account for changing climatic conditions. We need new wildfire models that account for the increasing fuel dryness that facilitates extreme fire behavior, and we need new vegetation models that account for the effects of extreme drought and temperature on vegetation mortality. The research and development necessary to prepare us for our increasingly flammable world requires both fundamental and applied research, neither of which is sufficient on its own. 

Further, we need to ensure that we commit to maintaining these models as the climate continues to change so that we do not create another tool that fails to serve us well within a decade or two. As the climate continues to change, these next-generation fire and vegetation models will be challenged with novel conditions that require continuous efforts to ensure they are capable of capturing the dynamics of the system. In addition, we must ensure that the mechanistic understanding of the system that develops is applied to supporting fire and vegetation management decision-making. This will require ongoing experimentation and observations of actual wildfire behavior, along with extensive data collection to characterize how quickly the flammability of the system changes as a function of vegetation type and weather conditions. 

Developing these next-generation models is necessary for both fire suppression and management planning. Incident command teams rely on fire spread models to help plan suppression efforts for active wildfires, and thus having better predictions of fire spread is essential for effective operations and firefighter safety. Likewise, planning forest treatments that are effective for reducing the risk of high-severity wildfire under extreme weather conditions requires better vegetation and fire models that can capture the influence of changing climate on the probability that high-severity wildfire occurs. 

Plan of Action

Developing and future-proofing next-generation fire and vegetation models will require new and sustained investment. Further, we must accept that these advanced models will require a level of expertise to operate that we cannot expect from a land manager trained in natural resource management, requiring that we fund expert model users to support management planning and suppression efforts. 

As with all research and development, there are many possible pathways. Regional differences in weather, vegetation, and management history will alter climate effects on vegetation growth, mortality, and flammability. Similar to the Manhattan Project approach of simultaneously pursuing two different ignition systems when there was more than one potential viable alternative, we lack the necessary understanding to pick a “winning” model at this point. 

To account for regional differences in vegetation and the research momentum that is developing in different nascent modeling approaches, an effective and robust federal investment would entail the following actions. 

Recommendation 1. Congress should establish and fund five centers of excellence housed at academic institutions in the Southeast, Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, and Northern/Central Rockies to develop and maintain next-generation fire and vegetation models that are capable of modeling extreme fire behavior and can be operationalized to support planning for wildfire and vegetation management and to support wildfire suppression. 

Establishing five centers with this geographic distribution will allow for investigation into the forest types where the majority of wildfire area occurs and will capture the range of climatic conditions under which wildfires are occurring. It will also take advantage of past and ongoing regional research efforts that will form the information foundation for each center. While these centers should have largely independent research programs, it will be necessary to coordinate some large-scale experimentation and to ensure that research findings and advances are shared rapidly. To achieve these objectives, one center should be selected to act as the coordinating center for the network. 

Recommendation 2. Congress should require institutional partnerships between the host institutions and federal research institutions (e.g., U.S. Forest Service Research and Development, Department of Energy National Labs, U.S. Geological Survey, etc.). 

We are currently in an all-hands-on-deck situation in the fire and fuels research community, and we need to operate in a collaborative and regionally coordinated manner. Requiring partnerships between the academic centers of excellence and federal research facilities within each region will ensure that effort is not duplicated and a wider range of expertise. For example, efforts are under way at federal research facilities that could be integrated within the regional fire centers. The integration will ensure collaboration between academic and federal partners and allow for the overall research effort to draw on the strengths of these different types of institutions. 

Recommendation 3. Congress should mandate and fund the centers to operate these next-generation models and support wildfire and vegetation management planning and operations. 

To date, we have relied on fire and vegetation models developed by the research community to use data collected by fire and forest managers and packaged so that natural resource professionals can operate the models. Both of these constraints have contributed to the limitations of our current suite of models. We can no longer afford the limitations imposed by expectations on the research community to develop models that a natural resource professional can run on a desktop computer. Accounting for a range of factors, such as how changing climatic conditions will directly change the amount of fuel on the landscape and also for how short-term changes in weather will interact with longer-term changes in climate and influence fuel moisture, requires a more sophisticated approach to simulating the system than is necessarily accessible to a non-expert user. Expecting a natural resource professional to use an advanced coupled atmosphere-biosphere fire model would be like teaching someone how to balance their checkbook and then expecting them to calculate exactly how much they need to save every week for retirement. Further, important feedback to model improvement will come from repeated application by expert model users. To deploy next-generation fire and vegetation models in a manner that will effectively support fire and natural resource management decision-making, each center will employ experts who will work collaboratively with managers in response to their requests to run simulations for pre-fire management and suppression operations planning.

Recommendation 4. Congress should mandate the creation of strategic plans to support implementation and coordination across centers. 

Each center will develop a five-year strategic plan to guide its research and development efforts. Following strategic plan development, representatives from the five centers will convene to determine necessary coordinated experimentation and implementation plans to facilitate coordinated efforts. The coordinating center will hold biannual leadership meetings to ensure data and information flow and identify additional opportunities for collaboration among individual centers. 


Establishing five centers of excellence to develop, maintain, and operate next-generation models will cost approximately $26 million per year, which is less than 1% of the 2021 federal wildfire suppression expenditure. This level of funding would provide $5 million per year per center (plus an additional $1 million per year for the coordinating center). The annual budgets would fund staff scientist and research assistant positions, provide support for the experiments necessary to develop and parameterize new models, provide computing resources for computationally sophisticated models, and fund staff analysts to run the models in support of managers. Initially, the majority of the annual appropriation would be focused on model development, transitioning to maintaining and operating the models to support land management as the technology matures. 

The centers could be supported through National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. NSF could provide financial support for five university host institutions (one in each region) selected through a competitive bidding process. In turn, these university host institutions can manage the required federal partnerships. Selection of university host institutions could be based in part on demonstrated capacity to manage successful partnerships with federal institutions. 

It is imperative that we invest in new models that will support more effective mitigation to reduce wildfire severity, otherwise spending on suppression will continue to balloon despite improved fire intelligence.

Frequently Asked Questions
Are there universities with demonstrated capacity to perform the kind of work required to make this centers of excellence program successful?

Yes. Just a few examples include the colocation of the University of Georgia with fire researchers in the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Southern Research Station; the University of New Mexico’s existing relationships with Los Alamos National Lab, Sandia National Lab, and the U.S. Geological Survey; and the University of Washington’s long-standing relationship with the USFS Pacific Northwest Fire and Environmental Applications research group.

Why might NSF be the right agency to fund the proposed centers?

NSF is in wildland fire research and, jointly with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, already funds research on fire in the wildland–urban interface. While much of the research needed to develop next-generation fire and vegetation models is basic, all wildland fire research is inherently applicable. NSF hosted a five-day Wildfire and the Biosphere Innovation Lab, and the findings included the assertion that “support for applied research will be most effective by aiming at both short- and long-term applications and solutions,” acknowledging that the application of research findings is an important part of the research enterprise.

Large investments in hazardous fuels management are being made now. Will models developed through this research have an impact in the near term?

Yes. These centers will bring together and build from ongoing efforts. There are already efforts under way to develop optimal treatment strategies that account for changing climatic conditions using advanced forest landscape models. This approach, with some refinement and validation, will be useful for informing treatment placement within the next two years.

Why do we need five centers of excellence? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have one center that tracks and evaluates regional modeling efforts and creates best practices for management application?

This is functionally the system we have now. The Fire Research Management and Exchange System (FRAMES) provides a clearinghouse of models developed for fire and vegetation modeling to inform management. FRAMES may be a good interface to help increase manager awareness of the models the five centers will develop, but it is not a mechanism for facilitating the research and development needed to tackle the wildfire problem. We need five centers because there are already a number of efforts under way to develop new fire and vegetation models. None of the models will be perfect because they all take different approaches and there are tradeoffs inherent in any given approach. With simultaneous investment, we will be able to capitalize on the aspects of each model that best simulate a part of the fire spread or vegetation growth process and then develop a system that incorporates the best of each model. Competition within the U.S. scientific enterprise has helped our country achieve high global standing. Funding five centers will shift that competition away from researchers spending much of their time competing for funding and focus it on competing with their best ideas in a way that prepares us for managing wildfire in the future.

Save Lives by Making Smoke Tracking a Core Part of Wildland Fire Management


Toxic smoke from wildland fire spreads far beyond fire-prone areas, killing many times more people than the flames themselves and disrupting the lives of tens of millions of people nationwide. Data infrastructure critical for identifying and minimizing these smoke-related hazards is largely absent from our wildland fire management toolbox. 

Congress and executive branch agencies can and should act to better leverage existing smoke data in the context of wildland fire management and to fill crucial data infrastructure gaps. Such actions will enable smoke management to become a core part of wildland fire management strategy, thereby saving lives.

Challenge and Opportunity

The 2023 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy Addendum describes a vision for the future: “To safely and effectively extinguish fire, when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and collectively, learn to live with wildland fire.” Significant research conducted since the publication of the original Strategy in 2014 indicates that wildfire smoke impacts people across the United States, causing thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of economic losses annually. 

Smoke impacts exceed their corresponding flame impacts and span far greater areas coast to coast. However, wildfire strategy and funding largely focus on flames and their impacts. Smoke mitigation and management should be a high priority for federal agencies considering the 1:1 ratio of economic impacts and 1:30 ratio of fire to smoke deaths.

Some smoke data is already collected, but these datasets can be made more actionable for health considerations and better integrated with other fire-impact data to mitigate risks and save more lives.

Smoke tracking

Several federal programs exist to track wildfire smoke nationwide, but there are gaps in their utility as actionable intelligence for health. For example, the recent “smoke wave” on the East Coast highlighted some of the difficulties with public warning systems. 

Existing wildfire-smoke monitoring and forecast programs include:

The EPA also publishes retrospective smoke emissions totals in the National Emissions Inventory (NEI), but these lack specificity on the downwind locations impacted by the smoke that would be needed to be used for health considerations.

Existing data are excellent, but scientists using the data combine them in non-standardized ways, making interoperability of results difficult. New nationwide authoritative smoke-data tools need to be created—likely by linking existing data and existing methods—and integrated into core wildland fire strategy to save lives.

Smoke health impacts

There is no single, authoritative accounting of wildfire smoke impacts on human health for the public or policymakers to use. Four key gaps in smoke and health infrastructure may explain why such an accounting doesn’t yet exist. 

  1. The U.S. lacks a standardized method for quantifying the health impacts of wildfire smoke, especially mortality, despite recent research progress in this area
  2. The lack of a national smoke concentration dataset hinders national studies of smoke-health impacts because different studies take different approaches
  3. Access to mortality data through the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), managed by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), is slow and difficult for the scientists who seek to use mortality data in epidemiological studies of wildfire smoke. 
  4. Gaps remain in understanding the relative harm of wildfire smoke, which can contain aerosolized hazardous compounds from burned infrastructure, compared to the general air pollution (e.g., from cars and factories) that is often used as analog in health research. 

Addressing these gaps together will enable official wildfire-smoke-attributable death tolls to be publicized and used by decision-makers.

Integration of wildfire smoke into wildland fire management strategy

Interagency collaborations currently set wildland fire management strategy. Three key groups with a mission to facilitate interagency collaboration are the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC). NIFC maintains datasets on wildfire impacts, including basic summary statistics like acres burned, but smoke data are not included in these datasets. Furthermore, while NWCG does have 1 of its 17 committees dedicated to smoke, and has collaborations that include NOAA (who oversees smoke tracking in the Hazard Mapping System), none of the major wildfire collaborations include agencies with expertise in measuring the impacts of smoke, such as the EPA or Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Finally, WFLC has added calls for furthering community smoke-readiness in the recent 2023 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy Addendum, but greater emphasis on smoke is still needed. Better integration of smoke data, smoke-health data, and smoke-expert agencies will enable better consideration of smoke as part of national wildland fire management strategy.

Plan of Action

To make smoke management a core and actionable part of wildland fire management strategy, thereby saving lives, several interrelated actions should be taken.

