In this week’s episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Colin Foard, a manager at the Pew Charitable Trusts, about a new report that documents how efforts to reduce wildfire risks are stressing state budgets. Foard and Hayes acknowledge that figuring out how to pay for wildfire mitigation and recovery is critical for many levels of government; discuss how local, state, and federal governments collaborate on wildfire suppression; and walk through recommendations for reducing the costs of wildfire management.
Listen to the Podcast
- Wildfire management involves more than just putting out fires: “Before a fire, governments are spending on things like prevention … Mitigation includes activities that can help reduce the impact of fires when they do occur. They’re also spending before the fire on preparedness—making sure that the equipment, people, and resources are ready to go when a fire does occur … After a fire occurs, the governments are spending on recovery … There is a big suite of government-funded activities that happen related to wildfire management. That’s something important to take away from this; it’s not just about suppression.” (5:12)
- Wildfire management usually costs more than US states estimate: “One of the main challenges is that fires, like other disasters, are unpredictable. It’s always been difficult to guess how much your state is going to spend on wildfires in a given year. We heard from states that, in the past, they may have used a flat number to appropriate to wildfire purposes every year, but that many had improved on that blunt approach by implementing estimates, looking backward at previous years’ expenses, and trying to predictively use those to figure out how much they should allocate in a given year toward wildfire … But we heard from folks that, particularly in the last 5 to 10 years, those estimates are undershooting the actual expenses of fires.” (13:48)
- Increasing frequency of wildfires demands a different strategy: “For those of us who work in this space, it can be difficult to think about how the status quo could change, but what we’re seeing around us calls for change.” (22:56)
Top of the Stack
- Wildfires: Burning through State Budgets from the Pew Charitable Trusts
- Disaster Recovery: Actions Needed to Improve the Federal Approach from the US Government Accountability Office
- Highlights Hello magazine
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Kristin Hayes.
My guest today is Colin Foard, a manager with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Fiscal Federalism Initiative, where he has research on state and federal spending, natural disasters, and other topics. Colin is one of the key authors of a new report released last week titled Wildfires: Burning Through State Budgets, in which he and the broader team at Pew look at how efforts to address risks and impacts from wildfires are stressing coffers in several affected states. As wildfires continue to grow in both number and severity, the issue of how to pay for wildfire mitigation and recovery efforts is a critical one for officials at many levels of government. Join Colin and me as we review both the challenges and opportunities for better coordination that he and his team have identified. Stay with us.
Hi, Colin. It’s really great to talk with you today. Thanks for coming on the show.
Colin Foard: Thanks for having me.
Kristin Hayes: Before we dive into the report, we always like to get to know our guests a bit, so I wanted to ask you to just share a little about yourself. It can be about how you ended up working on fiscal federalism issues or about your background.
Colin Foard: Quickly, for those who don’t know, the Pew Charitable Trusts is a nonpartisan and nonprofit research and public policy organization. My team, the Fiscal Federalism Initiative, works on areas where federal spending policy affects state budgets and economies. As you mentioned, I primarily work on our line of work related to natural disaster spending and budgeting.
Before Pew, I worked for five years for a member of Congress who was on the House Appropriations and Budget Committees, which is where my background in fiscal policy came. I also had a chance to work in the district office of that member of Congress, which was an important opportunity for me to see how some of the policy that happens in Washington, DC, plays out in people’s everyday lives and to learn about the different stakeholders that go into policymaking.
Kristin Hayes: It sounds like you are well-positioned to author this type of research. Let’s dive in and talk about the report. It’s always nice for me to be able to feature brand new work on the show; it’s exciting to be a part of the rollout plan. The report, again, is called Wildfires: Burning through State Budgets. It was released on November 30.
We’ve covered wildfire-related issues before on the podcast, but they’ve often been from the lens of impacts to property and human health. We haven’t tackled this budget question in depth (as far as I know). How did the Fiscal Federalism Initiative become interested in looking at these budgetary impacts? How did this come on your radar?
Colin Foard: This report is part of a long-term line of research that our team has been working on that is related to how different levels of government pay for disasters and how that’s changing in an era of more frequent, expensive, and severe disasters.
