Rural Community Wildfire Aid Policy Brief “Living in Tents: The Crisis of Wildfires in Rural Communities”

FOR 531, Group 3

Key Points

  1. Fire frequency and severity has increased in the last decade due to increases in drought and tree mortality associated with total fire suppression and climate change.
  2. Rural communities face extremely high risk of severe wildfire. This risk is due in part to public push-back against active forest management. Push-back has contributed to the decline of the timber industry, allowing for more fuel accumulation and economically crippling rural communities by closing mills and eliminating a skilled labor force of loggers and mill employees.
  3. After a severe wildfire, these communities are in need of many resources including adequate temporary housing, unemployment compensation, medical expense payments, legal assistance, and access to food and water.
  4. Disaster relief frameworks, including insurance programs, need revision in order to capture the complexity of wildfire disaster relief in rural communities.
  5. Disaster relief resource managers should:
    1. Provide coordinated legal services
    2. Provide training for legal services/volunteers
    3. Educate and prepare communities for wildfire and its aftermath
  6. Rural communities should:
    1. Establish local committees to facilitate education and training for wildfire preparation and recovery

Executive Summary

Rural and low-income communities struggle to recover from and prepare for wildfires. This is a widespread risk, as around 12 million Americans live in areas that are prone to wildfire but are not capable of preparing for or recovering from a wildfire event (Richards 2019). The large number of people in fire-prone areas is partly a product of the recent influx of people into the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the setting of rural living. The WUI represents the fringe between developed areas and those areas outside of the framework of incorporated communities. By 2010, population levels within the WUI had grown to 98 million (see Table 1), and now 60% of all new home development is occurring within the WUI (Richards 2019). 

Because rural communities often correspond to lower income (i.e. lower housing and land costs), many of the people residing in these areas struggle to recover after a wildfire. These areas have accumulated excess fuel in their dense understories after more than a century of wildfire suppression. Through this accumulation and recent economic hardship, rural communities are now at elevated risk of wildfires (Sierra Institute 2020). We hope this policy will serve as a guideline for state and local officials to help serve rural communities in the event of a wildfire.

Policy Recommendations

When confronting the aftermath of wildfire, rural communities need resources including adequate temporary housing, unemployment compensation, medical expense payments, legal assistance, and access to food and water. Disaster relief, including insurance programs, is currently insufficient in these situations and needs revision in order to capture the complexity of wildfire aftermath in rural communities. We recommend that disaster relief resource managers a) provide coordinated legal services, b) provide training for legal services and volunteers, and c) educate and prepare communities for wildfire. We also recommend that rural communities establish local committees to facilitate education and training for wildfire preparation and recovery. Improvements to these components of wildfire disaster preparation and response could greatly enhance the level of assistance and support experienced by rural landowners by providing them familiarity with risk and a framework for recovery.

The full length policy brief can be found here.

A presentation on the policy brief can be found here.

NFPA 2020


National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). 2020. Wildfire community preparedness day toolkit. Retrieved from

Richards, R. 2019. Before the fire: Protecting vulnerable communities from wildfire. Center for American Progress.

Sierra Institute. 2020. Fire, forests, and the future of rural communities. ArcGIS StoryMaps.

Wildfire Suppression Costs

Wildfire spending has been a source of much debate, many reports, and a variety of federal policy initiatives.  In “Getting Burned: A Taxpayer’s Guide to Wildfire Suppression Costs”, Dr. Timothy Ingalsbee explores sources of elevated fire spending and the conditions that prompt costly actions through a breakdown of socioeconomic, institutional, and operational cost factors.

Socioeconomic cost factors include fuels accumulation, wildland-urban interface (WUI) protection, and climate change.  The Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 aimed to increase fuels reduction on federal lands by streamlining the approval process (Donovan and Brown, 2005). However, Ingalsbee argues that to lower fire costs managers need to recognize the connection between wildfire use and fuels reduction and to coordinate their objectives (Ingalsbee, 2010).  Protection of lands in the WUI often account for up to half of total suppression spending, with that protection sometimes costing more than the structures’ value (Ingalsbee, 2010).  This area is growing rapidly and presents fire managers with intense public and political pressure to aggressively fight fires, especially as climate change exacerbates fire danger (Radeloff et al., 2018). 