To enhance decision tools individuals and jurisdictions can use to protect public health, Congress should take action to:

  1. Issue smoke wave alerts nationwide. Fund the National Weather Service (NWS) to develop and issue smoke wave alerts to communities via the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, which is designed for extreme weather alerting. The NWS currently distributes smoke messages defined by state agencies through lower-level alert pathways, but should use the WEA system to increase how many people receive the alerts. Furthermore, a national program, rather than current state-level decisions, would ensure continuity nationwide so all communities have timely warning of potentially deadly smoke disasters. Alerts should follow best practices for alerting to concisely deliver information to a maximum audience, while avoiding alert fatigue.
  2. Create a nationwide smoke concentration dataset. Fund NOAA and/or EPA to create a data inventory of ground-level smoke PM2.5 concentrations by integrating air-monitor data and satellite data, using existing methods as needed. The proposed data stream would provide standardized estimates of smoke concentrations nationwide, and would be a critical precursor for estimating smoke mortality as well as the extent to which smoke is contributing to poor air quality in communities. This action would be enhanced by data from recommendation 4 (below).
  3. Create a smoke mortality dataset. Fund the CDC and/or EPA to create a nationwide data inventory of excess morbidity and mortality attributed  to smoke from wildland fires. An additional enhancement would be to track the smoke health impacts contributed by each source wildfire. Findings should be disseminated in NIFC wildfire impact summaries. This action would be enhanced by data from recommendations 4-5 and research from recommendations 6-8 (below).

The decision-making tools in recommendations 1-3 can be created today based on existing data streams. They should be further enhanced as follows in recommendations 4-10:

To better track locations and concentrations of wildfire smoke, Congress should take action to: 

  1. Install more air-quality sensors. Fund the EPA, which currently monitors ground-level air pollutants and co-oversees the Fire and Smoke Map with the USFS, to establish smoke-monitoring stations in each census tract across the U.S and in other locations as needed to provide all communities with real-time data on wildfire-smoke exposure. 
  2. Create a smoke impact dashboard. The current EPA Fire and Smoke Map shows near-real-time data from regulatory-grade air monitors, commercial-grade air sensors, and satellite data of smoke plumes. An upgraded dashboard would combine that map with data from recommendations 1-3 to give current and historic information about ground-level air quality, the fraction of pollutants due to wildfire smoke, and the expected health impacts. It would also include short-term forecast data, which would be greatly improved with additional modeling capability to incorporate fire behavior and complex terrain.

To better track health impacts of wildfire smoke, Congress should take action to:

  1. Improve researcher access to mortality data. Specifically, direct the CDC to increase epidemiologist access to the National Vital Statistics System. This data system contains the best mortality data for the U.S., so enhancing access will enhance the scientific community’s ability to study the health impacts of wildfire smoke (recommendations 6-8).
  2. Establish wildfire-health research centers. Specifically, fund the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish flagship wildfire-smoke health-research centers to research the health effects of wildfire smoke. Results-dissemination pathways should include through the NIFC to reach a broad wildfire policy audience.
  3. Enhanced health-impact-analysis tools. Direct EPA to evaluate the available epidemiological literature to adopt standardized wildfire-specific concentration-response functions for use in estimating health impacts in their BenMAP-CE tool. Non-wildfire functions are currently used even in the research literature, despite potentially underestimating the health impacts of wildfire smoke

To enhance wildland fire strategy by including smoke impacts, Congress should take action to:

  1. Hire interagency staff. Specifically, fund EPA and CDC to place staff at the main NIFC office and join the NIFC collaboration. This will facilitate collaboration between smoke-expert agencies with agencies focused on other aspects of wildfire.

Support landscape management research. Specifically, direct the USFS, CDC, and EPA to continue researching the public health impacts of different landscape management strategies (e.g., prescribed burns of different frequencies compared to full suppression). Significant existing research, including from the EPA, has investigated these links but still more is needed to better inform policy. Needed research will continue to link different landscape management strategies to probable smoke outputs in different regions, and link the smoke outputs to health impacts. Understanding the whole chain of linkages is crucial to landscape management decisions at the core of a resilient wildland fire management strategy.

Diagram with arrows showing data flow from top to bottom, between the proposed infrastructure, with each shape representing one recommendation. Data flows from the data inputs (top boxes) to actionable tools for decision-making (circles), and finally on to pathways for integrating smoke into wildland fire management strategy (bottom boxes). The three blue shapes are recommendations that can be implemented immediately.

Cost estimates

This proposal is estimated to have a first-year cost of approximately $273 million, and future annual cost of $38 million once equipment is purchased. The total cost of the first year represents less than 4% of current annual wildfire spending (subsequent years would be 0.5% of annual spending), and it would lay the foundation to potentially save thousands of lives each year. Assumptions behind this estimate can be found in the FAQ.

RecommendationCompletion DateAgencies Responsible
1. National smoke alertingASAPNWS
2. Smoke concentration datasetASAPEPA/NOAA
3. Smoke mortality datasetASAPEPA/CDC/NIFC
4. More air-quality sensors5 yearsEPA
5. Smoke impact dashboardASAPNOAA
6. Improved access to mortality data1 year to start, then ongoingCDC
7. Wildfire-health research centers2 years to start; 5-year grantsNIH
8. Enhanced health-impact-analysis tools1 yearEPA
9. Interagency staffingOngoingEPA/CDC/NIFC
10. Landscape-management researchOngoingUSFS/CDC/EPA


In the U.S., more and more people are being exposed to wildfire smoke—27 times more people are experiencing extreme smoke days than a decade ago. The suggested programs are needed to improve the national technical ability to increase smoke-related safety, thereby saving lives and reducing smoke-related public health costs.

Frequently Asked Questions
How long will it take to implement the proposal described in this memo?

Recommendations 1-3 can be completed within approximately 6-12 months because they rely on existing technology. Recommendation 4 requires building physical infrastructure, so it should take 6 months to initiate and several years to complete. Recommendation 5 requires building digital infrastructure from existing tools, so it can be initiated immediately but relies on data from recommendations 2-3 to finalize. Recommendation 6 will require one year of personnel time to complete program review necessary for making changes, then will require ongoing support. Recommendation 7 establishes research centers, which will take 2 years to solicit and select proposals, then 5 years of funding after. Recommendation 8 requires a literature review and can be completed in 1 year. Recommendations 9-10 are ongoing projects that can start within the first year but then will require ongoing support to succeed.

How many people die each year due to wildfire smoke?

The latest estimates indicate that thousands of people die across the United States each year due to wildfire smoke. However, there is no consistent ongoing tracking of smoke-attributable deaths and no centralized authoritative tallies.

For how long after a wildfire does smoke cause deaths?

Many deaths occur during the wildfire itself—wildfire smoke contains small particles (less than 2.5 microns, called PM2.5) that immediately increase the risk of stroke and heart attack. Additional deaths can occur after the fire, due to longer-term complications, much in the same way that smoking increases mortality.

Where are people dying due to wildfire smoke?

Wildfires and wildfire smoke occur across the country, so deaths attributable to these causes do too. Recent research indicates that there are high numbers of deaths attributable to wildfire smoke on the West Coast, but also in Texas and New York, due to long-distance transportation of smoke and the high populations in those states.

How were the cost estimates for this proposal calculated?

One-time costs for recommendations 2, 3, and 8 were estimated in terms of person-years of effort and are additive with their annual costs in the first year. Recommendations 2-3 require a large team to create the initial datasets and then smaller teams to maintain, while recommendation 8 requires only an initial literature review and no maintenance. One person-year is estimated at $150,000 per year, including fringe benefits.

One-time costs for recommendation 4 were calculated in terms of air-quality monitor costs, with one commercial grade sensor ($400) for each of the 84,414 census tracts in the U.S., one sensor comparable to regulatory grade (estimated at $40,000) for each of the 5% most smoke-impacted census tracts, and 15% overhead costs for siting and installation.

Annual costs for recommendations 1-3, 5-6, and 9-10 were estimated in terms of person-years of effort because salary is the main consumable for these projects. One person-year is estimated at $150,000 per year, including fringe benefits.

Annual costs for recommendation 4 were estimated by assuming that 10% of sensors would need replacement per year. These funds can be passed on to jurisdictions, following current maintenance practice of air-quality monitors.

Annual costs for recommendation 7 is for four NIH Research Core Centers (P30 grant type) at their maximum amount of $2.5 million, each, per year.

Cultural Burning: How Age-Old Practices Are Reshaping Wildfire Policy

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.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: Using Effective Communication To Bridge the Gap Between Wildfire Science and Policy

In an environment where fire seasons are turning to fire years, and summer skies across North America are filled with wildfire smoke from as far away as another coast, the need for scientifically accurate wildland fire policy has never been greater.  

Over the past several months, COMPASS Science Communication has been working in collaboration with the Federation of American ScientistsConservation X Labs, and the California Council on Science and Technology to address the gap between science and wildland fire policy. Through FAS’s Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator, COMPASS has been working with its partner organizations to help scientists draft recommendations for the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, a federal commission tasked by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that will report its findings to Congress by the end of 2023.  Throughout the Accelerator process, COMPASS has acted as a capacity-building organization, helping experts from a variety of disciplines hone and focus their messages to speak to the Commission as an audience.  

How did we get here?  

Fire is a natural process that plays a role in many terrestrial ecosystems. However, a century of fire suppression has led to a buildup of organic matter that would otherwise have been burned by naturally-occurring fire. Fire allows ecosystems to recycle nutrients, clear out waste, and prevent high-intensity fires that do more harm than good.  

The buildup of organic matter, or fuel, coupled with a drier, warmer climate and burgeoning development in fire prone landscapes means that when fires start — and they will, either due to human activity, lightning, or even spontaneous combustion when conditions are right — they tend to be larger, more destructive, and faster growing than natural fires in the historical record. The last decade has seen record-setting wildfires across the western United States, with millions of acres burned, thousands of homes destroyed, and hundreds of deaths.  

In the face of this challenge, the Commission has a large task: to offer recommendations to revise federal fire policy, which affects everything from fuel treatment strategies such as prescribed fire or thinning, to public health guidelines around smoke, to aviation policy for aerial firefighting efforts. This challenge, however, comes with a huge opportunity to create lasting change that will foster more equitable and sustainable fire practices.

Communication strategies for scientists

It goes without saying that there’s a communication gap between wildland fire science and policy, and about wildfire writ large. Historically, communication about fire has focused on total wildfire prevention, epitomized by Smokey Bear. Throughout FAS’ Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator process, COMPASS has helped scientists refine their message to bridge that gap, namely through a Message Box training. Within the framework of a federal policy opportunity, understanding how to communicate effectively is crucial — policymakers have limited time, and ensuring that a message is both relevant and trustworthy is at the root of the science communication challenge.  

Understanding the intent of the audience is vital:  the federal wildland fire space is incredibly complex, touching on many different agencies with often-competing jurisdictions.  In order to articulate a compelling, effective message, it must be targeted at the right audience, and be tailored towards what they care about. Is the targeted agency tasked with managing forests for logging and recreation, for promoting public health, or something else entirely? Understanding the nuance of the federal space is vital for pitching an idea, and through the Accelerator, scientists have had an opportunity to work with policy experts to better understand how their research can be most effectively applied.

Leading with the message is key: the classic bottom-up approach to writing often used in scientific publications doesn’t always work, especially when communicating with outcome-driven policymakers. The study design and research context is not necessarily the place to start in a 400 word policy recommendation — what’s the “what,” how does it address the challenge at hand, and why should this route be taken? These questions are the basis of policy-driven science communication, and the Message Box addresses them head-on.  

Developing a Science Message

In COMPASS trainings, scientists have the opportunity to workshop their ideas and apply them with specific communication tools. In the specific case of the Wildland Fire Accelerator, COMPASS offered a Message Box training for experts whose work ranged from implementation of aerial data collection, to Indigenous cultural burning, to fire modeling.  

The Message Box is a tool used to present an idea in a focused, audience-relevant way, and Dr. Meg Krawchuk, who leads the Landscape Fire and Conservation Science Research Group at Oregon State University, was kind enough to share hers. Dr. Krawchuk is a fire ecologist who specializes in forest disturbance, the spatial distribution of fire, and cultural and land management decisions. Her message box addresses a key, simple issue: that science and forest and wildland fire management are often disconnected from one another, leading to a failure to integrate the most up-to-date science and data with on-the-ground efforts. Identifying the issue at the heart of the message box, Dr. Krawchuk explains succinctly that there’s a gap between wildfire and its implementation.  The benefit is clearly linked to the solution: there’s already federal momentum to connect science delivery to forest managers to develop effective forest prescriptions, and the solution is to expand funding and support so scientists and forest managers have more opportunities for collaboration.  

In breaking down her work into chunks, Dr. Krawchuk’s work becomes much easier to craft into a recommendation further on down the line. By iterating on her message box through successive drafts and consultation with policy and communications experts, Dr. Krawchuk distilled her message into an actionable policy recommendation, summarized below:   

To read the full recommendation please visit FAS’ Wildland Fire Recommendations. Dr. Krawchuk’s recommendation is located under the “Science, Data, and Technology” heading.

Upon the publication of the expert recommendations, it’s easy to see how Dr. Krawchuk’s individualized, specific suggestions for the federal government fit into the overarching theme of her message box. The message box defines the overarching point of her facet of the issue, while the individualized recommendations are much more specific, with a clear focus on objectives and implementation for targeted audiences:  Congress, the USGS, and the USFS.  

