Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on January 25, 2022.


With wildfire season now a year-round occurrence, the federal government has ramped up funding and manpower—in the form of more than $3 billion as part of the sweeping new infrastructure act—to combat the worsening crisis. Will it be enough?


January 1, 2022 was a perfect winter day in Northern Colorado, with nearly a foot of fresh snow on the ground and temperatures hovering in the teens.

It was also a day that residents throughout the region spent digging through the charred remains of their homes, destroyed days earlier by a fast-moving wildfire. 

On December 30, the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history blitzed through the densely settled suburbs of Louisville and Superior, 10 miles east of Boulder. By the time a snowstorm smothered it, the Marshall Fire, as it became known, had destroyed nearly 1,100 homes, collectively valued at over $500 million, and killed at least two people, county officials said. 

The Marshall Fire is just the latest installment in a story of loss and destruction that is all too familiar, not just in the West but in fire-prone areas across the country. Over the past decade, structure losses from wildfire have increased a staggering 163 percent over historic averages, according to NFPA. In the last three years alone, more than 400,000 structures have been destroyed in wildfires, resulting in about $40 billion in insured losses and at least 100 deaths. 

While scenes of subdivisions reduced to ash are by now familiar, the details of the Marshall Fire add another layer of urgency to a growing threat. The fire occurred in winter, once thought to be outside of the traditional fire season, and on urban prairie located far from any forest. Those kinds of details speak volumes about how the wildfire risk has changed and expanded over the last decade, according to Michele Steinberg, who leads the Wildfire Division at NFPA.


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“I have been to that area many times and have heard homeowners tell me that they never thought they’d get a wildfire there, because it’s just subdivisions on a sea of prairie land—there are hardly any trees,” Steinberg said. “It should be clear by now that everyone has a certain level of risk. The wildland/urban interface is not a place on a map, it is a set of conditions that can exist almost anywhere.”

In Colorado and other states, the conditions required for extreme wildfires seem to be persisting for much longer periods throughout the year. Although the Marshall Fire struck in late December, the majority of the month felt nothing like winter in the greater Denver area, according to the National Weather Service. The daily high for most days in December rose at least 10 degrees above normal, with several days reaching into the 60s and 70s, according to weather service data. In the first 30 days of December, the area saw just 0.3 inches of snow compared to a historical average of more than 8 inches. These warm and dry conditions, as well as freakish 100-mile-per-hour wind gusts on the day of the fire, quickly turned the Marshall Fire into an uncontrollable fire storm. 

The Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Northern Colorado in late December. It was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. GETTY IMAGES

But a drier, hotter climate is just part of the story, said Randy Moore, the recently appointed chief of the US Forest Service. Perhaps more troubling, he said, is the state of the country’s unhealthy and overgrown forests, which provide fires with the fuel they need to swiftly explode from natural events to natural disasters. At present, some 63 million acres, or about a third of national forest land, is rated “at high or very high hazard for wildfires that would be difficult to contain,” Moore said during a Congressional hearing last September. “This is in part a result of 110 years of overly aggressive fire suppression policies as well as climate change. To reduce this risk, there is need to significantly scale up hazardous fuel reduction treatments across landscapes and in partnership with communities in the most at-risk places.”

Wildfire-prone areas across the US are in a state of emergency, Moore cautioned, “and it’s time to treat them like one.”

Less than two months after Moore’s comments, his agency received an early Christmas present in the form of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in November. Included in the sprawling legislation is about $3.4 billion in new funding aimed at several areas that experts have long said are needed to start reversing the destructive trends of wildfire. The bill includes at least $1.7 billion for fuel treatment and adding fire breaks on federal lands; $600 million in added pay and benefits to attract and retain federal wildland firefighters; $500 million in grants for defense projects in at-risk communities; the creation of a new federal wildfire committee to study the problem and make recommendations to Congress; and a host of other expenditures on fire detection, mapping, and new equipment and technologies. 

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in October, as the infrastructure bill was taking final form, Moore said he believed that the level of wildfire destruction in recent years had compelled elected officials to better fund solutions beyond trying to put fires out. 

“I’m hopeful because I know that while there’s a lot of attention on fire suppression, there seems to be gathering steam around forest treatment,” he said. “There seems to be hope on the horizon in terms of having a budget that’s sufficient enough that we can go out and start doing the fuel treatments that need to take place.”

Now that the final funding numbers are known, whether or not this infusion of money is indeed sufficient relative to the size of the problem is a matter of debate among forest managers and wildfire policy experts. For activities including fuel treatment, the funding has been met with a tempered optimism—a good, if less-than-ideal, start, akin to paying down some of a sizeable and expanding credit card bill. Other provisions, like pay increases for wildland firefighters and increases in community defense grants, are actions that have been needed for years and could have significant impacts, experts say. A good portion of the bill’s other inclusions, such as forming a Wildfire Mitigation and Management Commission, are still too new and fuzzy to speculate on their potential impact.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the highlights.