All levels of government—federal, state, and local—play a role in paying for disasters in the United States. The spending related to those disasters is on the rise, which may not be a surprise. So, we’ve been thinking about what that means, not only for how you pay for disaster recovery, which is becoming more expensive, but also how can we recalibrate our spending so that it’s more oriented toward investments on the front end that could help mitigate or reduce the impacts of disasters going into the future.
In this report, we wanted to focus on wildfires because there are so many unique challenges related to wildfires that set them apart from other disasters, like floods or hurricanes, which are managed by different federal and state agencies and bring to bear different intergovernmental relationships. That was the impetus behind this report.
Kristin Hayes: That’s a great lead-in, because I did want to ask you to give us a flavor of the types of expenses that these state budgets typically have to cover when dealing with wildfires and about the different funding mechanisms that they use to cover those expenses. Given that it is a different animal than some of the other disasters that they’re dealing with, can you say a bit more about what that looks like?
Colin Foard: That’s an important question, because more often than not, if you think wildfire, you’re thinking about a firefighter or a plane dousing a blaze while it’s burning. But in reality, governments are paying for wildfire management–related activities before, during, and after a fire occurs.
To drill down a little: Before a fire, governments are spending on things like prevention. That’s trying to stop the fire from starting in the first place. Mitigation includes activities that can help reduce the impact of fires when they do occur, things like prescribed burns or building homes with more fire-resistant materials. They’re also spending before the fire on preparedness—making sure that the equipment, people, and resources are ready to go when a fire does occur.
During a fire, you see the true firefighting trying to extinguish or change the path of the fire. But after a fire occurs, the governments are spending on recovery. We’ve seen that to an increasing extent—for example, in the major fires that happened in California recently, where a federal emergency management agency came in after the fact with major investments in recovery.
There is a big suite of government-funded activities that happen related to wildfire management. That’s something important to take away from this; it’s not just about suppression.
Kristin Hayes: That’s a good flag and great lead-in, too, because I know you and your team base this research not only on (and I’m going to quote here) “an extensive review of existing research and publicly available data,” but you also did a number of interviews with experts in Alaska, California, Florida, Nevada, Texas, and Washington State.
These are states that are significantly affected by wildfires, as well as interviews at the federal level. There are a lot of different data sources coming together here. Can you say more about your selection process for who you spoke with? I’m curious if you learned some important things, particularly from the interviews, that you weren’t able to learn from the publicly available data and research?
Colin Foard: I’ll start with the state folks who we spoke to. The type of individuals who we really wanted to speak with first were officials from state forestry agencies. These are the agencies that are most directly involved in dealing with wildfire-management issues. They’re often located in state natural resource agencies, but that varies state by state.
We also wanted to talk to budget and fiscal experts to get the back-end view of how the financial management of wildfires works in these states. Whether that was an executive office that manages the budget for the governor or a legislative fiscal office, those were the folks who we wanted to drill down on this with.
Finally, we wanted to talk with emergency managers. Each state has an emergency management office, which is similar to the state-level version of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They’re important in terms of coordinating, especially the response in recovery. As it relates to fires in California, there’s an increasing role for the emergency-management world in funding recovery from fire. We wanted to get that perspective, as well.
On the federal level, we wanted to make sure that we spoke to some of the biggest players. Wildfire management at the federal level was split across multiple agencies. We spoke with the United States Forest Service, the Department of the Interior, FEMA, and experts at the Congressional Research Service to make sure we got the federal perspective right.
Kristin Hayes: What did those interviews tease out for you that the data didn’t show?
Colin Foard: We learned a lot from the interviews. First and foremost, it can be difficult to ascertain how the state-level budget processes work using just public documents. It was critical to talk to the folks who manage both the fire-related programs and the finances behind them in order to drill down how things work.
To give an example of that, we knew that states were using some estimates in order to figure out how much to allocate towards wildfires every year. But it took talking to the folks who make those estimates to understand how that really works and how they apply it.
We also learned a lot about workforce issues, which was not a topic that we had necessarily identified before, but that came up repeatedly in our interviews. These issues were related to both the need to recruit and retain staff to fight fires as they become bigger and fire season expands and also to hire a new cohort of experts in wildfire-mitigation practices like prescribed burning or mechanical thinning, which is clearing out fuel or brush that can cause fires, as well as experts in grants and financial management. That’s particularly related to major federal investments that have happened recently to promote the types of mitigation activities that can save costs in the long term.
