Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on December 20, 2021.

Real Answers

Lawmakers in Oregon and California take bold steps toward reducing wildfire risk before the fires start 

For much too long, the vast majority of funding aimed at the wildfire problem has been dedicated to fire suppression. This is a bit like latching the barn door after the horse has bolted; waiting until a fire occurs and responding with suppression is an ineffective way to prevent the destruction of homes, businesses, and communities.

Now, though, after the severe and repeated impacts of wildfires in Western states, real solutions are finally becoming clear to legislators. In combination with the promise of tens of billions of dollars for national forest restoration and wildfire resilience via the federal budget reconciliation bill, Oregon and California appear to be on track to set a positive precedent in wildfire risk reduction that at last breaks the cycle of build, burn, repeat.

In June, Oregon lawmakers approved more than $600 million to support community recovery from the September 2020 wildfires that burned more than a million acres across the state and destroyed more than 4,000 homes. Rather than focus solely on a speedy rebuild—a strategy that frequently leads to repeat disasters if safety measures are not put in place—the state also dedicated funds for improved fire resistance for rebuilt structures, along with financial support for building and planning department staff. The state also passed a comprehensive plan to improve ongoing wildfire prevention and mitigation that includes risk mapping, new defensible space standards, updates of electric utility planning requirements, a process for emergency shelter and voluntary evacuation services, and investment in workforce training and policy implementation.

California is also taking meaningful steps. Over the past year, the legislature has acted on several budget bills to allocate billions of dollars for wildfire prevention and climate preparedness. In addition to the ability to treat and manage vegetative fuels on millions of acres of state and private land, these funds will bolster California’s flagging defensible space inspection program and commit new monies to land-use planning and public education.

The California moves follow a similar action in 2019, when state lawmakers took the bold step of amending state regulations to invest in structure retrofits to help make homes more resistant to wildfire ignition—an important shift from the typical reaction of spending on new firefighting crews and emergency-response capacity following destructive fires. However, last year’s economic downturn squelched plans to spend $100 million in state and federal money to help state homeowners upgrade their properties.

In addition to state dollars, Congress must approve similarly bold and sustained investment to address the wildfire problem. Wildfire is a national problem, and as NFPA noted in a recent letter to Congress and relevant committees, the funding that would be provided by the federal budget reconciliation package is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to buy down the hazardous fuel conditions that feed catastrophic wildfires and degrade air quality coast to coast. 

By mustering the political will to establish both regulations and funding that attack the wildfire problem on a variety of fronts, Oregon and California are demonstrating that it’s possible for states to invest in safety long before wildfires start. This proactive approach is an important component of NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire policy initiative (, an effort dedicated to ending the destruction of communities by wildfire by 2050. Outthink Wildfire was ready with information, standards, and best practices to help Oregon and California policymakers focus on actions most likely to result in reduced wildfire losses. These resources are available to any legislative body or to anyone with a stake in reducing wildfire losses.

Outthink Wildfire staff and partners are working hard to keep the momentum on sensible, practical policy and the immediate application of workable solutions. Build, burn, repeat is no longer an option.

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler