Order Code RS22744
October 25, 2007
California Wildfires and Federal Assistance
Ross W. Gorte
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Wildfires in southern California have destroyed homes and forced thousands to
evacuate. The federal government is assisting state and local efforts to control the fires
and evacuate those at risk. Federal programs also exist to assist in recovery efforts after
the fires are out. Preventing a recurrence of catastrophic wildfires is impossible, but
research has shown how to protect homes even while wildfires are burning.
Raging wildfires, burned homes, and the evacuation of thousands of Californians
have been making headlines. Options for federal support and assistance — during the
fires, in the aftermath, and aimed at preventing a recurrence — have been raised by many
concerned about the ongoing disaster. This report addresses these federal options.
During the Fire
Two federal options for action exist while wildfires are burning. One option relates
to efforts to control and extinguish the fires. Federal responsibility for wildfire
suppression is limited to federal lands; states are responsible for suppressing wildfires on
nonfederal (state and private) lands.1 The federal government provides support to the
states in two ways. One is through direct financial assistance for state fire protection
efforts, funded through the Forest Service’s state fire assistance program.2 The other, and
more critical in the current situation, consists of fire suppression forces and assistance —
personnel, funding, and equipment (including aircraft) — provided at a state’s request,
and coordinated through the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, ID as well
as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In emergencies, NIFC
coordinates federal, state, and private forces (including the military, when called upon)
to assist the state or region in need while maintaining local wildfire protection. How
paying for these forces gets allocated is usually addressed after the emergency is over.
Fire management assistance is also provided by FEMA under the Robert T. Stafford
See CRS Report RL30755, Forest Fire/Wildfire Protection, by Ross W. Gorte.
See CRS Report RL33990, Wildfire Funding, by Ross W. Gorte.
Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.3 Fire management assistance declarations
for the California wildfires were issued by FEMA on October 21 and 22, 2007.4
The second federal option is to support state and local efforts to evacuate the areas
threatened by wildfires. Presidential declaration of an emergency (as has occurred for part
of California) triggers federal aid to protect property and public health and safety while
preserving state autonomy and responsibility.5 Although the new national response
framework, required in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is still not complete, FEMA and
the National Guard have been assisting state and local agencies in evacuating areas and
establishing and maintaining evacuation shelters.
In the Aftermath
As with during-the-fire efforts, federal actions in the aftermath of a wildfire disaster
can take two principal forms. In the first, a presidential declaration of an emergency
initiates a process for federal assistance to help state and local governments and families
and individuals 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.
Site rehabilitation following fire is the second principal form of support by federal
agencies. On federal lands, site rehabilitation routinely occurs as an emergency wildfire
program. On state and private lands, the responsibility lies with the landowner, but
federal assistance can be provided through the state fire assistance and forest stewardship
(also state assistance) programs.6 However, severely burned areas (especially in southern
California) are at risk of landslides during the subsequent rainy season. Little can be done
to prevent such events, but monitoring can provide warning to homeowners to evacuate
the area prior to a landslide, and other federal post-disaster assistance can then become
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 and equipment to states and volunteer fire departments, and through the states
for community wildfire protection planning. FEMA provides grants and training for
firefighting and for community responses to terrorist attacks and natural disasters.7
42 U.S.C. § 5187.
“Fire Management Assistance Declarations,” [http://www.fema.gov/news/disasters.fema#sev3],
visited October 24, 2007.
See CRS Report RL34146, FEMA’s Disaster Declaration Process: A Primer, by Francis X.
See CRS Report RL31065, Forestry Assistance Programs, by Ross W. Gorte.
See CRS Report RS21302, Assistance to Firefighters Program, by Lennard G. Kruger, and CRS
Report RS22393, State and Urban Area Homeland Security Plans and Exercises: Issues for the
110th Congress, by Shawn Reese.
A perhaps bigger question is how to prevent a recurrence of the catastrophic fires.
The answer is: You can’t. Drought, lightning, and high winds make extreme wildfires
inevitable. They cannot be prevented in ecosystems that have evolved with wildfire, such
as the chaparral of southern California. However, 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.8 The keys are the structure itself (especially non-flammable roofing) and the
landscaping within 40 meters of the structure. Zoning could inform and enforce
appropriate standards for wildfire protection.
See, for example, Jack D. Cohen, “Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes: Where and
How Much?” Proceedings of the Symposium on Fire Economics, Planning, and Policy: Bottom
Lines (San Diego, CA: April 5-9, 1999), Gen. Tech. Rept. PSW-GTR-173 (Berkeley, CA: USDA
Forest Service, December 1999), pp. 189-195.