Kristin Hayes: Let’s come back to some of those, because I feel like a number of those things probably present challenges for states to deal with. I’m going to put a pin in that, but I want to turn to some of your conclusions and findings after all of this data collection. I want to start by referencing what you referenced at the beginning: the sense that—and I think from the outside—it feels like costs must be going up when it comes to these wildfire-firefighting suppression and recovery efforts, given how big and frequent these fires are getting.
That seems like a given, but I did want to check that with you and get a bit more detail on the specific ways in which costs have or haven’t changed over the years in the jurisdictions that you looked at. Do you have any comments on that?
Colin Foard: One important thing is to tease out what we are talking about when it comes to costs. Wildfires come with a lot of associated costs, and those can include damage to the environment, disruption of economies, disruptions, and, unfortunately, loss of human life. For the purpose of this research, we’re using costs as a synonym for government spending. I want to lay that out, because there are a lot of costs associated with wildfires, and we’re really drilling down on this one. It’s a hard question to ground in truth. That’s in part because of the limited data that’s available and the limited comprehensive data that’s available about wildfire spending, as well as the complex intergovernmental way we pay for it.
To start with what we do know, some of the biggest agencies at the federal level that are involved are the US Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. Their funding for wildfire management doubled from 2011 to 2020 if we look at the state level, where data is hard to come by, in terms of comprehensively understanding what a state has spent. But we have good figures for the state of Washington, and we know that their state-level spending on wildfires tripled when you compare the first half of the 2010s to the second half.
But one of the things we really highlight, as I’ve mentioned now a few times, is the lack of comprehensive data and reporting that makes your original question hard to nail down. It’s such an important question, because it helps define what the problem is and get in policymakers faces that this is a problem that is affecting a state’s budget and a state’s planning into the future, and we need to start tackling it.
Kristin Hayes: That lack of data is a challenge as states try to navigate this budgeting for these wildfire-related costs. I guess I’m wondering what some of those other challenges are. This is where I’m going to come back to my pin that I put in earlier, because you mentioned that there are cost-estimation issues; there are probably some reimbursement and coordination issues. Can you say a bit more about some of those other challenges that they’re facing?
Colin Foard: One of the main challenges is that fires, like other disasters, are unpredictable. It’s always been difficult to guess how much your state is going to spend on wildfires in a given year. We heard from states that, in the past, they may have used a flat number to appropriate to wildfire purposes every year, but that many had improved on that blunt approach by implementing estimates, looking backwards at previous years’ expenses, and trying to predictively use those to figure out how much they should allocate in a given year towards wildfire.
For example, Alaska looks back at the least expensive of the last 10 years. Nevada averages the previous five years minus federal reimbursements they’ve received. But we heard from folks that, particularly in the last 5 to 10 years, those estimates are undershooting the actual expenses of fires. That’s leading states to rely heavily on emergency budgeting mechanisms, like supplemental appropriations, where the legislature is gathering back together to pass additional funding or transferring funds within the state in order to deal with the issue.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with those tactics. They’re important in funding something unpredictable that can be urgent for the state to deal with. But the real effect is to obscure the total cost of wildfires from the annual budgeting process, which means that it’s not clear to policymakers how it’s affecting their budget, and it’s impeding their ability to think long term about what these costs are looking like and what they could do to start to address them.
Another issue relates to reimbursement. Federal, state, and local governments all have roles to play in wildfire management, and they are coordinated in a large number of agreements that are known as cooperative agreements. These agreements allow them to coordinate suppression—but more importantly, at least in terms of our research, the agreements allow them to make each other whole when they perform services for one another.
To give an example, if a fire starts on federal land, but a state fire service is the most close by and ready to respond, they can do so. Down the line, the federal government will pay the state for that personnel and equipment. But what we heard from states is that the reimbursement process often is lengthy; in the meantime, the state has forwarded that money and is waiting to be made whole. That creates some cash-flow challenges.
It’s important to remember that states, unlike the federal government, need to balance their spending in revenues. It’s especially sensitive when you have these outstanding, unpaid reimbursements hanging out for months or even years. As more money is being moved around to deal with bigger fires, this could potentially become even more of an issue.
Kristin Hayes: That’s an interesting example. I didn’t home in on the fact that so much of the land in the West is public land that is owned by the federal government. Those jurisdictional issues become even more important in places where wildfires are most frequent.