Wildfire science is complex, with broad implications for the environment and society. In providing scientists with the tools to communicate their work and reach the right audience, COMPASS and its partners in the Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator — FAS, Conservation X Labs, and CCST —  are working to make sure that science can inform policies that need to change to help us adapt to a shifting planet. 

Wildland Fire Policy Recommendations

Fire is a natural and normal ecological process, but today’s fires have grown in intensity and cost, causing more destruction to people and property. A changing climate and our outdated policy responses are amplifying these negative effects.

The federal government has many responsibilities for wildland fire management in the United States. Federal entities manage public lands where prescribed burns and wildfires occur, support wildfire response, and conduct research into fire’s impacts. Recognizing that this work will only grow, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law authorized the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission to develop and deliver a comprehensive set of new policy recommendations to Congress focused on how to “better prevent, manage, suppress, and recover from wildfires.”

About the Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator

In response to the Commission’s call for input, the Federation of American Scientists launched a Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator to source and develop actionable policy ideas aimed at improving how we live with fire. This effort is in partnership with COMPASS, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), and Conservation X Labs, who bring deep expertise in the accelerator topics and connections to interested communities.

Participants come from academia, the private sector, nonprofits, and national labs, and bring expertise across fire ecology, forestry, modeling, climate change, fire intelligence, cultural burning, and more. The Accelerator followed the approach of the FAS Day One Project to provide structured training, support, and policy expert feedback over several months to help participants refine their policy ideas. In the Accelerator’s second phase, a subset of these contributors will publish full memos on FAS’s website with more information about their policy recommendations.

Table of Contents

Landscapes and Communities

Create Federal Indemnity Fund to cover accidental damages from cultural and prescribed fire

Chris Adlam, PhD, Oregon State University

For millennia, the forests of the West were fundamentally shaped by Tribal use of fire, with different Tribes employing unique cultural fire traditions. Unfortunately, Indigenous Cultural Fire Practitioners are now dissuaded from treating both private and public forests with cultural burns because they fear being held liable for the cost of damages in the rare cases in which cultural fires accidentally escape their planned bounds. To allow Cultural Fire Practitioners to work to restore our forests, the federal government must protect them from being held personally liable for the risks of the public service that they are performing. Similar programs are being proposed for prescribed fire; cultural burning should be equally protected and benefited by any Fund that is created.

Congress should establish and fund a Federal Cultural and Prescribed Burning Indemnity Fund to encourage wildfire prevention initiatives and to protect both fire practitioners and landowners from losses incurred from responsibly conducted cultural or prescribed burns that spread beyond their intended range.

Prescribed and cultural burning, in tandem with other treatments, are needed to reduce fuel loads and restore the health of forests that are relied upon for recreation, industry, and drinking water. Fuel treatment is also essential to reducing the cost of catastrophic wildfires, which cost the United States an estimated $14.5 billion dollars in damages and emergency response efforts from 2021 to 2022.

Across the country, prescribed burns have empirically been overwhelmingly safe. According to Chief Randy Moore of the US Forest Service, over 99.84% of prescribed fires on USFS land occur as planned. In a separate review of prescribed burns in the Southern Great Plains, researchers found similar findings that less than 1% of prescribed burns escape. Similar studies have not been conducted to analyze the empirical safety cultural burns, but surveys of relevant research did not uncover an example of an escaped cultural burn. However, the fact that risk cannot be completely eliminated weighs on practitioners and decision-makers, restricting their use of controlled burning. In the event that damages result from a burn, the Fund would seek to minimize the disruption caused by these damages by ensuring that all affected parties would be quickly and fully compensated. By creating this funding structure, landowners would no longer be dependent on individual acts of Congress to receive compensation, as victims of the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire did.

In the past year, states have begun to create similar funds after observing the need to support fire practitioners. California recently created the Prescribed Fire Claims Fund and funded it with $20 million. However, a federal fund is needed to provide coverage on a larger scale, with a scope and financial scale that is not possible for individual states.


To ensure that Cultural Fire Practitioners across the nation are covered, Congress should consider the following actions: 

We recommend that Congress consider FEMA as the primary administrator of the Fund because it administers Fire Prevention and Safety (FP&S) Grants, which are part of the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program, and because of its post-fire disaster assistance mission. The USDA Forest Service or the Department of the Interior are other potential administrators of the Fund. To encourage state investment, the Fund could require matching funds from states after a certain amount. 

The Fund could be paired with the development of regionally specific definitions of ‘Cultural Fire Practitioner.’ These definitions of Cultural Fire Practitioners should be developed in processes led by Tribal Nations and organizations. Care should also be taken to ensure that Cultural Fire Practitioners can access the Fund without being subject to undue requirements while burning – requirements that detract from their cultural traditions or add an unmanageable regulatory burden to their work.

To further protect Cultural Fire Practitioners as they carry out vital public services, Congress could also provide Cultural Fire Practitioners with coverage under the Federal Torts Claims Act, similarly to how Tribal contractors, employees, and volunteers are classified as federal employees for the purpose of FTCA coverage. In the past, Tribal medical or law enforcement personnel have received coverage after taking over programs previously administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As policy reforms allow Tribal Cultural Fire Practitioners to practice cultural burns with less interference from the BIA, FTCA coverage would become increasingly beneficial and necessary.

By creating this Fund, Congress would support fire practitioners working on the frontlines of the crisis and the communities most threatened by fire.

Directly fund Tribes to create and implement land stewardship initiatives

Nina Fontana, PhD, University of California, Davis

Across the United States, Tribal nations and organizations have the knowledge and will to lead cultural and prescribed burns. Unfortunately, they are consistently limited by (a) insufficient funds, and (b) burdensome regulatory requirements that often prove overly burdensome to comply with. These two issues are connected. Tribal practitioners are often unable to obtain federal grants for land stewardship purposes because they do not have the capacity to find and apply for them, to compete with state agencies and organizations in the application process, and to comply with the grant requirements, which can conflict with Cultural Fire traditions in fundamental ways.

Congress should appropriate discretionary funds directly to Tribal nations and Tribally-led organizations for fire hazard reduction in order to decrease the administrative capacity needed for Tribes to compete for grants. The funds will be dispersed by regional Tribal liaisons, who will gather and utilize input from local actors to direct grants.

Tribal governments and organizations require direct grant funding to exercise their sovereignty in a rightfully unencumbered manner. When Tribal governments and organizations are provided with adequate funding and are able to direct its usage, Cultural Fire Practitioners (CFPs) are able to design cultural fire projects that fit their unique traditions and local plant communities contained within their lands. In addition, by giving Tribes greater discretion over funds, the federal government would a) decrease the regulatory burden on Tribes, and b) provide greater recognition of cultural burning as a uniquely valuable form of land restoration and place-based knowledge, instead of categorizing the practice as an often-overlooked subset of prescribed burning.

Most importantly, direct funding would allow Tribal governments and organizations to shift crucial capacity away from time-intensive administrative tasks and towards stewarding their ancestral lands. Tribes could expand their fire practitioner workforce, treat larger areas of land, and better conserve important natural and cultural resources.


We recommend that Congress: 

By drawing upon the expertise of communities and Cultural Fire Practitioners, the Tribal liaisons would be able to target funds to groups and landscapes that have the greatest need, ensuring that federal resources are utilized in an effective manner each year.

It is time for the federal government to recognize the deep expertise of Tribes in fire management. By giving Tribes greater influence in determining the use of funds for preventative and mitigative activities, Congress would bring funding structures in line with the rightful sovereignty of Tribes, and it would protect communities and natural resources across the country by clearing the path for more beneficial fire.

Create a categorical exclusion in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for Cultural Burning

Nina Fontana, PhD, University of California, Davis; Chris Adlam, PhD, Oregon State University

One of the original stated purposes of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 is “to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man.” Cultural and prescribed burning directly contribute to this goal. Unfortunately, current interpretations of NEPA require Cultural Fire Practitioners (CFPs) to undertake onerous Environmental Impact Statements before burns on federal or Tribal trust lands, which often prevent Tribes from even attempting to burn in these locations. Because Tribal lands are held in trust by the federal government, CFPs must also comply with NEPA regulations that were designed to govern federal actions. This arrangement limits Tribal sovereignty and imposes an undue burden.

To bring the implementation of NEPA in line with its purpose, NEPA should recognize cultural burning as part of the background condition of our natural environment here in the United States. Tribes have utilized these cultural burning practices for centuries, even millenia, to manage the fire-prone landscapes within the United States, including taking measures to protect ancient wildland urban interfaces in the Southwest. Through this long history, cultural burning has fundamentally influenced what we consider to be our human environment today. For that reason, cultural burning should be classified as a categorical exclusion.

Current guidelines on implementing NEPA include a categorical exclusion for “Prescribed burning to reduce natural fuel build-up and improve plant vigor,” as long as the project does not require the use of herbicides or over 1 mile of low standard road construction (DOE NEPA Guidelines). Additionally, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act categorically excluded “establishing and maintaining linear fuel breaks” for the purpose of wildfire risk mitigation under specific circumstances. 

The following recommendations represent several pathways for Congress to encourage cultural burning. By implementing one or all of these measures, Congress would begin the process of recognizing burning as a sovereign right for Tribes (similar to hunting and plant gathering) and therefore exempt from permitting. 


To these ends, Congress should consider: 

By carrying out these recommendations, Congress would bring the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act in line with its original purpose and create positive impacts on the ground for communities across the nation.

Legally define “Cultural Fire Practitioner” and “Cultural Fire” to encourage Cultural Burning

Raymond Gutteriez, Member of Wuksachi Band of Mono Indians

Cultural Fire Practitioners (CFP) have the knowledge, experience, and willingness to help lead the restoration of more sustainable fire regimes to their ancestral homelands. However, they are currently dissuaded from carrying out cultural burns for a variety of reasons including fear of liability, burdensome regulations, burn bans, and resource constraints. In addition, Cultural Fire Practitioners receive limited support from the federal government for their important work.

As an important first step in encouraging cultural fire, Congress should direct the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of the Interior (DOI) to develop regionally-specific definitions of ‘cultural fire’ and ‘Cultural Fire Practitioner’ through a process led by Tribal governments.

Currently, the federal government does not adequately recognize cultural fire, despite its deep-rooted traditional significance for Tribal Nations and its potential benefits for forest and wildfire management across the country. Because of this lack of recognition and other barriers, many CFPs have not been able to carry out their cultural fire traditions. Those that have continued to implement cultural fire have had to operate with minimal federal support and with higher personal risk. In addition, they have been forced to significantly alter their traditions and practices to fit existing legal processes and definitions that were designed for prescribed burns. These factors have combined to make cultural burning prohibitively difficult to implement on federal, tribal, and state lands. 


In order to provide the proper legal framework needed to enable and support cultural burning, Congress should:

These definitions will create a legal foundation that can be used to expand the role of cultural burners and ease restrictions, in a manner similar to that of California’s own legislation defining cultural burning (CA SB 332; CA SB 926; CA AB 642). In tandem with adopting a formal definition, California implemented a gross negligence standard that limited the financial liability of CFP who take appropriate precautions before a fire. 

Federal agencies can explore opportunities to use the definitions to support cultural burning. For example, federally recognized CFPs could be provided with exemptions from having to obtain formal National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) qualifications and/or from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental assessment process. The federal government could also support creation of an easily accessible federal indemnity fund that provides support to cultural burners.

By codifying these definitions, the federal government would take a key step in elevating the visibility and status of Cultural Fire Practitioners as key partners in land stewardship and wildfire risk reduction and management.

Expand the scope and funding of the Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004

Raymond Gutteriez, Member of Wuksachi Band of Mono Indians

Under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Tribal Forest Protection Act (TFPA) of 2004, Tribes are able to propose and execute projects (called 638 projects) on USFS-managed and BIA-managed land which (i) borders or is adjacent to Indian trust land, and (ii) poses a fire, disease, or other threat to Tribal forest or rangeland or that otherwise requires land restoration activities. Unfortunately, 638 projects are rarely proposed or implemented due in large part to lack of funding and its limited scope of only including tribes that possess land adjacent to federally managed lands.

Congress should appropriate dedicated funding for ‘638’ projects and expand the range of the TFPA to include the ancestral homelands of Tribal Nations.

The aforementioned 638 law was enacted to promote “maximum Indian participation in the Government,” but it fails at this goal in its current form. The initiative has been hampered by the fact that “no specific funding was appropriated or authorized for 638” projects (USFS). Instead, funding is expected to be obtained from other sources of funds for activities on federal lands, which often require prohibitive amounts of administrative burdens for Tribes to compete for and obtain. Additionally, many Tribes are ineligible to participate in 638 projects because they do not possess lands that are adjacent to national forests, even though those national forest lands are part of their ancestral homelands. 


We recommend that Congress consider: 

In addition, these changes can be paired with other efforts to expand Tribal authority and ability to plan, implement, and review prescribed and cultural burns on federal lands.

Reduce federal subsidies for development that might exacerbate fire risk

Max Moritz, Adjunct Professor, UC Santa Barbara

Federal spending on wildfire suppression has ballooned in the past four decades. Despite these efforts, property damage due to wildfire continues to escalate, devastating communities and robbing tens of thousands of people of treasured homes, businesses, and gathering places. 

This is in part because more and more Americans are living and working adjacent to wildlands, where they are more vulnerable to wildfire impacts. In 2020, 4.5 million homes were located in areas of “high or extreme wildfire risk.” To make matters worse, fires on state, local, and private land have doubled in size (on average) since 1991. While decisions about land use and urban planning are made locally, there are important opportunities for crucial guidance at the federal level to help mitigate harm to communities. 

Congress should direct agencies to determine to what extent and through what mechanisms federal dollars are subsidizing development in a manner that perpetuates fire risk.

Where and how we build our communities can influence fire probabilities in the broader region surrounding a particular development, crossing administrative boundaries and even state lines. 

Money from federal agencies supports development of homes and related infrastructure. Failing to identify and address when and how federal funds may be subsidizing development in wildfire hazard risk areas will continue to exacerbate social and economic losses.

The federal government should investigate to what extent and through which programs it is subsidizing development in a manner that exacerbates fire risk. Using this information, Congress and agencies can take action through existing mechanisms to support local and regional planning that is both fire-resilient and equitable. 


Congress should: 

Using this information, Congress can consider whether it would be appropriate to take one or more of the following actions: 

Should the federal government choose to take action on any of the recommendations above, there are important considerations Congress and agencies must keep in mind.

Public Health and Infrastructure

Make smoke management a core goal of wildland fire management 

Alistair Hayden, Assistant Professor of Practice, Department of Public & Ecosystem Health, Cornell University 

Toxic smoke from wildland fire spreads far beyond fire-prone areas, killing many times more people than the flames themselves and disrupting the lives of tens of millions of people. Despite this, wildfire smoke is often reported and managed separately from other wildfire impacts. 

Congress should establish smoke management as a core goal of wildland fire management and create institutional capacity to achieve that goal. 

The 2014 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy describes a vision for the century: “To safely and effectively extinguish fire, when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a Nation, live with wildland fire.” Significant research conducted since the publication of the Strategy indicates that wildfire smoke impacts people across the United States, causing 10,000 deaths and billions of dollars of economic losses annually. Smoke impacts exceed their corresponding flame impacts; yet, wildfire strategy and funding largely focus on flames and their impacts. 

In order to ensure that all impacts of wildland fire, including smoke, are addressed efficiently and comprehensively, Congress should take actions that establish wildfire smoke management as a core goal of wildfire management. 

To ensure that wildland fire smoke is considered as a core wildland fire hazard, Congress should consider amending relevant legislation to specifically account for smoke. 

For example, Congress could: 

Current interagency wildfire leadership groups occasionally consider smoke in the context of wildland fire impacts and management. To ensure wildfire strategy discussions always include modern smoke-management considerations, these groups should include agencies with expertise on smoke data and impacts (e.g., Environmental Protection Agency, Center for Disease Control, National Aeronautics and Space Administration). 

Congress should therefore:

  1. Amend the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Sec. 70203(b) and the FLAME Act Sec. 3 to include smoke-expert agencies in development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.
  2. Pass new policy adding smoke-expert agencies to wildfire-policy collaborations, including the National Interagency Fire Center, National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council. 

To succeed, Congress should also allocate funding for smoke management programs described in companion suggestions (here and here). 

Foster smoke-ready communities to save lives and money 

Alistair Hayden, Assistant Professor of Practice, Department of Public & Ecosystem Health, Cornell University 

In the US, more and more people are being exposed to wildfire smoke—27 times more people experienced extreme smoke days than a decade ago. Wildfire smoke poses higher risks to outdoor workers, unhoused individuals, children, older adults, and people with diabetes or heart disease. 

The federal government can equitably save lives and money by helping communities prepare for, identify, and respond to smoke events. 


Congress should designate some of the annual $6+ billion in wildfire management to create funding for households and public spaces to improve indoor air-quality during heavy smoke.

To help communities prepare for smoke events

To ensure communities are able to identify potentially deadly smoke events, Congress should:

To provide communities with support needed to act during smoke events, Congress should:

Build data infrastructure to support decision making based on smoke hazards

Alistair Hayden, Assistant Professor of Practice, Cornell University; Teresa Feo, Senior Science Officer, California Council on Science and Technology

National spending on fire suppression exceeds $4 billion in the fiscal year 2023 funding bill, while less than $10 million is allocated for smoke management. This 600:1 funding ratio for fire compared to smoke is misaligned to the 1:1 ratio of economic impacts and 1:100 ratio of fire to smoke deaths.

Data infrastructure critical for minimizing these smoke-related hazards is largely absent from our firefighting arsenal. 

Congress should take action to better leverage existing smoke data in the context of wildland fire management and fill crucial data infrastructure gaps to enable smoke management as a core part of wildland fire management.

Some smoke data is already collected, including smoke forecasts for active fires from the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and retrospective smoke emissions totals from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the National Emissions Inventory (NEI). However, these smoke impacts are considered separately from flame impacts (e.g., structures burned), and are left out of broader wildfire strategy. New authoritative realtime smoke-data tools need to be created and integrated into wildfire management strategy.


To better track health impacts of wildfire smoke, Congress should: 

To better integrate smoke data with other fire data, Congress should:

To enable the consideration of smoke-related health impacts in wildland fire management, Congress should:

The suggested additions would improve national technical ability to increase smoke-related safety, thereby saving lives and reducing smoke-related public health costs. 

Support strategic deployment of community resilience hubs to mitigate smoke impacts and other hazards 

Lee Ann Hill, Director of Energy and Health, PSE Healthy Energy

Exposure to wildfire smoke can have severe impacts on human health, including higher risk of respiratory problems, heart attack, stroke, and premature death. One tool communities can use to build resilience to smoke and other hazards that threaten human health are resilience hubs.  Resilience hubs are indoor community spaces designed to address overall community vulnerability and to foster public safety, security, and wellbeing. Resilience hubs can also support communities amid emergencies, including smoke emergencies, by providing access to clean indoor air. 

The federal government can foster holistic community resilience to wildfire smoke impacts and other hazards by supporting the development of community resilience hubs.

Public health guidance and climate adaptation policies should account for the reality that many communities will be exposed to multiple hazards, sometimes concurrently. Rather than address specific exposures (e.g., wildfire smoke or extreme heat) in isolation, policymakers should consider mitigation approaches that will build capacity to prepare for and withstand multiple hazards, including those associated with 1) mitigation strategies (e.g., prescribed fire smoke), 2) extreme weather events (e.g., smoke, extreme heat) and natural disasters, and 3) power outages. Policymakers can prioritize policy interventions that reduce harmful smoke exposures while also expanding broader community resilience to maximize the human health benefit of every dollar spent. 

Community resilience hubs equipped with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning and powered by distributed clean energy resources can reduce harmful smoke exposures while expanding broader community resilience amid extreme weather events, natural disasters, and grid outages. Local governments across the United States and Canada have established resilience hubs focused on disaster and emergency response; pilot efforts to build resilience more holistically are underway in Baltimore, Maryland and Northern California

The proposed Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act of 2021 focuses on wildfire smoke more singularly, including provision of “resources for establishing smoke shelters, air purifiers, and additional air monitoring sites” upon each declaration of a smoke emergency. Federal efforts to reduce the human health cost of wildfire smoke should consider how investment can effectively mitigate multiple hazard exposures, reducing inefficiencies stemming from focusing singularly on wildfire smoke alone and redeploying resources during each emergency smoke declaration. While evidence suggests that resilience hubs are most effective when they are community-led, the federal government can support the proliferation of these tools of community resilience in a multi-hazard environment. 

To support these efforts, Congress can take the following steps:

Resilience hubs can reduce hazard exposures and strengthen community-level resilience to provide support during extreme weather events, natural disasters, and grid outages. Resources to support interagency coordination, distributed energy resource deployment, and data collection efforts can bolster and inform future and ongoing resilience hub planning and implementation efforts. 

Consider modifying the Clean Air Act to incentivize increased use of beneficial fire

Alistair Hayden, Assistant Professor of Practice, Department of Public & Ecosystem Health, Cornell University; Susan Prichard, Research Scientist, University of Washington 

Recent wildfires have spewed so much toxic smoke across the country that decades of life-saving air-quality improvement under the Clean Air Act (CAA) have been reversed in many states. The CAA unintentionally aids this reverse by disincentivizing the use of beneficial fire at scales needed to mitigate catastrophic wildfires. Congress should modify the CAA to instead incentivize beneficial fire–prescribed burns, cultural burning, and managed wildfire—to support use at scales needed to mitigate unmanaged wildfires.

Though beneficial fire produces smoke, it is the most effective means to reduce overall smoke output because it mitigates unmanaged wildfires. Proactive application of beneficial fire is planned under specific weather and fuel conditions to minimize impacts to communities, while unmanaged wildfires are unplanned events that often burn under extreme conditions, frequently with significant smoke lasting for weeks. 

The CAA aims to save lives and money by reducing air pollution, including wildfire smoke, but it currently discourages the beneficial fire that minimizes overall smoke output. Days with smoke from unplanned wildfires often qualify as “exceptional events” that CAA excludes from a jurisdiction’s pollution limits. In contrast, beneficial fires rarely qualify, so their smoke can make a jurisdiction exceed its pollution limits. Jurisdictions therefore restrict beneficial fire to achieve pollution limits, unintentionally preventing fire use at the needed scale. Current CAA policy therefore shifts smoke emissions from beneficial fires to unplanned wildfires, which disproportionately contribute to hazardous smoke impacts. 

To incentivize more beneficial fire while leaving intact other life-saving provisions of the CAA, Congress should:

Policy encouraging beneficial fire supports choosing when and where smoke happens, reducing the frequency of even more dangerous unplanned fires and the overall smoke hazard. The CAA should incentivize beneficial fire; doing so will save lives and money by reducing air pollution—exactly its intended function.

Science, Data, and Technology

Save lives, properties, and ecosystems with real-time actionable fire intelligence

Tim Ball, Fireball Information Technologies; Carlton Pennypacker; University of California, Berkeley; Harry Statter, Frontline Wildfire Defense

The authors are part of a research group, FUEGO, that designed a satellite to bridge the intelligence gap described in this proposal.

Securing our lives, communities, and ecosystems in the face of more intense fires and a swelling Wildland-Urban Interface requires that governments and citizens work together using the most reliable sources of intelligence. Emergency management agencies, firefighters, public utilities, and the public need real-time understanding of when fires start, where fires are located, how their intensity is changing, and where they are spreading.

The National Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (NWCG) has recognized this is a serious unmet intelligence need. Creating an uninterrupted, high cadence, and low latency capability to map fire activity will support response in real time at local and national scales. The intelligence need is even more urgent for fast-spreading fires or those that are difficult to observe, either because aircrafts are unavailable or cannot operate in the local conditions. This challenge can be met with new, cost-effective means of gathering data and disseminating intelligence.

The US Fire Administration and USGS should lead in establishing a public-private-university-nonprofit partnership to collect, combine, and disseminate actionable information on fire activity for the benefit of firefighters and the public. A key piece of the intelligence system is a new geostationary satellite launched and maintained by the appropriate federal agencies.


Lack of intelligence in the first 90 minutes of the 2018 Camp Fire thwarted the wildfire evacuation plan that had been practiced by the town of Paradise, California. Because of the time of the fire, the aircraft that would have normally been used to gather intelligence was unstaffed and no alternative sources of intelligence were available. Mandatory evacuation of the town began only after the fire was well established in the town. The speed of the Camp Fire, the intelligence challenges, and the problems with evacuation are not unique.

Current satellites used to monitor wildland fires collect infrequent and low-resolution images that are not useful for actionable intelligence. A new geostationary (GEO) satellite constantly watching North America could detect a brush fire the size of a semi-truck and pinpoint its location to within 50 yards. Aircraft and satellites in low-Earth orbit are still required to collect higher resolution data, particularly for smaller and slower-moving fires. Points of critical consequence found at GEO can be investigated further by a low-Earth satellite, then coordinates of interest can be passed to aircraft pilots. The technical details of existing satellites for wildland fire management are compared to a GEO satellite in the appendix.

