Federal Assistance for Wildfire Response and Recovery: In Brief

Wildfires can destroy homes and force thousands of people to evacuate. Over the last 10 years, wildfires in the United States have burned nearly 7.0 million acres annually on average. In 2015, 68,200 wildfires burned 10.1 million acres, making 2015 the largest fire year on record. In 2016, more than 67,700 wildfires burned 5.5 million acres. Through July 26, 2017, approximately 37,200 wildfires have burned 5.2 million acres, surpassing the 3.1 million acres burned through July 26 last year.

The federal government has programs to assist state and local efforts to control wildfires and evacuate those at risk. Federal programs also exist to assist in recovery efforts after the fires are out. Grants for postfire recovery are available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), following a presidential major disaster declaration. Site rehabilitation and restoration are funded for federal lands through wildfire funding and other land management appropriations. For state and private lands, federal assistance is provided through the Forest Service’s state and volunteer fire assistance programs and through U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) land rehabilitation and disaster assistance programs.

Preventing a recurrence of catastrophic wildfires is impossible, but research has shown that fuel reduction in certain ecosystems can reduce the extent and severity of wildfires. Further, home protection efforts can reduce damage to homes while wildfires are burning.

Federal Assistance for Wildfire Response and Recovery: In Brief

July 27, 2017 (R41858)

Wildfires are unplanned and unwanted fires, and they can often threaten and damage homes and communities and force the evacuation of thousands of people.1 Over the last 10 years, wildfires have burned 6.6 million acres annually on average in the United States. This year, through July 26, 2017, approximately 37,200 wildfires have burned 5.2 million acres (2.6 million acres on federal land and 2.6 million acres on nonfederal land). Last year, 67,700 wildfires burned 5.5 million acres (3.0 million acres on federal land and 2.5 million acres on nonfederal land). The largest fire season on record in terms of acreage burned occurred in 2015, with more than 68,000 wildfires and 10.1 million acres burned (7.4 million acres on federal land and 2.7 million acres on nonfederal land). More than half of the acres burned in 2015 were in Alaska (5.1 million acres total, 4.1 million acres of which were on federal land).2 Stakeholders have considered options for federal support and assistance to address wildfire suppression, post-wildfire recovery, and wildfire prevention. This report briefly describes these federal options.

During the Fire

Federal responsibility for wildfire suppression is intended to protect lives, property, and resources on federal lands. Federal firefighting is funded through the Forest Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and through the Department of the Interior.3 Federal wildfire policy is to evaluate the risks to firefighter and public safety and welfare—and to natural and cultural values to be protected—to determine the appropriate response to wildfire. Depending on the risk assessment, the federal response may range from active suppression to monitoring, as supported by the area's land and resource management plans.

States are responsible for suppressing wildfires on nonfederal (state and private) lands, although the federal government supports the states in several ways. Many states have partnerships with federal agencies to provide wildfire suppression services through cooperative agreements.4 These cooperative fire protection agreements authorize federal and state partners to share resources—such as aviation equipment and personnel—depending on ongoing need during a wildfire season, allowing for a coordinated interagency response that deploys resources to areas of greatest critical need. The National Interagency Coordination Center, located at the National Interagency Fire Center, coordinates and allocates federal, state, and private forces (including the military, when called upon) and resources at a national level. Geographic Area Coordination Centers coordinate and allocate resources at nine regional levels.5 The cost of these resources is then reimbursed as specified in the cooperative fire protection master agreement, which often lists several different methods to apportion costs, each with different financial impacts.

A state may also request assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of the Department of Homeland Security for wildfires on state or private lands. A governor could request an emergency declaration when a wildfire is burning out of control and threatens to become a major disaster. However, the most frequent assistance provided at this stage from FEMA is through the Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAGs) as authorized by the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.6 Once issued, the FMAG declaration authorizes various forms of federal assistance—such as equipment, personnel, and grants to state, local, and tribal governments—for the control, management, and mitigation of any fire on certain public or private forest land or grassland that might become a major disaster. The grants may reimburse up to 75% of the allowable suppression costs for eligible fires. Further, FMAG declarations, unlike some major disaster declarations, do not authorize assistance to individuals and households.7 A state may also request that the President declare the wildfire a major disaster under the Stafford Act, authorizing other assistance and recovery programs.8

The federal government also supports state and local efforts to evacuate areas threatened by wildfires. A presidential declaration of an emergency triggers federal aid to protect property and public health and safety while attempting to preserve state autonomy and responsibility.9 The National Planning Frameworks, required to be created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, guide FEMA on how to assist state and local agencies with emergencies and disasters, including wildfires.10

In the Aftermath

Federal actions in the aftermath of a wildfire disaster can take two principal forms: assistance for economic recovery and assistance for ecological recovery. Economic recovery includes resources to repair damage to infrastructure and private property. A presidential declaration of a major disaster initiates a process for federal assistance to help state and local governments and communities recover from the disaster. The nature and extent of the assistance depends on a number of factors, such as the nature and severity of the wildfire damages and the insurance coverage of the affected parties.11

Ecological recovery includes resources for site rehabilitation and restoration. On federal lands, site rehabilitation routinely occurs under an emergency wildfire program through the agencies' Burned Area Emergency Response protocols, as well as through regular land management activities. Activities include sowing areas with quick-growing grasses as well as planting trees and other activities to reduce erosion. They may also include removing dead or damaged trees threatening resources or public safety.

