Science Policy

Firefighting Workforce Benefits from FY25 Budget Request but Sustained Investments are Necessary to Address the Wildfire Crisis

04.16.24 | 5 min read | Text by Jessica Blackband

Despite growing federal spending on wildfire suppression, wildfires continue to grow in size and severity in the U.S. Nearly 100,000 structures have been wiped out by wildfires nationwide in the last two decades. Impacts of fires go far beyond what the flames touch; smoke from uncontrolled fires is worsening human health from coast to coast. 

We know uncontrolled wildfire is costly, but a full accounting of just how costly is elusive given currently available data. Federal spending on wildfire suppression has exceeded $1 billion every year since 2011, with spending sometimes as high as $4 billion; longer-term costs imposed on livelihoods, ecosystem services, and health are estimated to be much higher.

Investments in prevention (including beneficial fire to reduce highly flammable vegetation) are essential for decreasing these skyrocketing costs in the long-term. The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, which submitted a detailed report to Congress in 2023 with recommendations for improving how we manage wildland fire, noted that the historic focus on putting out fires without substantial investment in risk mitigation “perpetuates a reactive and expensive cycle and consigns ourselves to an ever-increasing catalog of loss.” 

In the last decade, the U.S. has made significant investments to address the wildfire crisis, including the historic investments in hazardous fuels reduction through the IRA and IIJA. But discretionary funding via the annual appropriations cycle has provided additional opportunities for Congress to make down payments on a more wildfire-resilient future. These investments include doubling of wildfire funding for the Department of Interior (DOI) and the U.S. Forest Service from fiscal year 2011 to 2020 (although much of this funding was for suppression-related activities). 

The president’s FY 2025 budget would add to this growth via modest but important increases for sustaining or enhancing wildfire work at specific agencies. Areas of focused investment include increases to support pay, health and wellbeing, and housing for wildland firefighters in recognition that “the federal government must provide a level of pay that is competitive with the compensation provided by state, local, and private employers.” The FY 2025 budget would also include increased or sustained funds for certain programs at the Federation Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to improve community capacity for wildfire preparedness. It also supports certain Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) programs that concern wildfire smoke. 

Wildfire in the FY25 Request

Below are a few highlights from the president’s FY 2025 budget concerning key activities at select agencies with relevance to wildfire. These highlights are just a sampling and do not constitute a comprehensive assessment of wildfire appropriations in the FY 2025 president’s budget at these or other agencies. The full spectrum of federal entities that undertake wildland fire activities is broader and includes NASA, NOAA, DOD, and CDC among others. 

U.S. Forest Service

Department of the Interior 

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Environmental Protection Agency 

The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission released its report to Congress in September 2023, likely too late for its 148 recommendations to be considered thoroughly in agency budget development. While this budget request lays a foundation for important Commission recommendations such as pay increases and housing for federal wildland firefighters, significant additional investments will still be needed in the years to come. The Commission noted that “investments at a similar and sustained scale (to the IRA and IIJA) in federal land management agencies and programs are needed to successfully and proactively reduce growing wildfire risk,” and recommended strong support for wildland fire management through land management agencies to the tune of $85-95 billion total in the next decade (almost triple what has already been invested). Additionally, it recommended funding to support other agencies with critical roles in addressing the wildfire crisis including FEMA, NOAA, and EPA. 

While agency budget documents give us a general sense of the magnitude of investments in wildland fire at each agency, we don’t actually have a clear picture of wildfire spending across the federal government as a whole. As Taxpayers for Common Sense found, there is no single federal definition of what falls under the category of wildfire spending. Federal entities such as the Department of Agriculture, DOI, and FEMA use different budget structures to describe their direct and indirect spending on wildland fire (although DOI does package all of its wildfire spending into a department-wide budget).

Consequently, agencies, Congress, and the public are limited in their ability to assess wildland fire spending government-wide. An important Commission recommendation is thus that Congress “fund agency budgets offices to create crosscuts to better track all federal wildfire spending.” We highlighted this recommendation for Congress (along with other Commission recommendations on wildfire spending and budgeting) in a recent joint letter with The Pew Charitable Trusts, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Megafire Action. 

There is no magic bullet for solving our wildfire crisis, but sustained investments that strategically leverage science, technology, data, and the workforce and emphasize prevention can pave the way to a more resilient future.