The intelligence gathered by a new GEO satellite should be merged with other sources to form an integrated intelligence system. This requires coordination, likely through a public-private-university-nonprofit partnership to enable collection, fusion, and dissemination of actionable intelligence, but the keystone of this system must be the GEO satellite. Further, collecting new data across spatial resolutions and time scales would contribute significantly to fire science, fire modeling efforts, and evaluation of fire mitigation efforts.



The authors are part of a research group, FUEGO, that designed a satellite to bridge this intelligence gap described here. The following table compares the technical parameters of this system with satellites currently used for fire management.

Minimum Detectable Fire2 to 2 Megawatts35 Megawatts7 Megawatts
Persistence (Seconds between images of the same place on Earth)20 seconds60 seconds43000 seconds
Spatial Resolution Ground Sample Distance (Meters)2902200375
Ability to locate a point source within a pixel1/10th pixelnonenone
Data Latency90 seconds300 seconds12000 seconds

Advance the predictive science of fire ecology and forest resilience

Winslow Hansen, Forest Ecologist, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

Forest area burned and fire severity are increasing in some forest types in the U.S. Fire suppression, which allows vegetation to accumulate and consequently fuel larger fires, and climate change are contributing to this growing problem. Unprecedented resources are becoming available to address the fire crisis, but the landscape of fire and forest management remains fragmented. Managers and policy makers are being asked to balance competing demands of human safety, fuels management, air quality, biodiversity conservation, and carbon sequestration in the face of tremendous scientific uncertainty about where, when, how, and why ecosystems and fire regimes will change. How can we manage a system when we do not understand how it functions? 

Congress should support an ambitious research collaborative to ensure the predictive science of fire ecology and forest resilience rapidly advances in time to support management and policy that addresses the fire crisis.

Recognizing the severity of the fire crisis, Congress allocated $5 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for “forest management, planning, and restoration” activities, including hazardous fuels treatments. While unprecedented, the investment is sufficient to mechanically treat only a small portion of western forests. This means managers need to be strategic in implementation of fuels treatments and able to track their efficacy. No investor would commit funds to an endeavor where they could not quantitatively evaluate gains and losses. The same is true for investing in strategies to address the fire crisis. 

The consequences of today’s management decisions will accrue over decades, the temporal scale on which forests and fire regimes change. To track progress toward more resilient forests, less catastrophic fire, and safer human communities, we need tools to determine in near real time where, when, and how forests are changing. We also need ways to evaluate the efficacy of fuels treatments for fostering more resilient forests and less catastrophic fire. Real time forest and fire tracking must also seamlessly feed into long-term models that help us project how today’s decisions may influence outcomes for decades to come. Such an integrated monitoring and projection system does not exist, but is vitally necessary for decision making. A fire ecology and forest resilience science collaborative could develop such a tool.


We recommend that Congress:

We recommend that the USDA Forest Service and Department of Interior:

We anticipate that the collaborative would cost about 100 million dollars over ten years. This funding would support a network of 20 scientific teams across the country and a lead center of excellence that provides synthesis, coordination, amplification, and management. Leaders of this effort should consider ongoing research efforts in relevant disciplines, collaborating where appropriate to ensure efforts are not duplicated. 

NSF is the right agency to administer the collaborative because of their deep expertise in funding basic and applied research and because of their success in ambitious large-scale initiatives such as the Long-term Ecological Research Network and the National Ecological Observatory Network. NSF has also recently made investments in fire research. Our proposal builds off this momentum. Partnerships with USDA Forest Service, DOI, and Joint Fire Science Program would strengthen the connections between the science conducted and manager needs. If launched, the science collaborative would provide managers and policy makers with tools to plan strategies and track the efficacy of federal investment in proactive fire and forest management, based on state-of-the-art modeling and remote sensing, and underpinned by strong foundational science. 

Develop next-generation fire and vegetation models for a changing climate 

Matthew Hurteau, University of New Mexico 

Wildfires are burning in ways that surprise seasoned firefighters, and current models are failing to predict evolving fire behavior. Due in part to climate change, existing models cannot reproduce recent catastrophic wildfires. This means existing fire and vegetation models are likely to fail at predicting future wildfires or when it is safe to light prescribed fires, challenging our capacity to effectively suppress wildfires or mitigate their impacts. 

Congress should establish and fund centers of excellence to develop, maintain, and operate next-generation fire and vegetation models that support wildland fire planning and management.

Climate change is expanding what is flammable. For example, the 2020 Creek Fire in California burned through forests that had already been weakened by beetle infestations and drought, and burned with such intensity that current operational fire models could not reproduce the event. Ongoing climate change made this extreme fire behavior possible. 

The wildfire research community has demonstrated it can respond to problem-based research needs as evidenced by the successful Joint Fire Science Program and the National Science Foundation funding of Centers of Excellence (CoE). CoE’s have been created in a variety of topic areas and have demonstrated that supporting hubs of expertise to address specific research areas leads to positive outcomes. Developing five regional CoEs will a) facilitate research collaboration across disciplines, institutions, and regions, and b) provide regional service centers which will develop and run models focused on near and mid-term dynamics at local and event (e.g. treatment unit, wildfire) scales that support land management planning and decision-making. A cross-CoE leadership team will ensure that research and development activities are complementary.

We recommend that Congress:

One path forward for this approach could be a pilot initiated at a single institution with collaborators in each of the five regions, with the opportunity to expand to five regional centers as research questions evolve and collaboration mechanisms are refined. 

Establishing five CoEs to develop, maintain, and operate next-generation models will cost approximately $25 million per year, which is less than 1% of the 2021 federal wildfire suppression expenditure. The Centers could be established and funded using directed funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF) in partnership with the Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP). NSF is well-positioned to lead this effort given prior investments in wildland fire prediction and management as well as research collaborations in the space.  

Managing fuels effectively to prevent future catastrophic events requires developing models that account for the new climatic conditions fire managers face, and will allow us to make wildfire management more predictable.

Expand capacity for effective collaboration between scientists and resource managers to inform forest management

Meg Krawchuk, Associate Professor, Oregon State University 

For years, the federal government has recognized the importance of scientists and decision-makers working together to solve complex wildland fire management problems. While many successful federal programs support such collaborations, institutional barriers still stand in the way of many fruitful science coproduction and communication efforts in wildland fire management.  

The federal government should expand financial and institutional support for co-production of wildland fire science and science communication to help natural resource managers make evidence-based decisions in the context of the wildfire crisis. 

According to USGS, coproduction of science projects “focus on scientists and resource managers working closely together to produce actionable products that are used to inform natural resource management decisions.” More broadly, science communication work at the project and program level can enhance the reach and relevance of coproduced science and distill literature for decision-making applications. These approaches have been championed in the field of wildland fire science and land management for years by land management agencies (including the USGS Climate Adaptation Science Centers and US Forest Service) and funding agencies (including the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) and National Science Foundation). 

However, both researchers and natural resource managers report that funding, capacity, and institutional barriers inhibit coproduced science efforts in wildland fire. For example, financial support and incentive structures (e.g., performance evaluation criteria, awards, and professional recognition) are often insufficient to support scientists in conducting longer-term collaborative, relationship-building work that can extend the reach and impact of co-produced science. Furthermore, program staff in agencies (where they exist) may lack bandwidth necessary to effectively distill large quantities of journal articles into the core “so what” conclusions needed by land management practitioners to integrate the most recent science with existing management strategies. 

Addressing these gaps in coproduction and broader science communication support is crucial to maximizing the potential of scientific research to inform pressing forest management problems and capitalizing on successful investments in coproduction projects. More robust support for coproduction and communication in the wildland fire space will equip agencies to ensure that decision-makers have access to the “best available science” and can fulfill goals outlined in federal initiatives including the USFS 10-year Wildfire Crisis Strategy, the Inflation Reduction Act, the Administration’s “Year of Evidence for Action,” and the “Year of Open Science.”  

Specifically, Congress should: 

Specifically, the Department of Interior US Geological Survey (USGS) and US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (USFS) should:

These investments would total less than the current price tag of existing coproduction work but extend the reach and impact of initial investments. 

Launch an Open Disaster Data Initiative to bolster whole-of-nation resilience from wildfires and related hazards

Shefali Juneja Lakhina, Wonder Labs

Federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies collect and maintain a range of disaster vulnerability, damage, and loss data. However, this valuable data currently lives on different platforms and in various formats across agency silos, making it difficult to augment whole-of-nation preparedness, response, and recovery from a range of natural hazards, including wildfires, smoke, drought, extreme heat, flooding, and debris flow. 

The Biden-Harris Administration should launch an Open Disaster Data Initiative that mandates federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies to systematically collect, share, monitor, and report on disaster vulnerability, damage, and loss data, in formats that are consistent and interoperable. 

In the past decade, several bipartisan research, data, and policy reviews have reiterated the need to develop national standards for the consistent collection and reporting of damage and loss data. Recent disaster and wildfire research data platforms and standards provide precedence and show how investing in data standards and interoperability can enable inclusive, equitable, and just disaster preparedness, response, and recovery outcomes.

The Open Disaster Data Initiative will enable longitudinal monitoring of pre- and post- event data for multiple hazards resulting in a better understanding of cascading climate impacts. Guided by the Open Government Initiative (2016), the Fifth National Action Plan (2022), and in the context of the Year of Open Science (2023), the Open Disaster Data Initiative will lead to greater accountability in how federal, state, and local governments prioritize funding, especially to marginalized communities. 


We recommend the White House and Congress, where appropriate, take the following actions: 

  1. Appoint a White-House level staff position in the Office of Science Technology and Policy to establish the Open Disaster Data Initiative with the participation of all relevant federal agencies currently engaged in the management of hydro-meteorological and hydro-geological hazards including drought, extreme heat, wildfires, smoke, flooding, and landslides.   
  2. Issue an  Executive Order to  promote the development and adoption of national standards for disaster vulnerability, damage, and loss data collection, sharing, and reporting, by all relevant federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies, as well as by universities, non-profits, and the private sector.  
  3. Designate  FEMA as the national focal point agency to maintain a national disaster loss database––a federated, open, integrated, and interoperable disaster data system that can seamlessly roll-up local data, including research and non-profit data. FEMA’s National Incident Management System will be well positioned to cut across hazard mission silos and offer wide-ranging operational support and training for disaster loss accounting to federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies, as well as non-profit stakeholders. 

Building on recent experience with developing an all-of-government COVID-19 pandemic management data platform, it is recommended that all federal agencies engaged in wildland fire management activities collaborate in taking the following steps to launch the Open Disaster Data Initiative

  1. Undertake a Disaster Data Systems and Infrastructure Assessment to inform the development of national standards and identify barriers for accurate disaster data tracking, accounting, and sharing between federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies, as well as the philanthropic and private sector. 
  2. Adopt national standards for disaster loss data collection and reporting to address ongoing issues concerning data quality, completeness, integration, interoperability, and accessibility. 
  3. Ensure appropriate federal agency work plans reflect the national data standards, such as for digital and infrastructure planning, requests for proposals, and procurement processes to streamline all future data collection, sharing, and reporting. 
  4. Develop federal agency capacities to accurately collect and analyze disaster vulnerability, damage, and loss data, especially as it relates to population estimates of mortality and morbidity, including from wildfire smoke. 
  5. Provide guidance, training, and resources to states, non-profits, and the private sector to adopt national disaster data standards and facilitate seamless roll-up of disaster vulnerability, damage, and loss data to the federal level thereby enabling accurate monitoring and accounting of community resilience in inclusive and equitable ways. 

The Open Disaster Data Initiative will need a budget and capacity commitment to streamline disaster data collection and sharing to bolster whole-of-nation disaster resilience for at least three societal and environmental outcomes. First, the Initiative will enable enhanced data sharing and information coordination among federal, state, local, and Tribal agencies, as well as with universities, non-profits, philanthropies, and the private sector. Second, the Initiative will allow for longitudinal monitoring of cascading disaster impacts on community well-being and ecosystem health, including a better understanding of how disasters impact poverty rates, housing trends, local economic development, and displacement and migration trends, particularly among socially and historically marginalized communities.  Finally, the Initiative willinform the prioritization of policy and program investments for inclusive, equitable, and just disaster risk reduction outcomes, especially in socially and historically marginalized communities, including rural communities.