Fuel mitigation and fire breaks: $1.7 billion

The largest portion of wildfire funding in the infrastructure bill is dedicated to fuel mitigation, an area experts believe is crucial to tamping down wildfire losses. 

The roughly $1.7 billion for fuel mitigation includes $500 million for mechanical thinning and cutting of trees and underbrush; $500 million for prescribed burns in overgrown forests; $500 million for developing and improving fuel breaks; and $200 million to hire crews of laborers to remove combustible vegetation from federal lands. The bill stipulates that the government will use the money to treat 10 million acres of federal land by September 2027, which represents 10 percent of the 100 million acres that federal agencies estimate to be at a high risk. The work will be done on federal and tribal lands in the wildland/urban interface or public drinking water source areas that are deemed to have what the bill refers to as “very high wildfire hazard potential.”

Wildland firefighters work to create a firebreak during the Dixie Fire in the Lassen National Forest in California in September. The infrastructure bill includes $600 million to improve pay, training, and conditions for federal wildland firefighters.  CECILIO RICARDO/USDA FOREST SERVICE

Such efforts are necessary “to restore forests to conditions they were in before we started suppressing fires for 100 years,” said Bill Gabbert, a former wildland firefighter who is now the editor of the websites and When a landscape is cleared of excess fuel, “a fire’s rate of spread and intensity will slow down, allowing firefighters on the ground to move in closer and work on the fire’s edge and suppress the fire,” he said.

Gabbert, who spent nearly a decade as a fire management officer for a group of seven national parks, said he believes that the mitigation funding in the bill will make a big difference. “I know how much it costs to complete fuel management projects, and the numbers they are committing are very significant,” he said. “They can get a lot of work done on the ground.”

Others, while applauding the boost in resources, have pointed out that the roughly $1.7 billion falls well short of the Forest Service’s own stated needs for fuel reduction. In June, former Forest Service chief Viki Christiansen told a Senate committee that it would take $20 billion over a 10-year period to get ahead of the backlog of untreated federal land. The agency currently treats about 3 million federal acres a year, a figure that she said would need to increase to 6 to 12 million acres annually.   

The mitigation funding in the bill “is a step in the right direction, but what we really need here is an order of magnitude increase in how much of this risk reduction we’re investing in,” Matt Wibbenmeyer, an environmental economist at the policy research organization Resources for the Future, told the magazine High Country News shortly after the bill’s passage. “I think we have to get used to the fact that climate change is going to be expensive.”

For people like Wibbenmeyer, the lower-than-hoped-for final figures might sting a bit more after a separate infrastructure bill, dubbed the Build Back Better bill, failed to get traction in the Senate late last year. That bill included roughly $27 billion for forest improvements spread out over federal, state, and tribal lands, with more than half of it slated to go toward reducing wildfire risks, through fuel mitigation and prescribed burns in the wildland/urban interface. 

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The long-term success and impact of mitigation efforts may depend on Congress’s appetite to take further action, said Meghan Housewright, the director of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute.

“I would say that it is a significant investment, but one thing to watch out for is if there are future bills adding additional funds,” she said in an interview. “Are they treating this as a base to add to, or are they going to say we don’t need to add any more money to it? How big a bump this represents will depend on whether this current bill is the whole potato.”

Wildland firefighters: $600 million

The bill seems to acknowledge the trouble the federal government has had recently in attracting and retaining wildland firefighters, a physically demanding and high-stress job that most would argue is underpaid. 

To remedy this, Congress included $600 million to improve pay, training, and conditions, including mental health services, for federal wildland firefighters. Federal firefighters will receive a raise of $20,000 per year to their base salary—or an amount equal to 50 percent of the base salary, whichever is less—and for the first time will have a separate occupational track within the forest service; previously, all wildland firefighters were considered “forestry technicians.” The bill also stipulates that no fewer than 1,000 seasonal firefighters will be converted to permanent, full-time employees, and their job descriptions will include 800 mandatory hours of mitigation work per year. “There has never been a requirement like that in the job description before,” Gabbert said. 

Observers hope these changes will solve some significant workforce retention issues, a situation that Christianson, the former forest service chief, has described as “at a breaking point.”

On its website, the US Forest Service claims that it has 10,000 wildland firefighting positions, and 5,000 others employed through four federal land management agencies. But a sizeable portion of those positions remain unfilled due to experienced firefighters leaving for higher-paying state and private jobs, Gabbert said. “There is a huge turnover and churn in wildland firefighting ranks because it’s been extremely difficulty to retain those firefighters,” he said.  According to Gabbert’s sources, the forest service last spring had “hundreds and hundreds” of vacant firefighting positions across the country. As a result, “dozens of engines could not be staffed because they did not have the minimum number of people required, and there were hotshot crews that could not be deployed because there were not enough members,” he said. “Early in the season, there were incidents of crews combining forces into a single crew so they would have enough numbers.” 