Colin Foard: That’s one of the things that makes wildfires a uniquely challenging hazard. Part of the reason that we wanted to study it was to get at some of those jurisdictional and intergovernmental issues.
Kristin Hayes: You also make a good point that when the fire is happening, you don’t want to sit around and get on the phone and ask, “Are you paying for this one? Am I paying for this one?” You need to have those mechanisms put in place for reimbursement later on.
Colin Foard: Exactly.
Kristin Hayes: I want to ask about one other jurisdictional question, too. I was intrigued to see that the report included a special callout for the role that Tribes often play in supporting wildfire-related mitigation and recovery efforts. Can you say just a bit about what you heard from state officials on that front?
Colin Foard: I’m glad you asked that question. We wanted to include that in the report, because we did hear about it from the states that we interviewed. The main point is that Tribes play a critical role in wildfire management throughout the country. It can look very different. Tribes have their own relationships with federal partners, whether that federal partner is a land management agency that they coordinate with on wildfire management, or in some cases the federal government holds the Tribal land in trust, meaning that the federal government is directly involved in wildfire management on that Tribal land.
We heard from states that they also have unique relationships with Tribes. Nevada shared with us that they worked with at least 27 Tribes in the state and have different relationships with each of them, as it relates to how they pay for and manage wildfire suppression and other activities. Then, at least 90 Tribes throughout the country manage their own wildfire-management programs. We really wanted to include that to be able to paint a more complete picture of all of the players involved in wildfire management and how complex and jurisdictional the funding flows are.
Kristin Hayes: You’ve done a great job of painting that picture, and I want to make sure that we’ve talked a lot about challenges, the various players, and some of the roles that they have. Combining all of that learning and knowledge, what recommendations do you and your coauthors offer for officials who are trying to make sure that these wildfire-mitigation and -recovery efforts don’t end up draining state coffers?
Colin Foard: We have three main recommendations that we derive from our findings. The first is that states should strengthen and assess the way that they budget for wildfires. I referenced the types of backwards estimates that states are using. We suggest that they take a close look at those, compare them to the actual expenses they’re facing, and start to take into account rising fire risk when they’re thinking about how they appropriate annually or biannually for wildfire purposes.
The second recommendation is to maximize investment in mitigation. Those are cost-saving activities that can reduce the impact of wildfires into the future. That means not only putting more dollars towards it, but also making sure those dollars are protected from suppression costs so that it’s not a pool of money that can get robbed when a big fire happens. It means directing that funding towards risk-reduction activities.
Finally, we recommend improving the tracking and reporting of data on state spending. This is an enterprise that the federal government could undertake, as well: make a publicly available, continually reported, and comprehensive source of spending information to start to acknowledge the problem of increased spending and spur action to help manage it.
Kristin Hayes: Colin, this has been really interesting. Thanks again for putting this report together and coming on the podcast as a part of your introduction of this report. I certainly hope that folks take a look at what you’ve put together. We’ll close our recording today with our regular end feature, Top of the Stack.
I wanted to ask you if you had any recommendations for good content. It could be a book, it could be a podcast—on this topic or not. Is there anything that you’d want to share with our listeners? What’s on the top of your stack?
Colin Foard: This is embarrassingly wonky, but there is a recent government accountability office report called Disaster Recovery: Actions Needed to Improve the Federal Approach. It’s such a valuable document, because they looked at 11 things that could change in federal disaster-recovery policy. Everything from the granular, like how to communicate about disaster-recovery programs, to the ambitious and big, like reimagining the entire federal role.
For those of us who work in this space, it can be difficult to think about how the status quo could change, but what we’re seeing around us calls for change. It’s so important that they’ve put the thought into that type of document.
Other than that, I have a 16-month-old daughter, so I spend a lot of time reading the baby version of Highlights, which is called Hello. I have to put in a plug for that, because I spend a lot of my time outside of work reading it.
Kristin Hayes: I hope you know that there’s no such thing as embarrassingly wonky on Resources Radio. We love a good wonky publication. That’s a great recommendation. And, having read Highlights a million times over when I was a kid, there’s really nothing better when you’re a kid. I hope all of those are very fulfilling in their own ways.
Colin, it’s been a pleasure. I hope our listeners get a chance to look at the new research you’ve put out.
Colin Foard: I appreciate the opportunity.
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