Develop a federal framework to measure and evaluate the socio-ecological impacts of wildfire

Leana Weissberg, Associate Specialist, UC Berkeley; Ken Alex, Director, Project Climate, UC Berkeley 

In the face of the wildfire crisis, federal agencies must work together to ensure that historic investments reach their full potential to protect people, property, ecosystems, and cultural resources. At present, federal agencies lack a comprehensive framework for evaluating wildfire’s socio-ecological impacts and efforts to mitigate them. While the importance of evaluating wildfire impacts is widely recognized and smaller scale efforts are underway, agencies don’t currently have a coordinated data sharing and reporting strategy for wildfire impacts. 

We propose that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) convene federal fire agencies to develop a consistent and regionally appropriate framework for assessing the socio-ecological impacts of wildfire using metrics, benchmarks, and evaluation criteria. 

Current federal agency efforts to gather, report, and evaluate the impacts of wildland fire are fragmented and siloed. In some cases, datasets conveying important information (e.g. fire severity and post-fire debris-flow assessments) exist but are not systematically reported. In others, data representing one aspect of wildfire impacts are reported in isolation, limiting their use in decision-making. For example, data on burned acres and wildfire emissions are rarely combined with Census data to estimate wildfire’s public health impacts.

As fire risk reduction investments reach historic levels, a systematic approach to evaluating and mitigating wildfire impacts is critical. By synthesizing and reporting data otherwise produced and evaluated in isolation, a more comprehensive framework will improve our collective understanding of the totality of wildfire impacts, where impacts are most severe, where they are ecologically beneficial, and how they evolve.

Federal departments and agencies involved in wildland fire management have acknowledged the importance of using the best available science and measuring performance. As two of the leading federal fire entities, the US Forest Service and Department of Interior recognize the need to employ the best available science for priority setting. Additionally, strategic planning documents from other federal fire entities identify the need for new performance measures and dashboards (DHS) for equitable disaster recovery and reformed climate threat information delivery (DOC) for improved outcomes in underserved communities. The proposed framework would create connected governmental initiatives and resources to reduce redundancy, build a more complete understanding of wildfire’s socio-ecological impacts, and ensure coordinated and comprehensive reporting on progress toward impact mitigation. All federal departments and agencies whose work touches wildland fire should be involved in this effort, including: DHS, DOC, DOE, DOI, DOT, DHS (including the CDC and NIH), USDA, EPA, and NSF. 

We recommend that Congress take the following steps to implement this framework: 

A successful framework will require funds for coordination (staffing, data collection efforts, scoping digital infrastructure requirements, and reporting) as well as implementation (expanding data collection and building digital infrastructure). Teams comprising one GS-13 and three GS-11 staff from each department involved in the effort would cost approximately $3 – $3.3 million per year. Alternatively, framework development could utilize term-length personnel, for example via the U.S. Digital Service.

Improving safety and efficiency of wildfire suppression with advanced UAS

Daniel Wholey, Rain Industries

Uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) have diverse uses in wildland fire management, including real-time fire mapping, delivering supplies to responders, conducting backburns and prescribed fires, and even providing artificial rainfall for fire suppression. Congress has directed the Department of Interior (DOI) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expand the use of UAS in wildland fire management operations through legislation such as the Dingell Jr. Act. Security concerns raised in 2020 temporarily halted existing UAS programs and hampered the development and integration of this technology.

Congress, DOI, and USDA should fully resume implementation of the UAS program outlined in the Dingell Jr. Act and include new funding opportunities to promote the development of domestic UAS technology for wildland fire suppression and other management needs.

Fire agencies in the United States effectively use small UAS for conducting prescribed fires and wildland fire mapping. While small UAS have provided significant value for fire agencies, we believe that large UAS, which are currently underutilized, can dramatically improve safety and efficiency of fire mapping and suppression efforts. Other groups have demonstrated the role that larger, more advanced UAS can play in wildfire management and response. In 2018 the California National Guard used an MQ-9 Reaper, a remotely-piloted large UAS, to map wildfires in real time and send live video to operational facilities, providing critical situational awareness. Lockheed Martin and KAMAN demonstrated cargo and water drops from the K-MAX helicopter. Rain Industries [author Daniel Wholey is employed by Rain Industries] is integrating with third party early detection networks and automating large UAS to respond rapidly to wildland fire ignitions.

The Dingell Jr Act directed the DOI and USDA to expand UAS programs and assess new technology, including large UAS, across a range of management operations to accelerate the deployment and integration of UAS in Department operations. Implementation of the Act was challenged in 2020 when the Trump administration grounded drones over fears that sensitive data was sent to the China-based manufacturers, where it could be accessed by the Chinese government. Progress has been made on several fronts since this setback. DOI effectively lifted the drone operations ban in December of 2022. Over $600 million from recent appropriations is reserved for preparedness and suppression, some of which can be used to advance UAS programs.

Given mandates from Congress and the continuing security concerns associated with foreign UAS technology, we believe that the solution is to expand domestic research, development, and production of large UAS for wildfire management operations.


DOI and USDA should resume implementation of the Dingell Jr. Act and include an initiative to promote domestic research, development, and production of large UAS, such as helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, for wildfire management operations, particularly suppression. This initiative should include innovative funding mechanisms such as prize competitions, milestone-based payment programs, and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR).

Congress should ensure appropriate resources for the initiative, estimated at $30 million based on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) FY22-26 National Aviation Research Plan.


Establish a Tribal ranger program to fund permanent land stewardship opportunities for Tribal communities

Chris Adlam, PhD, Oregon State University

Due to historic disenfranchisement and current socioeconomic conditions, many members of Tribal Nations currently lack the resources and time needed to steward their ancestral lands in the same manner as generations before them have done for millenia. This lack of opportunity has contributed to negative outcomes for Tribal communities, including compromised forest health on ancestral lands, entrenched poverty on reservations, and the erosion of vital, intergenerational Traditional Ecological Knowledge. 

Congress should allocate funds to Tribal Nations and Tribally-led organizations to create and define programs, modeled on Australia’s Indigenous Ranger Program or Canada’s Indigenous Guardians Program, that provide stable funding for long-term employment opportunities, training, and equipment for Tribes to carry out land stewardship activities, including cultural burns, post-fire monitoring, and ecological restoration.

Canada and Australia’s programs create long-term and short term employment opportunities for members of Tribal nations and organizations, and they have helped develop a workforce dedicated to restoration and wildfire mitigation. These programs have empowered Indigenous groups to facilitate effective stewardship of the land, build long-lasting relationships, and better transfer intergenerational knowledge. For example, Indigenous Ranger groups in Australia also reported several broader benefits for the long disadvantaged areas communities they operate within, including “safer communities, strengthened language and culture, an ability to find meaningful employment, increased respect for women, and more role models for younger people.” Similar programs in Australia have seen returns on investment of upward of $3.50 per $1.00 invested

By following these successful models, the federal government can create economically beneficial opportunities for Tribal nations and organizations to steward forests on their ancestral lands. This program could focus on long-term opportunities to maximize the benefit of place-based, intergenerational knowledge and wisdom. The United States Tribal Ranger program has the potential to provide a high return on investment by protecting wildland urban interface communities and infrastructure, safeguarding watersheds and air quality, and providing needed economic benefits for Indigenous participants, their communities, and other communities in the landscapes within which they serve. 


We recommend that Congress consider: 

Tribes and Indigenous-oriented organizations could also decide to utilize the program and its funding to create apprenticeship programs (such as those recommended here) focused on conserving and implementing place-based knowledge to steward ancestral lands. If necessary, this program could be launched as a pilot project with additional funds allocated at a later date. 

Through this initiative, the federal government would rightfully recognize and elevate the role of Indigenous practitioners, who have long held deep expertise on fire but who have been continually marginalized. The program would therefore be an important step in correcting centuries of persecution and flawed forest management. 

Expand corps programs for wildfire mitigation and healthy forests

Irva Hertz-Piccioto, Professor and Director, Environmental Health Sciences Center University of California, Davis 

Dead and sick trees and thick vegetative debris in our forests are fueling megafires and magnifying their frequency, intensity, and destructiveness. Fire suppression alone has cost the U.S. between $1.5 billion and $4.5 billion annually since 2012. Suppression costs amount to only a small fraction of the full costs of wildfire, which include economic, infrastructure, ecosystem, health and other costs. Fixing this problem will require restoring forest health throughout the country through a massive increase in the wildland firefighting workforce, particularly those trained in mitigation and resilience.

To address the growing wildfire challenge and engage youth in wildland fire careers, Congress and federal fire agencies should expand on and better leverage the Corps program model across the United States.

Investments in a workforce prepared to address the nation’s wildland fire challenges are already underway. For example, the DOI Office of Wildland Fire and the US Department of Agriculture are using funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to support a “more permanent workforce capable of fire response and mitigation work on a year-round basis.” Professionalizing the wildland fire workforce to address longer fire seasons and preparing these workers to support mitigation efforts is critical to building a more resilient landscape. However, this alone is not sufficient to meet the magnitude of our forest health problem.

Corps programs can supplement and complement the development of this more permanent workforce and simultaneously accelerate the pace of hazardous fuels reduction on the ground. Across the country, they are already doing so; for example, the California Conservation Corps’ Forestry Corps (which partners with the US Forest Service) focuses on removing overgrown and dead vegetation as part of wildfire mitigation on state lands. Members receive relevant certifications to prepare them for careers in forestry. AmeriCorps has also supported wildland fire mitigation activities in several regions of the country, including through employing veterans, and provides environmental stewardship opportunities across the US.

Given the enormity of the need and the urgency of reducing hazardous fuels, federal agencies can and should expand support for these models across the nation. Partnerships with state agencies, nonprofit, and community organizations can be leveraged to make these programs more wide-ranging and cost-effective. Expanding these programs will accomplish three core goals: 1) reduce buildup of hazardous fuels 2) broaden the pool of qualified applicants for jobs in federal and state wildland fire management and mitigation and 3) enrich the lives of youth by providing them with hands-on service experiences making a difference for the environment and health.


We recommend that Congress:

We recommend that the USFS, AmeriCorps, and DOI work together to:

Expanded Corps program will dramatically reduce destructive megafires and associated evacuations, provide cleaner air to breathe, and restore forest health across the nation.

It also will endow a generation of youth with new skills preparing them for quality jobs, as well as a meaningful connection to nature, improved morale and mental health, and a brighter future.

Invest in worker-led industries for whole-of-community wildfire resilience 

Shefali Juneja Lakhina, Wonder Labs

Forestry and fire workforce discussions have so far focused on addressing the staffing and retention challenges of federal and state agencies. However, not enough attention is being paid to the enormous yet untapped potential of informal workforce capacities. Private industry, small businesses, and community-based organizations, hire and train thousands of diverse informal workers, including students, volunteers, migrant, incarcerated, and justice-impacted people. Spurring increased investment in this fast-growing informal workforce presents the shortest and most sustainable path to meeting national wildfire resilience and climate mitigation goals.  Growing a diverse worker-led forest and fire industry can also help launch previously uncharted industries that are adaptive and responsive to local needs in a changing climate. 

The Biden-Harris Administration should launch an ‘Investing in worker-led industries for whole-of-community wildfire resilience’ program that supports innovative, future-ready, and tech-forward solutions from private industry, small businesses, and community-based organizations working on the frontlines of wildfire impacts. Over the next five years, at least $250 million should be invested in creating a worker-led forestry and fire industry to address the entire lifecycle of workforce development from education, training, and certification, to building resilient community infrastructure that includes family-sustaining housing, and enabling public health and whole-of-community wellbeing.   

Several federal, state, and local efforts to train and certify more forestry and fire workers are already underway. While increased training and certification is one obvious solution to the current workforce shortage, recent studies reveal that addressing barriers related to pay parity, decent housing, mental health, and career-track pathways, will also be essential to build a robust and sustainable forest restoration workforce. Yet, addressing these entry points for federal and state agencies will not necessarily lead to place-based, worker-owned, and community-centered solutions that sustain care for informal sector workers who live and work in the wildland-urban interface and intermix communities across the western United States. Supporting the creation of thousands of small business opportunities presents a high-road to address both the demand and supply side of the current workforce problem in equitable and sustainable ways.  

Building on the Justice40 directive, there is a significant opportunity to invest in most-impacted communities, including Indigenous communities, rural communities, and low-income communities that house students, volunteers, migrant, and incarcerated workers. This investment will spur new worker-owned and worker-led industries––in wildfire risk assessment, home hardening, defensible space, fuels reduction, prescribed burns, woody mass industries, biofuels, timber, fire detection and response, insurance, smoke management, clean air structures, post-disaster reconstruction, and restoration. Instead of building these industries in siloes, this proposal would spur an interdependent network of place-based, worker-owned small businesses that can contribute to resilient local infrastructure and whole-of-community well-being. 

Investment in wildfire resilience must be considered a public good: an investment in the nation’s workers, community infrastructure, and local industry. Past initiatives such as the effort to build affordable housing for farmworker families, and ongoing initiatives, such as the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation’s Forest Futures Program, the Sierra Forest Entrepreneurs Program, and California’s Climate Catalyst Revolving Loan Fund, provide precedents for public-private-people-philanthropic partnerships to bring novel solutions to a cascading crisis.  Capital for this program can be blended in ways that enable worker-owned cooperatives to solve the workforce gap equitably, and foster resilient community infrastructure, including family-sustaining housing. This, in turn, can generate new local industries—not only in wood products but also in related products and services that can spur a much larger wildfire resilience economy.


The Biden-Harris Administration should invest in the creation of a new worker-led forestry and fire industry that supports the creation of resilient local infrastructure and enables whole-of-community wildfire resilience. Specifically, Wonder Labs recommends the following actions: 

Build on the Good Jobs Challenge, the U.S. Department of Commerce should pilot entrepreneurship hubs that provide at least $150m in agile capital and mentorship to trained forestry and fire workers to start up small businesses, procure equipment, create resilient local infrastructure, and contribute to multi-scalar wildfire resilience goals. These hubs should be inclusive and non-discriminatory, including for people from incarcerated and justice-impacted backgrounds.

The Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture should together invest at least $60m in providing agile capital to diverse land and fire stewardship practitioners, including Indigenous fire practitioners, ranchers, and farmers, all who are already contributing to land and habitat restoration on Tribal and private lands, and need investments to scale capacities, equipment, and local infrastructure. 

The U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management should work with relevant state agencies and private industry across the western United States to create career-pathways, including small business opportunities, for formerly incarcerated and justice-impacted individuals. Investing at least $25m in piloting such an initiative could enable effective reintegration with communities on release and contribute to greater social, economic, and environmental outcomes. Specifically, learning from the California experience

Build on the Civilian Climate Corps, the Bureau of Land Management, with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, should invest at least $15m in co-facilitating youth-led forestry and fire programs, including sustained outreach to diverse young Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), women, people who identify as LGBTQQIA2S+, and justice-involved people in various stages of career training and eligibility. Specifically:

Invest in workforce development that empowers Indigenous experience and knowledge and supports marginalized communities

Ryan Reed, Member of the Karuk Tribe; Indigenous Fire Practitioner; FireGeneration Collaborative; and Kyle Trefny, FireGeneration Collaborative

As the White House acknowledged in recent guidance, Traditional Ecological Knowledge has been “historically marginalized in scientific communities and excluded from research and academic resources, funding, and other opportunities.” The field of wildland fire is no exception: Traditional Ecological Indigenous Knowledge Systems have been relegated to the periphery of fire mitigation and management leadership, preventing Cultural Fire Practitioners from having their years of experience in cultural fire recognized by the credentialing systems.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group should develop curriculum and qualification standards to recognize Traditional Ecological Knowledge systems and take further action to address systemic barriers to participation in the wildland fire management workforce. 

Cultural Fire Practitioners face barriers to partnering with the federal fire management workforce and taking on leadership roles, despite decades of knowledge and practice. These barriers not only  exacerbate oppression, relegating Traditional Ecological Knowledge as lesser, but prevent otherwise qualified leaders from contributing to current mitigation and management structures. 

Women and elders often serve as leaders and teachers in Indigenous communities, stewarding and passing down Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Unfortunately, women face barriers to full inclusion and advancement in the male-dominated wildland fire workforce. For example, one Forest Service survey found that three in four women report having “felt out of place at work because of their gender” and that women in leadership roles “face challenges finding respect.” One third of surveyed Forest Service employees believed that personal characteristics hindered career advancement in wildland fire. 

These systemic barriers must be overcome to create pathways for more inclusive fire management leadership involving Indigenous women and elders, and supporting marginalized groups in the wildland fire space. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which establishes operations, positions, and qualification standards across agencies in wildland fire, should take further action to foster a wildland fire workforce and culture that reflects the full diversity of knowledge and experience that America has to offer. 


To ensure that existing workforce development programs incorporate Indigenous knowledge, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group should: 

To remove systemic barriers to inclusive fire management work culture and leadership, agencies should leverage their jurisdiction and that of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to:  

Support the ecological fire management workforce of the future through investments in education for youth and communities

Ryan Reed, Member of the Karuk Tribe; Indigenous Fire Practitioner; FireGeneration Collaborative; and Kyle Trefny, FireGeneration Collaborative

Wildland fire doesn’t just affect wildland – it puts livelihoods, physical safety, and treasured cultural resources at risk. Despite the danger fire presents, local communities are often left out of discussions and development when it comes to fire management policy. In this gap is a critical opportunity: a younger generation eager to facilitate transformational shifts to protect their communities and local land.

Congress should invest in youth programs that in the short-term provide a trained workforce to supplement agency capacity, and in the long-term, provide a pathway for a life-long career in fire management. 


We recommend that Congress: 

Directly Fund Tribes to Create and Implement Land Stewardship Initiatives

Nina Fontana, PhD, University of California, Davis

Across the United States, Tribal nations and organizations have the knowledge and will to lead cultural and prescribed burns. Unfortunately, they are consistently limited by (a) insufficient funds, and (b) burdensome regulatory requirements that often prove overly burdensome to comply with. These two issues are connected. Tribal practitioners are often unable to obtain federal grants for land stewardship purposes because they do not have the capacity to find and apply for them, to compete with state agencies and organizations in the application process, and to comply with the grant requirements, which can conflict with Cultural Fire traditions in fundamental ways.

Congress should appropriate discretionary funds directly to Tribal nations and Tribally-led organizations for fire hazard reduction in order to decrease the administrative capacity needed for Tribes to compete for grants. The funds will be dispersed by regional Tribal liaisons, who will gather and utilize input from local actors to direct grants.

Tribal governments and organizations require direct grant funding to exercise their sovereignty in a rightfully unencumbered manner. When Tribal governments and organizations are provided with adequate funding and are able to direct its usage, Cultural Fire Practitioners are able to design cultural fire projects that fit their unique traditions and local plant communities contained within their lands. In addition, by giving Tribes greater discretion over funds, the federal government would a) decrease the regulatory burden on Tribes, and b) provide greater recognition of cultural burning as a uniquely valuable form of land restoration and place-based knowledge, instead of categorizing the practice as an often-overlooked subset of prescribed burning.

Most importantly, direct funding would allow Tribal governments and organizations to shift crucial capacity away from time-intensive administrative tasks and towards stewarding their ancestral lands. Tribes could expand their fire practitioner workforce, treat larger areas of land, and better conserve important natural and cultural resources.

We recommend that Congress: 

By drawing upon the expertise of communities and Cultural Fire Practitioners, the Tribal liaisons would be able to target funds to groups and landscapes that have the greatest need, ensuring that federal resources are utilized in an effective manner each year.

It is time for the federal government to recognize the deep expertise of Tribes in fire management. By giving Tribes greater influence in determining the use of funds for preventative and mitigative activities, Congress would bring funding structures in line with the rightful sovereignty of Tribes, and it would protect communities and natural resources across the country by clearing the path for more beneficial fire. 

About these recommendations

Recommendations below include ideas targeted to both Congressional and Executive Branch. The Commission may wish to consider whether Congress has a role in encouraging or supporting Executive Branch changes described here; additionally, we plan to share these recommendations with Executive Branch actors, including the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC) and the White House Wildfire Resilience Interagency Working Group, for their consideration.

A Note on Recommendation Attribution

Note that each of the recommendations below stands alone and is attributed to a specific contributor or team of contributors. The recommendations below do not necessarily reflect the views of the full cohort. Additionally, the list of recommendations as a whole also does not necessarily reflect the views of the full cohort and does not constitute a consensus.


CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

DHS: Department of Homeland Security 

DOC: Department of Commerce

DOI: Department of the Interior 

EPA: Environmental Protection Agency 

FEMA: Federal Emergency Management Agency

HHS: Department of Health and Human Services 

NIH: National Institutes of Health 

NSF: National Science Foundation 

UAS: Uncrewed Aerial Systems

USDA: United States Department of Agriculture 

USFS: United States Forest Service 

USGS: United States Geological Survey 

FAS Forum: Envisioning the Future of Wildland Fire Policy

In this critical year for reimagining wildland fire policy, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) hosted a convening that provided stakeholders from the science, technology, and policy communities with an opportunity to exchange forward-looking ideas with the shared goal of improving the federal government’s approach to managing wildland fire.

A total of 43 participants attended the event. Attendee affiliations included universities, federal agencies, state and local agencies, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropies.

This event was designed as an additive opportunity for co-learning and deep dives on topics relevant to the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission (the Commission) with leading experts in relevant fields (the convening was independent from any formal Commission activities).

In particular, the Forum highlighted, and encouraged iteration on, ideas emerging from leading experts who participated in the Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator. Coordinated by FAS in partnership with COMPASS, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), and Conservation X Labs, this accelerator has served as a pathway to source and develop actionable policy recommendations to inform the work of the Commission.

A full list of recommendations from the Accelerator is available on the FAS website.

The above PDF summarizes discussions and key takeaways from the event for participant reference. We look forward to building on the connections made during this event.

Funding the Fight Against Uncontrolled Megafires

Just as wildland fires in the U.S. are becoming larger, more frequent and more severe, the landscape of agencies and funding mechanisms aimed at combating the problem are growing, becoming ever more complex and intertwined.

Demystifying funding for wildland fire management will be key to forging better collaboration and more effective spending in this field. The Federation of American Scientists, along with our partners at Resources for the Future (RFF), unveiled the Federal Wildfire Funding Wheel at the end of last year as part of this effort. This post builds on that visualization of recent investments in wildfire funding, adding important context and detail on the annual budget process – with the caveat that policies and practices in this space are changing rapidly

For decades, the main implementers of federal wildfire management were the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. In FY 1994, the Forest Service (FS) and the Department of Interior (DOI) received less than $2 billion combined in annual appropriations for wildfire management. In FY 2022, that number nearly quadrupled to $7.5 billion.

Federal wildland fire appropriations from Congress provide agencies with funding for programs and can generally be categorized into four categories: preparedness, suppression, fuels management, and other activities.

While a suite of activities are necessary to holistically manage wildland fire, in the last decade, nearly half of annual appropriations for wildfire distributed to the FS and DOI went toward funding suppression activities. There has been concern that rapidly growing suppression costs over the past decade reduces the availability of funding for other wildland fire programs and other DOI and FS programs more generally. The historic investments from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) should alleviate some of those concerns, as the funds will ultimately provide significant new resources for hazardous fuels mitigation, landscape restoration, and other programs such as improving community resilience, mitigation measures, science and research, and grants. Looking toward the future, public spending on wildland fire management will continue to increase. In this changing landscape, understanding where the federal government is investing in wildland fire management activities is crucial to ensuring that federal funds effectively tackle the growing challenges in this space.

While the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture may be the starting points for federal wildland fire management, a more granular breakdown is helpful for understanding how responsibilities flow:

Federal wildland fire management efforts have historically been concentrated in the two Cabinet-level departments: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). The USDA’s fire-related activities sit in a single agency – the U.S. Forest Service. The Department of the Interior’s Wildland Fire Management Program is more complex – the Office of Wildland Fire (OWF) coordinates wildland fire activities across DOI’s four land management bureaus with significant wildland fire budgets: the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service (NPS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

Given the increasing severity and intensity of catastrophic wildland fire events, The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is now playing a larger role in wildland fire activities, especially on the mitigation side. FEMA helps to distribute critical aid in response to wildland fire disasters and funds important cost-saving mitigation and resilience measures in communities.

How do wildfire funding decisions happen?

Every year, agencies work with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to prepare a budget that consists of detailed descriptions of accounts, programs, activities, their purposes, and requested discretionary appropriations for the fiscal year. Discretionary appropriations are funds allocated to agencies by Congress through the annual budget process. 

These budget requests (or justifications) are submitted to Congress by the President and through the Congressional budget process, Congress ultimately grants funding (also called appropriating funds), for department and agency discretionary spending. Again, the majority of funding appropriated for wildland fire related activities currently goes to the Department of Interior’s Wildland Fire Management Program, the Forest Service, and FEMA. 

Federal Budgeting and Wildland Fire Management

The core agencies responsible for wildland fire management each have different budget structures, but in general have accounts, programs nested within accounts, and activities carried out within programs (Accounts → Programs → Program Specific Activities). Accounts and Programs are generally represented as budget line items stating the level of funding received or requested.