On state and private lands, site rehabilitation is the responsibility of the landowner, but federal assistance can be provided through the Forest Service's state fire assistance and other state forestry assistance programs.12 In addition, USDA has several programs that can provide restoration activities (tree planting, stream-bank stabilization, and more) following wildfires or other natural disasters. For example, the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service) and the Emergency Conservation Program and Emergency Forest Restoration Program (both administered by the Farm Service Agency) can provide technical and financial assistance for restoration activities.13 USDA also has several agricultural assistance programs to help farmers and ranchers recover from production losses following natural disasters.14

Some severely burned areas are at risk of landslides during subsequent rainstorms, even after site restoration efforts. Little can be done to prevent such events, but monitoring can provide warning to homeowners to evacuate an area prior to a landslide. After a landslide, other federal post-disaster assistance might become available.

Preventing a Recurrence

Numerous federal programs provide grants to states and local governments to prepare for wildfire emergencies. The Forest Service provides financial and technical assistance for state and volunteer fire protection efforts.15 Through partnerships with state forestry agencies, these programs provide funds for pre-fire community wildfire protection planning and preparation, hazard mitigation, equipment, and personnel training. FEMA provides grants and training for firefighting and for community responses to terrorist attacks and natural disasters.16 Projects to reduce the risk of future fires may also be eligible under FEMA's Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program.17

Other questions include how to prevent a recurrence of catastrophic fires or minimize the damage. Conditions such as drought, lightning, and high winds make preventing catastrophic wildfires impossible, although reducing fuel levels can reduce the potential damages from wildfires and decrease the likelihood of a catastrophic wildfire occurring in some cases.18 However, severe wildfires cannot be prevented in certain ecosystems, such as the chaparral of southern California and lodgepole pine in the northern and central Rockies. Nonetheless, it is possible to protect structures in such settings. Federal research and grants, particularly for the FIREWISE program, have shown how homeowners can protect their structures even while wildfires burn around them.19 The keys are the structure itself (especially nonflammable roofing) and the landscaping within 40 meters of the structure. Local zoning could inform and enforce appropriate standards for wildfire protection for structures.

Author Contact Information

[author name scrubbed], Specialist in Natural Resources Policy ([email address scrubbed], [phone number scrubbed])


Earlier versions of the report were written by Ross Gorte, retired CRS Specialist in Natural Resources Policy.

Key Policy Staff

Area of Expertise




Federal wildfire policy; federal forest management; Forest Service programs

[author name scrubbed]

[phone number scrubbed]

[email address scrubbed]

Disaster recovery and mitigation programs

Jared Brown

[phone number scrubbed]

[email address scrubbed]

Disaster declarations; Disaster Relief Fund; Fire Management Assistance Grants

[author name scrubbed]

[phone number scrubbed]

[email address scrubbed]

Agricultural disaster assistance; private land rehabilitation

[author name scrubbed]

[phone number scrubbed]

[email address scrubbed]

Assistance to Firefighters Grants

[author name scrubbed]

[phone number scrubbed]

[email address scrubbed]



For a complete listing of CRS experts available to respond to wildfire-related questions, see CRS Report R40884, Wildfires: CRS Experts, by [author name scrubbed].


National Interagency Coordination Center, Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics Annual Report, 2015, at http://www.predictiveservices.nifc.gov/intelligence/2015_Statssumm/2015Stats&Summ.html. For more wildfire statistics, see CRS In Focus IF10244, Wildfire Statistics, by [author name scrubbed].


For more information, see CRS Report R44082, Wildfire Suppression Spending: Background, Issues, and Legislation, by [author name scrubbed], [author name scrubbed], and [author name scrubbed], and CRS Report R43077, Wildfire Management Appropriations: Data, Trends, and Issues, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].


See CRS Report RL30755, Forest Fire/Wildfire Protection, by [author name scrubbed].


For more information, see the National Interagency Coordination Center website at http://www.nifc.gov/nicc/ and the Geographic Area Coordination Centers website at http://gacc.nifc.gov/.


42 U.S.C. §5187.


For additional information see CRS Report R43738, Fire Management Assistance Grants: Frequently Asked Questions, coordinated by [author name scrubbed].


See CRS Report RL31734, Federal Disaster Assistance Response and Recovery Programs: Brief Summaries, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].


See CRS Report R43784, FEMA's Disaster Declaration Process: A Primer, by [author name scrubbed].


Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Planning Frameworks, May 2013.


For detailed information on infrastructure repair see CRS Report R43990, FEMA's Public Assistance Grant Program: Background and Considerations for Congress, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].


See CRS Report RL31065, Forestry Assistance Programs, by [author name scrubbed].


For more information, see CRS Report R42854, Emergency Assistance for Agricultural Land Rehabilitation, by [author name scrubbed].


For more information, see CRS Report RS21212, Agricultural Disaster Assistance, by [author name scrubbed].


See CRS Report R43077, Wildfire Management Appropriations: Data, Trends, and Issues, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].


See CRS Report RL32341, Assistance to Firefighters Program: Distribution of Fire Grant Funding, by [author name scrubbed], and CRS Report R40471, FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program: Overview and Issues, by [author name scrubbed].


42 U.S.C. §5133. See CRS Report RL34537, FEMA's Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program: Overview and Issues, by [author name scrubbed].


See CRS Report R40811, Wildfire Fuels and Fuel Reduction, by [author name scrubbed].


See CRS Report RS21880, Wildfire Protection in the Wildland-Urban Interface, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].