Congressional Efforts to Minimize the Impacts of Wildfires

The Maui wildfires were the deadliest in this nation’s history, taking the lives of more than 100 people. The fires burned over 2,000 acres of land, and it is expected to cost an estimated $5.5 billion to rebuild. In summer 2023, wildfires in Canada caused parts of the East Coast to face its worst smoke pollution on record. Asthma-related visits to the emergency room in New York and New Jersey jumped 46% during the 19 days of above-average wild­fire smoke. Thousands of flights were cancelled or delayed due to the dramatic decrease in visibility from the smoke. As of mid-November 2023, there had been over 52,000 wildfires that burned over 2.5 million acres of land in the United States. Nat’l Interagency Fire Ctr., Statistics. While wildfires are a normal part of natural ecosystems, wildfires all over the world are get­ting worse—increasing in intensity and severity. What is being done to temper the threat from these disasters?

Efforts to combat wildfires can be seen in every sector of the government, including at the local, state, and federal lev­els; however, this article will focus on federal legislative actions. Recent legislative efforts fall into three categories: preventive measures pre-wildfire, aid for active wildfires, and assistance after the wildfires occur.

Efforts for pre-wildfire support have largely been aimed at research and forecasting. For example, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in late 2021, provided $50 mil­lion for wildfire prediction, detection, observation, modeling, and forecasting. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Pub. L. No. 117-58, 135 Stat. 429, 1355 (2021). More recently, the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act provided $40 million to research the impacts of natural disasters such as wildfires. Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, Pub. L. No. 117-328, 136 Stat. 4459, 5204. The Forest Service, the federal agency in charge of 193 million acres of national forests and grassland, explains that research is not done for research’s sake; it is done to protect the public from forest fires. USDA, Sustainability and Wildland Fire—The Origins of Forest Service Wildland Fire Research, at 1 (2017). Wildfire research can help with improv­ing modeling to better predict fire movement, it can help us understand the impacts of fire on our ecosystems, and it can help with the measurement of air quality during and post fire to track dispersion and inform impacted areas.

Despite the fact that most federal efforts for preventing wild­fires are focusing on the wildfires themselves rather than the causes, some more innovative efforts are taking place in Con­gress. For example, also in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was a section dedicated to road improvement that spe­cifically names wildfires as a reason to improve the National Highway System. See § 11105, 135 Stat. at 457. Improving road conditions can help make evacuations faster and safer and can help in getting first responders to the scene of the fire faster. Additionally, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 pro­vided grant money for wildfire smoke preparedness. See 136 Stat. at 4797. This summer has shown that while some regions of the United States know how to deal with smoke from wild­fires, other areas, which have not historically been exposed to such smoke, are unprepared. These grants will prioritize proj­ects such as air quality monitoring, deployment of portable air cleaners, and improvements to HVAC systems in community buildings.

Congress has addressed providing aid for active wildfires both through stand-alone laws and by providing authoriza­tion and funding as part of larger laws. These laws help provide technology and resources for the suppression of wildfires. One of the most recent congressional efforts has been the attempted creation of the FireGuard Program as part of the Defense Authorization Act for FY 2024. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024, H.R. 2670, § 516 (2024). The Fire-Guard Program would have allowed the Secretary of Defense to utilize members of the National Guard to provide remote sensing information for the detection and monitoring of wild­fires and to support any emergency response for such wildfires. While the House version of the Bill included this provision, the Senate version did not. As the houses work together to pass this Bill, it remains unknown whether this innovative program will be authorized. The Defense Authorization Act also plans on transfers of seven aircrafts to the State of California for wildfire suppression purposes. See id. § 6079. Planes are a vital resource for fighting wildfires as they can deliver hundreds of gallons of water to areas unreachable by land.

When it comes to post-fire relief, there has been a large push in Congress to provide monetary aid. The federal government has provided money for damage caused by wildfires to vari­ous groups like federal agencies and farmers. For example, in the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress gave the National Science Foundation $2.5 million for expenses related to damage caused by the wildfires in 2022, $247 million for construction related to the consequences of wildfires for the Fish and Wildlife Service, and $210 million for the Forest Ser­vice for any necessary expenses related to the consequences of wildfires and other natural disasters. See Consolidated Appro­priations Act, 2023, 136 Stat. at 5206, 5215, 4218. The American Farm Bureau estimated over $20.4 billion in total crop losses from drought and wildfires in 2022. Daniel Munch, New Esti­mates Reveal Major 2022 Weather Disasters Caused over $21 Billion in Crop Losses, Market Intel (Mar. 3, 2023). While insur­ance helped cover some of those losses, there was still an estimated $10 billion in losses that were not covered. The 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act instructed the Department of Agriculture to use up to $494 million to provide assistance to producers of livestock for losses incurred during 2022 due to drought or wildfires. See Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, 136 Stat. at 5206, 5215, 5201.

While legislative efforts directed at impacts of wildfires primarily take the form of monetary aid, Congress has also approved efforts for the rehabilitation of land after wildfires. For example, in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there is a section on reforestation following wildfires where Congress requested the creation of a priority list for reforestation efforts that would be undertaken by the Forest Service. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act § 70302, 135 Stat. at 1258. Addition­ally, the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act initiated a pilot program for native plant species that includes an effort to incorporate the use of native plants in areas that have experi­enced a recent wildfire event. See Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, 136 Stat. at 5574.

As of late 2023 there were over a hundred proposed bills in Congress aimed at reducing the frequency and intensity of wildfires as well as supporting those impacted by these disas­ters, but few have gained any traction. Despite the many headline-making fires of 2023, there is a lack of political will within the legislature to devote more resources to this spe­cific problem. Even though there have been millions of dollars allocated to this issue, that money pales when compared to the actual losses from wildfires—in either property damage, opportunity losses, or, most importantly, human lives. Steps are needed to address the causes of wildfires; whether the gov­ernment has the will to take the bold steps necessary to do so remains in question.

Published in Natural Resources & Environment Volume 38, Number 4, Spring 2024. © 2024 by the American Bar Association or the copyright holder. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.