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Wildfire Smoke: Opportunities to Strengthen Federal Efforts to Manage Growing Risks

GAO-23-104723 Published: Mar 13, 2023. Publicly Released: Mar 13, 2023.
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Fast Facts

Smoke from increasingly frequent catastrophic wildfires has created unhealthy air quality for tens of millions of Americans.

The EPA has partnered with other federal agencies to help communities deal with the smoke. One effort with the Forest Service produced an online map showing air quality, fire locations, and smoke direction.

But, EPA's actions have been ad hoc and spread across program and regional offices. Better coordination could help target resources. EPA could also improve its work with other agencies on using land management tools, like "prescribed burns," that could ultimately reduce smoke. Our recommendations address these issues.

Smoke from the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, CO on December 30, 2021

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has partnered with other agencies to provide a range of information and tools to help communities prepare for and respond to wildfire smoke events. For example, EPA partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Forest Service to develop an online map that shows near real-time air quality data, along with the locations of wildfires and where smoke is traveling.

Fire and Smoke Map, Showing Air Quality Information, Fire Locations, and Smoke Coverage

Fire and Smoke Map, Showing Air Quality Information, Fire Locations, and Smoke Coverage

GAO identified opportunities for EPA to better manage the growing risks from wildfire smoke by building on its actions to help communities prepare for and respond to wildfire smoke events. In particular, EPA could take a more coordinated approach to its actions that aligns with leading practices for collaboration. EPA's actions are spread across program and regional offices and conducted in an ad hoc manner with no dedicated program or budget. By developing a coordinated approach to guide these actions, EPA could better ensure that the agency directs limited resources toward its highest priorities.

EPA also has opportunities to enhance its role in supporting hazard mitigation through methods to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires and resulting smoke events. For example, EPA could work with federal land management agencies—the Forest Service and agencies within the Department of the Interior—to strengthen federal coordination. EPA and the land management agencies have identified areas where their respective agency missions and goals for wildfire risk mitigation are not aligned. For example, land management agency officials said that EPA's air quality requirements can limit the use of certain land-management methods, such as prescribed burns, that have the potential to reduce smoke from future wildfires. By better aligning their goals for wildfire risk mitigation, the federal agencies can more effectively reduce risks to air quality and public health from wildfire smoke over the long term.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. has recently experienced some of its worst wildfire seasons on record, creating unhealthy smoke that affected tens of millions of Americans. The 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment projects that climate change will likely increase the frequency of large wildfires and worsen health effects from smoke.

EPA's mission is to protect human health and the environment. Managing risks to air quality and public health from wildfire smoke includes (1) ensuring communities can prepare for and respond to the risks, and (2) hazard mitigation to potentially reduce smoke risks from future fires.

GAO was asked to review issues related to the effects of wildfires on air quality and public health. This report examines, among other things, (1) EPA actions to manage risks to air quality and public health from wildfire smoke and to coordinate with other federal agencies, and (2) how EPA could better manage these risks.

GAO reviewed laws, regulations, and other documents; interviewed federal officials and 15 stakeholder entities, including tribal, state, and local agencies; and analyzed actions to reduce risks using criteria, including GAO's Disaster Resilience Framework.

Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations, including that (1) EPA develop a coordinated approach for its actions to manage wildfire smoke risks; and (2) EPA, USDA, and Interior align air quality and land management goals for wildfire risk mitigation. EPA, USDA, and Interior generally agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency The Administrator of EPA should develop and document a coordinated approach for EPA's actions to help communities prepare for and respond to the air quality and public health risks of wildfire smoke. The approach should align with leading practices for collaboration, including establishing goals, identifying and leveraging resources, and clarifying key stakeholder roles and responsibilities. (Recommendation 1)
Open
EPA agreed with this recommendation. In September 2023, EPA stated that the agency had identified several internal organizational structures to manage its wildfire work and had identified goals to facilitate a more coordinated and strategic approach to addressing wildfire smoke issues. Also, in November 2023, EPA took steps to clarify key roles and responsibilities with its partners by signing a memorandum of understanding with USDA, the Department of the Interior, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, EPA still needs to document a coordinated approach for its actions that aligns with leading practices for collaboration including establishing goals and identifying and leveraging resources. We will monitor and update the status of this recommendation, as appropriate.
Environmental Protection Agency The Administrator of EPA should work with the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to better align air quality and land management goals for wildfire risk mitigation and establish joint strategies for achieving those goals. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
EPA agreed with this recommendation. In a November 2023 memorandum of understanding, EPA, USDA, the Department of the Interior, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committed to work together under existing laws to clarify and align regulations, policy, and practice to promote the mutual objectives of protecting public health from the impacts of smoke and enabling land management practices, including prescribed burns, that may reduce the risk of future large, high severity fire events. The memorandum also includes a workplan to define the agencies' intended areas of focus. These are important steps toward addressing our recommendation. To help better align the agencies' goals and establish joint strategies for achieving those goals, EPA needs to ensure that it acts on the memorandum by undertaking efforts outlined in it, such as designating a representative for its implementation. We will monitor and update the status of this recommendation, as appropriate.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should work with the Administrator of EPA and Secretary of the Interior to better align air quality and land management goals for wildfire risk mitigation and establish joint strategies for achieving those goals. (Recommendation 3)
Open – Partially Addressed
USDA agreed with this recommendation. In a November 2023 memorandum of understanding, USDA, EPA, the Department of the Interior, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committed to work together under existing laws to clarify and align regulations, policy, and practice to promote the mutual objectives of protecting public health from the impacts of smoke and enabling land management practices, including prescribed burns, that may reduce the risk of future large, high severity fire events. The memorandum also includes a workplan to define the agencies' intended areas of focus. These are important steps toward addressing our recommendation. To help better align the agencies' goals and establish joint strategies for achieving those goals, USDA needs to ensure that it acts on the memorandum by undertaking efforts outlined in it, such as designating a representative for its implementation. We will monitor and update the status of this recommendation, as appropriate.
Department of the Interior The Secretary of the Interior should work with the Administrator of EPA and Secretary of Agriculture to better align air quality and land management goals for wildfire risk mitigation and establish joint strategies for achieving those goals. (Recommendation 4)
Open – Partially Addressed
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In a November 2023 memorandum of understanding, Interior, EPA, USDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committed to work together under existing laws to clarify and align regulations, policy, and practice to promote the mutual objectives of protecting public health from the impacts of smoke and enabling land management practices, including prescribed burns, that may reduce the risk of future large, high severity fire events. The memorandum also includes a workplan to define the agencies' intended areas of focus. These are important steps toward addressing our recommendation. To help better align the agencies' goals and establish joint strategies for achieving those goals, Interior needs to ensure that it acts on the memorandum by undertaking efforts outlined in it, such as designating a representative for its implementation. We will monitor and update the status of this recommendation, as appropriate
Environmental Protection Agency The Administrator of EPA should, in consultation with federal land management agencies, identify and develop additional information on reducing risks from wildfire smoke to air quality and public health through wildfire risk mitigation. (Recommendation 5)
Open – Partially Addressed
EPA agreed with this recommendation. In November 2023, EPA signed a memorandum of understanding with USDA, the Department of the Interior, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that identifies needed information related to reducing risks from wildfire smoke to air quality and public health through wildfire risk mitigation. This is an important step toward implementing our recommendation. Next, EPA needs to ensure that the agency, in consultation with the federal land management agencies, takes steps to further develop this information. We will monitor and update the status of this recommendation, as appropriate.
Environmental Protection Agency The Director of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation should work with EPA's tribal, state, and local partners to evaluate options for providing incentives for and supporting wildfire risk mitigation and establish a plan for implementing appropriate options, seeking additional authority from Congress if needed. (Recommendation 6)
Open
EPA agreed with this recommendation and asked for clarification, which we provided in the report. In November 2023, EPA signed a memorandum of understanding with USDA, the Department of the Interior, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to coordinate on issues related to wildland fire and air quality. The memorandum identifies as a focus area the need to identify and evaluate barriers to prescribed burning, including clear communication to Tribal, state, and local governments to clarify federal guidance, approval authority, and interpretation of the Clean Air Act. The memorandum also includes as a focus exploring intersections between Tribal cultural burning and the air quality management system and identifying barriers and opportunities. We will continue to track the results of these and other related EPA efforts and provide updated status information, as appropriate.

Full Report

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Topics

Air qualityClean air legislationCommunitiesDisaster resilienceEnvironmental monitoringEnvironmental protectionFederal agenciesFederal land managementHealth effectsLand managementParticulate matterPublic healthWildfiresWildland fires