Steinberg of NFPA’s Wildfire Division said she has heard similar stories of federal wildland firefighters moving on to work at state agencies like CALFIRE, where they can earn better wages. “It only makes sense to bring the federal wage up to parity,” she said. “I think there is a feeling that the Forest Service just can’t afford to lose people in those jobs right now.”

“I feel confident that raising the salaries will make a difference,” Gabbert said. 

Community wildfire defenses program: $500 million 

For years, communities in the WUI have been encouraged to develop community wildfire protection plans, or CWPPs. These plans help communities plot a course of initiatives, from fuel mitigation to public education, to reduce their wildfire risk. While all of that is well and good, Steinberg said, the reality was that communities would often come up with workable plans only to learn that money wasn’t available to support those steps. 

Provisions in the new infrastructure bill allocated $500 million to help communities develop CWPPs and, critically, to fund projects in existing CWPPs that may have been merely collecting dust on a shelf. Each grant can be up to $10 million. “This is a big potential infusion to communities,” Housewright said. 

To get the money, however, communities must address a couple of stipulations. Their plan cannot be more than 10 years old and, if they are located in the continental US, the communities must have “adopted an ordinance or regulation that requires the construction of new roofs on buildings to adhere to the standards that are similar to, or more stringent than, the roof construction standards established by the National Fire Protection Association, or an applicable model building code established by the International Code Council,” according to language in the bill. 

Since the bill’s language is vague, Steinberg said she has already heard from US Forest Service officials with questions about how to address the roofing provision. She said NFPA will be directing officials to NFPA 1140, Standard for Wildland Fire Protection, specifically Chapter 25, which deals with building design, location, and construction. The standard mandates that roof coverings need to be rated Class A (non-combustible) and meet some additional provisions.

Creating a new Wildfire Mitigation and Management Commission 

In addition to allocating funds, the infrastructure bill also establishes a new federal commission comprised of 27 members—nine from federal departments and 18 non-federal members, including representatives from state, tribal, county, and municipal governments, as well as non-governmental stakeholders from private industry. The group will meet monthly and is tasked with “recommending federal policies and strategies to more effectively prevent, mitigate, suppress and manage wildland fires, including rehabilitating land affected from wildland fires,” according to a press release from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

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According to timelines in the bill, commission members were to be named in January, and the group’s first meeting was to take place by the middle of February. NFPA is pursuing membership on the commission, which would dovetail with the organization’s new initiative Outthink Wildfire, a comprehensive strategy focused on promoting policy actions in all levels of government, and with the stated goal of ending the destruction of communities by wildfire in 30 years. 

By February 2023, the new commission is expected to produce a report to Congress with its recommendations on several topics. These include recommendations for wildfire management and suppression; strategies for short- and long-term forest management; ways to streamline environmental reviews; an assessment of aerial equipment needs; and recommendations for expanding the use of technology for detecting and suppressing wildfires. 

‘Jolt to the status quo’

In addition to these initiatives, the bill contains more than $500 million in other funding that will be spread across areas such as early detection of wildfires, equipment, research, communications, and other projects.

Although the bill covers a lengthy array of wildfire needs, it’s hardly complete, according to some experts. Gabbert, who as editor of has called for more large aerial tankers to be added to the fleet, said he was disappointed that the bill was mostly silent on fire aviation. “Air tankers and helicopters cannot put out a fire, but they can make it safer for firefighters by slowing down a fire so they can take action on the ground,” he said. In the past two decades, the Forest Service has slashed the number of large aerial tankers it has under exclusive-use contract, from 44 in 2002 to 18 last year, Gabbert said. He’d like to see the number closer to 35. 

US Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, right, discusses fire treatments that affected the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe, California, in September. Moore and previous Forest Service leaders have advocated for more resources for forest fuel mitigation, which can reduce a wildfire’s rate of spread and intensity.  CECILIO RICARDO/USDA FOREST SERVICE

Housewright, of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute, wished the bill provided more funding and policy direction for hardening the hundreds of thousands of existing structures in the WUI that weren’t built with fire-resistant materials. Steinberg would have liked the bill to have included steps to simplify the process for states and local communities to obtain federal funding to tackle wildfire threats. “Wildfire is still not treated in the same way other natural disasters are,” where federal funding flows from FEMA to states, and then to local recipients, she said. “Instead, jurisdictions have to go to 15 sources to get resources they need, rather than it just flowing through one agency at the state level.” 

But even as most onlookers concede that it will take more action from Congress and likely billions more dollars to address the conditions, both natural and man-made, that lead to incidents like the Marshall Fire, there is also widespread acknowledgement that the bill represents a significant jolt to the status quo. If nothing else, it signals that the federal government is willing to dip further into its coffers than ever before to do what wildfire experts have long said will be required to alter the troubling trends associated with loss resulting from wildfires. 

“We know what to do—we have the science and partnership frameworks already in place,” Moore, the Forest Service chief, wrote to his employees the day the infrastructure measure was signed into law. “This legislation will give us the means to start doing it.”

JESSE ROMAN is senior editor at NFPA Journal. Email him feedback or story ideas at Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES