Wildland fires help maintain healthy ecosystems, but also cause damage. The size and intensity of wildland fires are expected to increase in coming years.
Wildland fire plays an important ecological role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. However, wildland fires also burn millions of acres each year, cost billions of dollars, damage homes and critical natural resources, and result in deaths. The size and intensity of wildland fires have increased in recent decades, partly due to climate change, and many scientists and researchers expect fires to become larger and more severe in the future.
Five federal agencies are responsible for wildland fire management: USDA’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. These agencies were appropriated about $4.2 billion in FY 2017 to manage wildland fires—either by suppressing them, allowing them to burn for natural resource benefits, or by reducing the vegetation that can fuel fires. And while not directly involved, FEMA also provides disaster assistance to those affected by some wildland fires.
Over the past decade, these agencies have made several changes to how they manage wildland fires. For instance, they collaborated with partners from multiple jurisdictions (i.e., tribal, state, and local governments; nongovernmental partners; and public stakeholders) to complete the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy in 2014. Agencies have also started to place greater emphasis on using wildland fires to help reduce vegetation (rather than seeking to suppress all fires)—a practice intended to improve the ecological health of forests and grasslands and to reduce the intensity of future wildland fires.
However, federal agencies still face challenges to effectively managing wildland fires. These include preparing for and responding to COVID-19 to ensure that agencies can continue to respond to wildfires, and modernizing aerial firefighting capacity.