Science Policy
day one project

Wildland Fire Policy Recommendations

04.24.23 | 62 min read

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 A changing climate and our outdated policy responses are amplifying these negative effects.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