Federal Assistance for Wildfire Response and Recovery

Updated July 27, 2020
Federal Assistance for Wildfire Response and Recovery
Wildfires are unplanned and unwanted fires. Wildfires can
allocates federal, state, and private forces (as well as the
have some beneficial impacts on an ecosystem, but they
military, when called upon) and resources at a national
often threaten homes and communities, forcing the
level. Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACCs)
evacuation of thousands of people. Wildfires are sometimes
coordinate and allocate resources at 10 regional levels. The
caused by lightning strikes and may also occur when a
cost of these resources is then reimbursed as specified in the
prescribed burn escapes control or through other human
cooperative fire protection master agreement, which often
activities (deliberate or accidental). From 2010 through
lists several different methods to apportion costs, each with
2019, wildfires burned 6.8 million acres annually on
different financial impacts.
average in the United States. In 2019, more than 50,000
wildfires burned 4.7 million acres, more than half of which
A state may also request assistance from the Federal
were in Alaska. In 2018, wildfires destroyed nearly 25,800
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of the
structures nationwide. More than 70% (18,130) of the
Department of Homeland Security for wildfires that began
structures were residences. Approximately 94% (17,130) of
on state or private lands. A governor could request an
the structures were in California.
emergency declaration when a wildfire is burning out of
control and threatens to become a major disaster. However,
Congress and other stakeholders have considered options
the most frequent assistance provided at this stage from
for federal support and assistance to address wildfire
FEMA is through the Fire Management Assistance Grants
suppression during a fire, post-wildfire recovery, and land
(FMAGs) as authorized by the Robert T. Stafford Disaster
management activities to reduce the risk of future
Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act, 42
catastrophic wildfires.
U.S.C. §5271 et seq.). Once issued, an FMAG declaration
authorizes various forms of federal assistance—such as
During a Fire
equipment, personnel, and grants to state, local, and tribal
The federal government is responsible for responding to
governments—for the control, management, and mitigation
wildfires that begin on federal lands. The Department of the
of any fire on certain public or private forest land or
Interior (DOI) manages wildfire response for more than 400
grassland that might become a major disaster. The grants
million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges and
may reimburse up to 75% of the allowable suppression
preserves, other public lands, and Indian reservations. The
costs for eligible fires. FMAG declarations, unlike some
Forest Service (FS), within the U.S. Department of
major disaster declarations, do not authorize assistance to
Agriculture (USDA), manages wildfire response across the
individuals and households. A state or tribe may also
193 million acres of the National Forest System.
request that the President declare the wildfire a major
disaster under the Stafford Act, authorizing other assistance
Federal responsibility for wildfire suppression is intended
and recovery programs, including assistance to individuals
to protect lives, property, and resources on federal lands.
and households.
Federal wildfire policy is to evaluate the risks to firefighter
and public safety and welfare—and to natural, ecological,
The federal government also supports state and local efforts
and cultural values to be protected—to determine the
to evacuate areas threatened by wildfires. A presidential
appropriate response to wildfire. Depending on the risk
declaration triggers federal aid to protect property and
assessment, the federal response may range from active
public health and safety while attempting to preserve state
suppression to monitoring, as supported by the area’s land
autonomy and responsibility. The National Planning
and resource management plans.
Frameworks, required to be created in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina, guide FEMA on how to assist state and
States are responsible for suppressing wildfires on
local agencies with emergencies and disasters, including
nonfederal (state, local, and private) lands, although the
wildfires. Information on active wildfires may be found at
response may be managed jointly for comingled land
ownership (including federal lands). The federal
government supports the states in several ways. Many states
COVID-19 Pandemic Considerations
have partnerships with federal agencies to provide wildfire
The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic
suppression services through cooperative fire protection
presents several interrelated challenges for wildland fire
agreements. These agreements authorize federal and state
management. Wildland fire response typically involves
partners to share resources—such as aviation equipment
activities and conditions that can facilitate the transmission
and personnel—during a wildfire season, allowing for a
of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. For example,
coordinated interagency response that deploys resources to
wildland firefighters and other support personnel work and
areas of greatest critical need. The National Multi-Agency
live in close proximity to each other during an active fire,
Coordination Group (NMAC), located at the National
and fire crews often travel to and from different states over
Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID, coordinates and
the course of a fire season. In addition, exposure to wildfire