U.S. Department of the Interior

All appropriated funds for wildland fire-related activities administered on DOI land are managed by the departmental-level Office of Wildland Fire. The Office of Wildland Fire works with the NPS, BLM, BIA, and FWS to prepare a department-wide wildland fire management budget called Interior’s Wildland Fire Management Program (WFM). DOI’s WFM is organized into the following accounts: Preparedness, Suppression, Fuels Management (Hazardous Fuels), Facilities, and Other Operations (Burned Area Rehabilitation, Facilities, Construction, and Maintenance, and the Joint Fire Science Program). DOI also receives emergency funding for suppression through the Wildlife Suppression and Operations Reserve Fund.

Forest Service

The Forest Service, like DOI, has a Wildland Fire Management Account that funds Preparedness, Suppression, and as of 2023, Hazardous Fuels. The Forest Service’s WFM Account is included in the agency’s annual budget justification document as its own line item. Unlike DOI, however, the Forest Service’s WFM account does not include funding for “Facilities” or “Other Operations.” Equivalent activities, and more, in the Forest Service’s budget are spread out across the rest of the agency’s accounts and programs. They are also often bundled with program activities not related to wildland fire management. For example, a program focused on forest health might include wildland fire risk reduction activities and invasive species management activities. Consequently, it becomes difficult to discern from budget line items exactly what percentage of Forest Service funds are allocated to these “other” wildland fire management activities.

Wildfire Suppression Operations Reserve Fund

The rising costs of suppression are the main reason baseline wildfire-related appropriations to FS and DOI have been trending upward. Since 2001, the Forest Service and DOI have regularly needed more funds for suppression than appropriated in the annual budget process. And the trend has only become more pronounced in recent years; Congress has had to provide FS and DOI with additional suppression funds 7 of the 10 years between FY 2011 and FY 2020 to replenish suppression funds or to repay funds transferred from other accounts to cover emergency suppression costs. In 2018, lawmakers created the Wildland Fire Suppression Operations Reserve Fund, or the “fire fix.” The fire fix is essentially an emergency fund for FS and DOI to tap into when baseline suppression funds become depleted. Instead of having to transfer funds from other internal programs or accounts for suppression efforts, the fire fix allows the Forest Service and DOI to budget for wildfire emergencies similar to other natural disasters.

FEMA Wildfire Funding

As mentioned above, as fires have become more catastrophic and destructive to communities, FEMA’s role in the wildland fire space has increased. But the disaster response agency structures its budget very differently than the Forest Service or DOI.

Funding for programs with wildland fire related activities are not as easily discernible when looking at budget line items in FEMA’s budget structure, but in general, they include activities related to firefighter personnel support (e.g., Fire Management Assistance Grants and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants), assets (e.g., Assistance to Firefighter Grants), technical assistance (U.S. Fire Administration), and grants to help communities mitigate and respond to fires (e.g., Hazard Mitigation Grants, Post Fire Hazard Mitigation Grants, and the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program). 

Looking toward the future

It’s safe to assume that public spending on wildland fire issues will continue to increase for the foreseeable future– out of necessity and as agencies spend allocated funding from the IIJA and IRA. As wildfires grow and their effects feel more prominent, more and more federal entities are becoming involved in the space. Furthermore, there is uncertainty around exactly how funds are (and will be) allocated and how federal spending on wildland fire specific activities can be tracked in a consistent manner. Finding the correct balance of funding for prevention and prescribed burning, suppression and landscape and community rehabilitation – among other areas – will necessitate more data about and monitoring of federal spending. Increased transparency can help stakeholders make better-informed decisions as to what interventions are achieving intended results, and a necessary step for any individual or organization hoping to meaningfully impact the way the government addresses the changing ways wildland fires interact with our climate and our communities.

Impact Fellow Sonia Wang contributed to this report prior to beginning her assignment at the Office of Management and Budget.

FAS is also in the midst of conducting the Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator, with the goal of surfacing new voices and innovative practices in wildfire management. The recommendations emerging from the accelerator will involve the wider sphere of agencies and actors in the wildfire policy space, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as many state governments with important roles to play. The full list of policy recommendations will be submitted to the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission and will be released publicly soon.

California Policy Leaders Provide Insights to Wildland Fire Commission

California has seen historic and catastrophic wildfires in the past several years. But it would be a mistake to assume the impacts of these wildfires are contained by California’s borders.

It’s known from existing research that wildfires in one area can have public health impacts far from the source.

The wildfires in California and throughout Western North America have brought into sharp focus the need for local, interstate, and federal partnerships—building on lessons learned and providing support toward an equitable wildfire prevention, management, suppression, and recovery strategy.

Now, California’s leaders are getting a chance to inform the work of the congressional Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission—tasked with providing federal policy recommendations and strategies to Congress on ways to better prevent, manage, suppress, and recover from wildfires.

In partnership with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) brought together policymakers and leaders for a wildfire roundtable with the California-affiliated members of the commission. 

CCST’s roundtable fostered a two-way conversation between commission members and policymakers to discuss the groundbreaking work being done in California to address the wildfire crisis. The roundtable included perspectives from the California Department of Insurance, the California Air Resources Board, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot, and the California State Legislature, including Assemblymembers Rebecca Bauer-Kahan and Heath Flora, who is a longtime volunteer firefighter.

The wildfire roundtable is part of a broader effort by FAS to support the work of the commission, including a Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator to solicit policy proposals and recommendations to improve how we live with fire—a collaboration between FAS, CCST, Conservation X Labs, and COMPASS. (A full list of recommendations from the Accelerator program will soon be submitted to the Commission and released publicly.)

Roundtable participants spoke of their policy priorities related to wildfires, and highlighted barriers and/or opportunities for improved federal and state partnership on the groundbreaking work occurring in California. 

“In recent years, wildfire catastrophes have caused unimaginable destruction, harm, and loss of life in California,” said CCST CEO Amber Mace, who moderated the conversations. “Conversations like these that bring together leaders to share lessons learned help us chart a wildfire resilient future for California and the country.” 

“Our collaborative work has helped activate diverse expertise on wildland fire, ” said Erica Goldman, Director of Science Policy at FAS. “These efforts have encouraged a broader swath of scientists, technologists, and Indigenous knowledge holders to engage in providing actionable and substantive input to the Commission’s work.” 

CCST has provided in-depth work on wildfire issues, including an Expert Briefing series on wildfire, the 2020 peer-reviewed report The Costs of Wildfires in California, and the upcoming study on the links between forest health, wildfire smoke, and public health, expected to be published in September 2023.

The CCST wildfire roundtable was supported by funding from the Federation of American Scientists and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

About the California Council on Science and Technology
The California Council on Science and Technology is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established via the California State Legislature — making California’s policies stronger with science and technology since 1988. We engage leading experts in science and technology to advise State policymakers — ensuring that California policy is strengthened and informed by scientific knowledge, research, and innovation.

Visualizing Federal Funding for Wildfire Management and Response

Over the past two years, the federal government has invested unprecedented amounts of funding in wildfire suppression, hazardous fuels reduction, community preparedness, and restoration through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Together, the IIJA and IRA provide $24 billion in funding for wildfire issues, distributed over 40 different programs and administered by a dozen agencies.

Alongside these investments, three interagency bodies—the Congressionally mandated Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC), and the White House Wildfire Resilience Interagency Working Group—are currently working to update and implement the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and to chart a new policy course for wildfire resilience and management to meet this moment of severe risk from catastrophic megafires. The confluence of these developments has created a prime window for change in wildfire policy and action.

To assist policymakers, funders, and interested stakeholders in their decision making, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and Resources for the Future (RFF) have developed a data visualization tool to break down the current landscape of federal funding.

About the Federal Wildfire Funding Wheel

The Federal Wildfire Funding Wheel analyzes federal funding across three core domain areas: Restoring Landscapes, Fire-Adapted Communities, Wildfire Response. Its structure is modeled off of a similar diagram that was developed by the White House Interagency Working Group to inform coordination opportunities across agencies. We have reformulated it to provide a more dynamic visual presentation that can be easily enriched with additional data layers and funding information as they become available.

The Wheel maps coarse allocations of federal dollars identified in the IIJA and the IRA and does not include funding that would appear in the annual appropriations. The Congressional Research Service has released a detailed view of FY 2022 appropriations and the FY 2023 budget request for USDA and DOI’s Wildland Fire Management (WFM) accounts. Against this breakdown, we map the specific programs of funding and relevant legislation by category. This information can be viewed dynamically as you mouse over each wedge. 

How to Interact with the Wildfire Wheel

The center circle shows the three core domain areas, which are mapped into project areas in the second ring. As you roll over each slice in the second ring, you will see: 1) federal funding from the IIJA; 2) federal funding from the IRA; and 3) relevant legislation for each project area. The outermost ring details the specific programs from the IIJA and the IRA that fall into each project area. Note that some programs fall into more than one project area, and their funding is counted in the total funding for all of those project areas.

Putting the Wheel in Action

FAS and RFF envision the Wildfire Wheel as a tool for WFLC, the Commission, the Interagency Working Group, and the external stakeholder and philanthropic communities to understand the distribution of federal funding and identify where funding is lacking to inform their policy recommendations. Philanthropic funders may find opportunities to fill funding gaps and support activities that the government is not currently equipped to do. Within project areas on the Wheel, interagency bodies can pinpoint opportunities for synergy among agency programs with overlapping goals and coordinate on their implementation.

Beyond policymakers and funders, non-governmental experts and stakeholders may also use the Wheel to understand opportunities for engagement and to inform their advocacy to the government. To support these efforts, FAS has been working with a cohort of experts and stakeholders through our Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator and looks forward to sharing their policy memos with the public and the Commission soon.

RFF is conducting analysis of wildfire programs and funding to help NGOs, philanthropies, and private landowners understand and navigate the complex portfolio of federal institutions that manage and respond to wildfire. The work will help non-governmental wildfire stakeholders coordinate and partner with federal activity, leverage federal funds, and fill gaps in wildfire planning, science, and management. Via guidance documents, RFF and FAS will work together to disseminate this institutional and budgetary analysis.

The interactive wheel is a living document, which we will update periodically as more funding information is available. 

Fighting Fire With Policy

Humans have tried to tame fire for hundreds of thousands of years. In our era of rapid environmental change, living with fire poses new challenges. Climate change, land development, and decades of focus on suppressing fire are fueling larger, more frequent fires that put human health, property, and ecosystems at risk.

The federal government bears significant responsibility for wildland fire management in the United States. Federal entities manage public lands where prescribed burns and wildfires occur, support wildfire response, and conduct research that sheds light on wildland fire and its impacts. With the severity and devastation of wildfires increasing, federal entities can play a key role in deepening our understanding of fire and reexamining how we cope with it. Recognizing this, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law authorized the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission to develop and deliver a comprehensive set of new policy recommendations to Congress focused on how to “better prevent, manage, suppress, and recover from wildfires.” 

The Commission represents an enormous opportunity for communities of decision-makers, scientists, and innovators to combine knowledge and develop policy that keeps people safe while respecting fire’s regenerative role in many ecosystems. But the Commission will not be around forever, so we have to activate these communities now to ensure their expertise is heard. That’s why we have partnered with three leading science and policy organizations to deliver cutting-edge policy ideas to the Commission. 


The Commission’s Charge: Developing Recommendations for Congress 

The Commission began its work in September 2022, kicking off a 12-month sprint to recommend policy change on a number of wildland fire topics spelled out in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Commission members represent federal departments and agencies, industry, state and county government, tribal government, public utilities, academia, and other stakeholders who play important roles in managing and understanding fire.

The Commission’s discussions will focus on a set of high-priority topic areas, many of which could benefit greatly from incorporating the latest thinking on science, technology, and innovation from diverse sources. These topic areas include landscapes; science, data, and technology; and public health and infrastructure. 


Kicking Off the Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator

This week, the Federation of American Scientists is launching a Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator to develop policy ideas aimed at improving how we live with fire in the United States.  We’ve partnered with COMPASS, the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), and Conservation X Labs to source and develop and socialize innovative ideas that align with the Commission’s goals. These partners bring expertise in communicating policy ideas as well as connections to interested accelerator contributors.

On Monday, October 24, FAS hosted a kickoff call to welcome accelerator contributors from academia, the private sector, nonprofits, national labs, and other institutions. Over the next few months, these contributors will refine their policy ideas into actionable recommendations for the Commission. These recommendations will focus on themes relevant to the Commission’s work, including integrating the science of climate change in wildland fire policy; understanding the impacts of smoke on public health; and leveraging science, data, and technology to inform resilience.

The end goal of the accelerator is a set of actionable recommendations that inform the Commission’s report to Congress and contribute to a holistic, evidence-based approach to managing wildland fire in the United States.