Institutional cost factors include a “blank check” for suppression, use of private contractors, and inequity of federal-state cost share programs.  This “blank check” describes fire borrowing from non-suppression accounts and is related to the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act of 2009 (FLAME) (Hoover and Lindsay, 2017).  FLAME attempts to budget fire costs, but it still does not introduce any penalties for overspending (Hoover nad Lindsay, 2017; Ingalsbee, 2010).  Private contractors make up over half of fire expenditures, generally cost more than public services, and provide lower-quality work (Ingalsbee, 2010).  Federal and state governments share suppression costs even when it is to protect private property and interests.  Thus, building companies, local government, and states get money from property taxes and permit fees while avoiding the costs of fire protection in the WUI (Ingalsbee, 2010).

The third category, operational cost factors, includes human and political influences, leadership accountability, risk aversion, and lack of incentives.  Fire managers experience significant pressure to aggressively suppress wildfire, even to the point of “political shows” of suppression (Ingalsbee, 2010, p. 19).  In addition, agencies themselves have residual internal pressure from the early 1900s to fight all fires.  This combination of influences makes managers feel that they will not be supported if a fire goes wrong, so they lean towards excessive and high-cost equipment (Ingalsbee, 2010).

Donovan, G.H. and Brown, T.C. (2005). Wildfire management in the US Forest Service: a brief history. Natural Hazards Observer.

Hoover, Katie, and Lindsay, Bruce R. (2017). Wildfire Suppression Spending: Background: Issues, and Legislation in the 115th Congress

Ingalsbee, T. (2010). Getting burned: A taxpayer’s guide to wildfire suppression costs.   Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology.

Radeloff et al. (2018). Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk. PNAS. Volume 115, no. 13. Retrieved from

History of Wildland Fire Policy

Public attitude towards wildland fire in the early 1900’s differed greatly from current best practices.  Most Forest Service chiefs in this era (the USFS was founded in 1905) began their careers as wildland firefighters and brought that viewpoint into their decision-making.  One such USFS chief was William B. Greeley, known for his policies of total fire suppression as quickly as possible.  This attitude stemmed from a desire to conform to European forestry methods, a recent history of catastrophic fires, and a focus on the economic value of timber.  Total suppression was viewed as an established and scientific forestry practice whereas light burning, or “piute forestry” was seen as uninformed and destructive (Greeley, 2000). 

The Big Burn of 1910 and increasingly intense fires in the west convinced the new forest service that lack of manpower for suppression was the only thing inhibiting total wildfire prevention.  This was reflected in legislation of the time including the Forest Fire Emergency Act of 1908, the 1911 Weeks Act, and the later 10A.M. policy of 1935 (Donovan, G.H. and Brown, T.C., 2005).  In addition, the forest service perceived western forests as only useful for their timber and the potential profits of its sale.  Their goal was to produce as much usable timber as possible and to sustain that production for many years. 

Greeley argued that the use of light fire destroyed forest productivity, damaged valuable timber, and converted forest cover to shrubland (Greeley, 2000).  Based on the limited information available at the time, this was a reasonable assumption.  Examples of charred forests and shrubland where pines once grew were held up as proof that fire was evil.  However, foresters now know that it is only the intense fires (resulting from buildup of dead matter and excessive young tree growth) that cause lasting damage to a forest.  Light burning is, in fact, necessary to prevent larger blazes and encourage seed germination. 

The concept of light burning was first officially presented in the Leopold Report of 1963, though it had long been practiced by Native Americans and in the southeastern United States.  The report found that removal of fire from the landscape was problematic.  It also suggested that controlled burning combined with more lenient fire suppression could ultimately reduce wildfire destruction.  The National Park Service was the first agency to experiment with prescribed natural fire, and this practice has continued to be used in modern times.  Prescribed fire remains a touchy subject for many and it is still difficult to gain support for it in the west.  Occasional prescribed burns or “let-it-burn” wildfires that escape do not help the image of fire as “bad” (PBS, 2019).  Increased public education and the combination of prescribed fire with other fuels reduction efforts may allow our forests to return to their original healthy, fire-resistant state.

PBS. (2019, June 9). With the rise in wildland fires, prescribed burns may be a solution. PBS News Hour Weekend. Arlington, Virginia.

Donovan, G.H. and Brown, T.C. (2005). “Wildfire management in the US Forest Service: a brief history.”Natural Hazards Observer. 3 p.

Greeley, W. (2000). “Paiute Forestry” or the fallacy of light burning . Fire Management Today, 60(4), 21.