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Modernizing Federal Wildfire Mitigation and Response

This week, the Senate Committee on the Budget is holding a hearing on the economic cost of wildfires. Wildfires have become increasingly common and destructive in recent years, with millions of acres of land burned and billions of dollars in damage incurred by the destruction of homes and businesses. As climate change exacerbates drought and heat, wildfires have the potential to become even more prevalent and severe. Federal investment in wildfire mitigation and response is critical to reducing the safety risks and economic impacts of these disasters.

Federal investment in technology and infrastructure that can detect and track wildfires, and in more advanced firefighting equipment, is desperately needed. Sensors, drones, and other equipment can help detect and track fires, allowing for faster and more targeted response while maintaining the safety of firefighters.

Improving collaboration and communication among federal, state, and local agencies, as well as other stakeholders like private landowners and indigenous communities, is also essential to modernizing wildfire response. Wildfire issues often cross several jurisdictions, and effective response efforts require coordination across multiple sectors and levels of government. Innovative platforms exist that have the potential to significantly improve the federal government’s coordination and management during wildfires through real-time data sharing and analysis. Last month, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) published a report entitled “Modernizing Wildland Firefighting to Protect Our Firefighters”, which addressed a slate of options to improve coordination and response – including situational awareness tools, last mile connectivity, and integrated data services.

Effective land stewardship is essential to wildfire prevention. The costs associated with preventing a wildfire should be judged against the costs of responding to one. Policies that prevent the spread of wildfires and mitigate their effects are a cost-effective solution that should be prioritized. Investment in training and education on mitigating techniques like sustainable land use and prescribed fire could benefit federal land managers and private landowners.

The fiscal year 2023 omnibus package included almost $4.4 billion for wildfire suppression activities. While this funding will establish a solid foundation of readiness for the upcoming fire season, additional funding and reforms are necessary.

Congressional action on wildfire mitigation, suppression, and recovery is necessary to save lives and reduce economic losses. Several congressional committees of jurisdiction are examining legislative fixes to the wildfire issue, particularly in the process of crafting the upcoming Farm Bill, which will have an unprecedented focus on wildfire response. Bipartisan solutions that invest in technology, improved collaboration, and effective land management will have a significant impact.

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