Fast Facts

In 2017 and 2018, wildfires in California killed 159 people and destroyed more than 32,000 structures, including many homes. In response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency put about $2 billion toward housing, debris removal, and other assistance.

According to state and local officials, FEMA’s assistance helped their recovery efforts. For example, FEMA set up centers that helped survivors find services. Officials also reported challenges, such as removing debris after large-scale fires.

FEMA reviewed its performance but could more broadly assess how its policies and procedures work for large-scale fires. We recommended such an assessment.

The Tubbs Fire destroyed homes in Santa Rosa, California, in October 2017

Aerial view of homes destroyed by fire

Aerial view of homes destroyed by fire

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What GAO Found

For wildfire-related major disaster declarations from 2015 through 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—consistent with its authorities and responsibilities—helped state and local officials obtain and coordinate federal resources to provide for the needs of wildfire survivors and execute recovery efforts. This support totalled over $2.4 billion and included providing staff to assist at Emergency Operations Centers and establishing Disaster Recovery Centers to coordinate disaster assistance services for survivors. In addition, FEMA provided Public Assistance grant funds to local jurisdictions to help address community infrastructure needs, such as debris removal. FEMA also assigned federal agencies to perform various missions to help with response and recovery—for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was assigned with contracting for debris removal services in some instances.

Officials from jurisdictions that GAO spoke with described practices that aided in wildfire response and recovery, but also reported experiencing challenges. Specifically, officials in affected areas noted that collaboration between FEMA and California's Office of Emergency Services allowed for timely information sharing, and FEMA's assistance at Disaster Recovery Centers greatly assisted survivors in obtaining necessary services. Among the challenges cited were onerous documentation requirements for FEMA's Public Assistance grant program and locating temporary housing for survivors whose homes were completely destroyed. In addition, the unique challenge of removing wildfire debris led to confusion over soil excavation standards and led to overexcavation on some homeowners' lots, lengthening the rebuilding process.

FEMA has developed an after-action report identifying lessons learned from the October and December 2017 wildfires, but could benefit from a more comprehensive assessment of its operations to determine if additional actions are needed to ensure that policies and procedures are best suited to prepare for future wildfires. The combination of recent devastating wildfires and projections for increased wildfire activity suggest a potential change in FEMA's operating environment. According to Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government , such changes should be analyzed and addressed to help ensure that agencies maintain their effectiveness.

Aerial Photo of Wildfire Damage, Santa Rosa, California, October 11, 2017

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Why GAO Did This Study

In 2017 and 2018, deadly wildfires struck the state of California, tragically resulting in 159 deaths and over 32,000 structures destroyed. FEMA, as the lead federal agency for responding to and recovering from disasters, has obligated about $2 billion in housing, debris removal, and other assistance following these disasters. According to recent environmental assessments, fire seasons are increasing in length, putting more people and infrastructure at risk.

GAO was asked to assess a range of response and recovery issues related to the 2017 disasters. Specifically, this report addresses (1) the assistance FEMA provided to jurisdictions in response to major disaster declarations stemming from wildfires from 2015 through 2018, (2) selected jurisdictions' perspectives on FEMA wildfire response and recovery efforts, and (3) the extent to which FEMA has identified and addressed key lessons learned. GAO obtained data on FEMA wildfire disaster assistance and statistics on fire damages and fatalities; reviewed key documentation, such as incident action plans and after action reports; and interviewed officials from FEMA headquarters and regional offices, states, and a nonprobability sample of affected local jurisdictions (e.g., counties).

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GAO recommends that FEMA comprehensively assess operations to identify additional updates to policies and procedures that could enhance future wildfire response and recovery efforts. The Department of Homeland Security agreed with our recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency We recommend that the FEMA Administrator comprehensively assess operations to identify any additional updates to its management controls—such as policies, procedures, or training—that could enhance future response and recovery from large-scale and severe wildfires. (Recommendation 1)
DHS concurred with this recommendation. On 7/28/2020, FEMA provided updates on three separate efforts to help states carry out sheltering and housing missions and a larger effort to standardize its continuous improvement process. FEMA officials said they have begun deploying sheltering and housing field teams to disaster affected areas, as necessary, to develop strategies. Officials described efforts to update direct housing guidance and expect to incorporate results of a JFO-level review into a new version (3) of the guidance by June 2021. Officials also described efforts to administer a pilot program for state-administered direct housing grants for temporary housing and permanent construction authorized by the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 (pilot authority expires October 2020). FEMA expected the grant program would help states, territories, and tribes build capacity and capability to administer disaster housing missions in a manner that proactively addresses hazards (including wildfires) that are common within a particular jurisdiction. According to officials, FEMA developed guidance for this effort in November 2019 and shared the draft with OMB for interagency review in December 2019. Upon issuance of the guidance, FEMA planned to begin assisting with developing housing strategies and administrative plans required to qualify for a grant, following a presidentially-declared major disaster declaration. (FEMA did not provide an update on the status of this state administered housing mission in the July 2020 update.) FEMA officials also reported that FEMA has finalized National Collection Analysis Priorities (NCAP) to guide disaster assessment efforts across all FEMA Regions by establishing focus areas for continuous Improvement activities. The priorities are to be regularly reviewed by all Associate Administrators, directing continuous improvement analysts at Headquarters and in the Regions to examine select issues at all disaster operations and report findings on a quarterly basis. FEMA is then to brief senior leadership quarterly (which officials said happened in December 2019 and March 2020). Officials also said they provided a 2019 summary of findings highlighting the most common findings across disasters for senior leader consideration. FEMA did not specify whether any of these efforts resulted in updates to policy, procedures, or training specific to wildfire disasters. Note: in its management letter response to the report, FEMA reported plans for the development of a project to analyze and improve capabilities and identify areas of innovation in response to a wildfire disaster. Neither of its two updates to date (4/2020 and 7/2020) have referenced this project. In February 2020, FEMA provided an Corrective Action Plan update that updated the timeline for finalizing the Direct Housing Guide update to June 2021. To respond to this recommendation, DHS will need to demonstrate that it has completed a broad-based review of management controls--policies, procedures, and training--and taken action to ensure than any changes necessary to ensure the applicability of those controls to response and recovery for large-scale and severe wildfires.

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