Science Policy

The Wildfire Crisis and FAS: A Story of Policy Entrepreneurship

04.24.24 | 5 min read | Text by Jonathan Wilson

As FAS gets ready to officially kick off its Day One 2025 effort and looks back to the origins of Day One, it’s essential to also recognize the important policy innovations our community surfaced after that initial tranche of memos. It’s also useful to reflect on how FAS, as an organization, has developed institutional infrastructure to support more policy entrepreneurs, and to fully capitalize on policy windows – when those windows open widest.

There may be no better example bringing all of these elements together than the work FAS staff, our partner organizations, and budding policy entrepreneurs have done and continue to do to change the way the U.S. addresses the wildfire crisis.

The genesis of this work dates back to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021, and that law’s creation of the federal Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission. The law charged the commission with recommending improvements to how the federal government manages wildland fire.

The commission, co-chaired by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was composed of 50 members, representing federal agencies, state, local, and Tribal governments, as well as the private sector. As part of its journey to a final report to Congress, the Commission wanted public input – and after conferring with experts in the field about the current landscape of stakeholders and gaps in policy – FAS sensed the opening of a crucial window.

Through the Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator, FAS supported 20 experts in developing 23 new policy recommendations as input into the Commission’s process. FAS partnered with COMPASS, Conservation X Labs, and the California Council on Science and Technology to source and develop ideas, leveraging their respective expertise in science communications, incorporating Indigenous knowledge, and navigating science-policy nexus. 

“We really wanted a range of perspectives – specifically from voices that have been traditionally left out of the conversation,” FAS Director of Science Policy Entrepreneurship Erica Goldman says. “Our accelerator cohort ended up including engineers and innovators; cultural burning practitioners; youth in wildland firefighting; engineers and innovators; public health professionals; and research scientists.”

Accelerator participant Alistair Hayden, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Public & Ecosystem Health at Cornell University, authored four different policy recommendations on mitigating smoke impacts and the use of beneficial fire. 

He says FAS’s accelerator helped him in three big ways. “The named program gave me latitude to carve out time to dedicate to the memos, the excellent program structure sped the process along, and the experts I connected to along the way – including some who I ended up co-authoring with – gave incredible feedback to improve the ideas,” he says. 

Another participant, Shefali Lakhina, co-founder of Wonder Labs, brought 18 years of experience developing disaster reduction policy and programs, but most of her expertise was outside of the United States.

“The Accelerator enabled me to develop a decent understanding of America’s unique policy landscape, entry points, and inner workings,” she says. “FAS also played a critical role in helping me directly present my recommendations to the federal Commission. Although not explicitly acknowledged in the Commission’s final report, I found both my recommendations well represented in the text, which made the effort worthwhile.”

FAS’s efforts in the wildfire policy space were not just limited to helping memo authors hone their ideas into actionable policy. Staffers realized the universe of funding sources for wildfire mitigation efforts across the country was vast and not well understood even by those most concerned with the crisis. In partnership with Resources for the Future, FAS created the federal wildfire funding wheel – a data visualization tool that breaks down the current landscape of federal funding. FAS also continued to write about the funding landscape and the challenges posed by federal agency wildland fire budget structures in the months leading up to the Commission’s final report to Congress. The organization also hosted several convenings providing stakeholders from the science, technology and policy communities an opportunity to exchange forward-looking ideas with the shared goal of improving the federal government’s approach to managing wildland fire. 

All of these examples show that throughout the past several years, FAS has been building on the Day One model by not only surfacing and supporting policy entrepreneurs, but also by leveraging internal and external expertise to help lay the groundwork for a more informed policy discussion.

When the final report from the Commission came in the fall of 2023, there was evidence that FAS’s approach had made an impact.

While the Commission did not attribute any of their formal recommendations to specific public input or comment, many of the ideas and policy solutions laid out by FAS’s Wildland Fire Policy Accelerator cohort were reflected in the Commission’s final product. Some examples of accelerator ideas reflected in the Commission’s report include: 

Other FAS publications also informed the Commission’s work, demonstrated by citations of FAS’s work on federal appropriations in the final report. They cited the wildfire funding wheel data visualization tool that breaks down the current landscape of federal funding. Additionally, the Commission cited an FAS blog post (coauthored by Sonia Wang prior to entering her term of service at OMB) summarizing federal agency wildland fire budget structures. 

“With our multifaceted approach, we’ve helped leaders take advantage of a crucial policy window for building wildfire resilience across the country,” FAS’s Goldman says. “FAS is helping to ensure that science, data, technology, and expertise are effectively leveraged through public policy. And now that the Commission’s report is out in the world, the work continues – we aim to support its implementation through partnerships, issue education, and legislative outreach.”