Federal Assistance for Wildfire Response and Recovery
smoke may increase the occurrence or seriousness of
their occurrence. After a landslide, other federal post-
respiratory infections. More information on wildland
disaster assistance might become available.
firefighters and COVID risk is available at
Prevention and Mitigation
Numerous federal programs provide grants to states and
local governments to prepare for wildfire emergencies. FS
To address the challenges, the NMAC worked with each
provides financial and technical assistance for state and
GACC to develop a coordinated Wildland Fire Response
volunteer fire protection efforts. Through partnerships with
Plan (WFRP). Each WFRP outlines a region-specific
state forestry agencies, these programs provide funds for
strategic framework for maintaining a continuity of
community wildfire protection planning and preparation,
response and resource availability while adapting response
hazard mitigation, equipment, and personnel training.
protocols to provide for the safety and protection of
FMAG and major disaster declarations authorize statewide
response personnel. Strategies may include options such as
hazard mitigation through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation
increased aerial firefighting to reduce the need for on-the-
Grant Program. FEMA also provides grants and training for
ground personnel. The WFRPs for all geographic areas are
firefighting and for community responses to natural
available at https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/covid-19.htm.
disasters, including wildfires. Projects to reduce the risk of
In the Aftermath
future wildfires may also be eligible under FEMA’s
Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program
Federal actions in the aftermath of a wildfire disaster can
(formerly the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program).
take two principal forms: assistance for economic recovery
and assistance for ecological recovery. Economic recovery
Other wildfire issues include how to prevent a recurrence of
includes resources to repair damage to infrastructure and
catastrophic fires or minimize the damage after one occurs.
private property. A presidential declaration of a major
Conditions such as drought, lightning, and high winds make
disaster initiates a process for federal assistance to help
preventing wildfires impossible, but reducing fuel levels
state and local governments and communities recover from
(e.g., dead wood) can reduce their potential damage and, in
the disaster. The type and extent of the assistance depends
some cases, can decrease the likelihood that they will
on a number of factors, such as the nature and severity of
become catastrophic. However, severe wildfires cannot be
the wildfire damages and the insurance coverage of the
prevented in certain ecosystems, such as the chaparral of
affected parties.
southern California and lodgepole pine in the northern and
central Rockies. Furthermore, in many cases, these fires are
Ecological recovery includes resources for site
crucial to ecosystem functions. (Some tree species—such as
rehabilitation and restoration. On federal lands, site
lodgepole pines—require high temperatures from fires to
rehabilitation routinely occurs under an emergency wildfire
release their seeds.) Nonetheless, it is often possible to
program through the FS or DOI’s Burned Area Emergency
protect structures in such settings. Federal research and
Response protocols, as well as through regular land
grants (e.g., the FIREWISE program) have shown how
management activities. Activities include sowing areas with
homeowners can protect their structures even while
quick-growing grasses as well as planting trees and other
wildfires burn around them. The keys are the design of the
activities to reduce erosion, reduce impacts to water
structure itself (especially nonflammable roofing) and the
resources, or mitigate the risk of a landslide. They may also
landscaping within 40 meters of the structure. Local zoning
include removing dead or damaged trees threatening
is typically used to inform and enforce appropriate
resources or public safety.
standards for wildfire protection for structures.
On state and private lands, site rehabilitation is the
CRS Products
responsibility of the landowner, but USDA has several
programs that can provide assistance. For example, the
CRS Report R40884, Wildfires: CRS Experts.
Emergency Watershed Protection Program (administered
CRS Report R43738, Fire Management Assistance Grants:
jointly by the FS and Natural Resources Conservation
Frequently Asked Questions.
Service), as well as the Emergency Forest Restoration
CRS Report R42854, Emergency Assistance for
Program and the Emergency Conservation Program (both
Agricultural Land Rehabilitation.
administered by the Farm Service Agency) can provide
CRS Report RS21212, Agricultural Disaster Assistance.
technical and financial assistance for stabilization, recovery,
and restoration activities. USDA also has several
CRS Report R43784, FEMA’s Disaster Declaration
agricultural assistance programs to help farmers and
Process: A Primer.
ranchers recover from production losses following natural
CRS Insight IN11187, Federal Emergency Management
disasters, including wildfires.
Agency (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Assistance.
CRS Report R41981, Congressional Primer on Responding
Some severely burned areas can be at risk of landslides
to and Recovering from Major Disasters and Emergencies.
during subsequent rainstorms, even after site restoration
efforts. Little can be done to prevent such landslides, but
CRS Report R40811, Wildfire Fuels and Fuel Reduction.
monitoring (usually the responsibility of the landowner) can
Katie Hoover, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
provide warning to homeowners to evacuate an area prior to


Federal Assistance for Wildfire Response and Recovery

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