WFLC/WGA Policy Considerations
Interagency Wildfire Disaster Response – Mitigating Post Fire Impacts
After a wildfire, multiple federal agencies can be involved with response activities. States and local governments are also integral to disaster response. Under the WGA-USDA Shared Stewardship MOU, the Mitigating Post-Fire Impacts element has been examining federal disaster response programs and is tasked with providing a framework to improve coordination of these activities for post-fire response and restoration. Western Governors Association (WGA) and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC) have collaboratively engaged to undertake this activity. A working group of federal, state, and local government representatives, along with a variety of private stakeholders and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), has been considering post-fire impacts and intergovernmental coordination on post-fire assistance.
This memo summarizes some of the policy considerations raised during those discussions. For convenience, the policy issues are grouped by the underlying process as currently understood to effect a change to their status quo. Policy and procedure items should not require a formal rulemaking but would require changes to internal agency processes. Regulatory issues would require an agency rulemaking process to effect a change. Statutory concerns would require legislation to affect a current legal requirement. Agency culture challenges indicate issues that do not have associated legal requirements, but that would involve changes to how agency line employees conduct their work.
Incident Management Team pass-off to post fire response. There needs to be improved transition from suppression response into immediate post-fire emergency response. Post-fire navigators could be an integral element of the transition; the transition could also be covered in a Post-Fire Master Agreement. (Reference WFLC Briefing Paper “Leaders’ Intent for Expectations of ICs and Agency Administrators to consider post fire impacts and engagement with state and local communities”)
- Post-Fire Coordinator Designation. At present, no structure or procedure exists to recognize or designate a post-fire navigator to assist local communities in a post-wildfire circumstance. The group considered the use of federal employees to fulfill this role, but determined that it may be more effective to use state or private/NGO resources. Agency processes should include direction for agency personnel to recognize a post-fire navigator designated to assist affected communities.
Post-Fire Master Agreement. There is no enabling structure that connects agencies to each other for post-fire response. There is a MOU for land managers to work across agency lines, but the MOU does not cover non-land management agencies, other levels of government, or private landowners. A post-fire master agreement could facilitate federal agencies, states and local governments working with each other to accomplish restoration needs. The structure of such an agreement would have to be considered (MOU, mutual aid agreement, etc.) to ensure it would not create additional regulatory and bureaucratic steps.
Data and information sharing/coordination. Federal agencies host a treasure trove of data that could be better used in land management, pre-disaster planning, and post-fire restoration activities. In some cases, data cannot be used even when it would be useful: Burned Area Reflectance Classification (BARC) imagery, for example, is currently not available to state and local governments if there is no federal nexus. WFLC should consider whether there is a need a consistent place to share information and make it available on a routine basis. In a post-fire setting, soil burn severities, hydrological modeling and geologic hazards are the three data sets of greatest importance and should be available across agencies and between levels of government to aid restoration efforts.
- Aligning federal post-fire response with community needs. Federal agencies are not required to coordinate post-fire response on federal lands with the needs of communities affected by a wildfire event. This should be addressed through regulation to ensure that agencies take restoration needs of communities into account, and coordinate with affected communities to the extent possible, in post-wildfire circumstances. (Reference WFLC Briefing Paper “Leaders’ Intent for Expectations of ICs and Agency Administrators to consider post fire impacts and engagement with state and local communities”)
Disaster declarations. Currently, recurring post-fire events, such as intermittent flooding from rains, may not individually reach the threshold for the declaration of a disaster and eligibility for disaster assistance, but their cumulative effect may well exceed such thresholds. WFLC should consider whether multiple events stemming from the same cause need to be treated as additive, not single events, thus allowing the threshold to be reached. A related issue is to consider how declarations affect restoration efforts. Federal support is generally done at the request of states and communities; there is a need to sort out between counties, state fire, and state emergency management who is on point to make sure there is not a gap before, during, and after disasters. And while funding eligibility is not based on an emergency declaration, prioritization of funds is based on the declaration.
Use of Good Neighbor Authority and Stewardship Contracting Authority. Non-federal funding sources – from states, local governments, and private parties – could help with restoration needs. Strategies could include the use of tools such as Good Neighbor Authority or Stewardship Contracting. These and other mechanisms could provide additional efficiencies for restoration efforts and promote collaboration between various land managers, but their statutory language should clearly authorize their use for post-wildfire restoration activity.
Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program limitations. EWP is a critical tool to addressing flooding impacts and water quality effects on and downstream of wildfire-affected lands. However, EWP may only be used on private lands. WFLC could evaluate how the use of EWP on federal lands to protect non-federal water quality and address flooding concerns could positively affect overall restoration efforts.
- Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) / Burned Area Restoration (BAR) programs. Appropriations report language prohibits the use of BAER funds on private lands, as reported by an Officer of Management and Budget audit in 2020. BLM’s BAR program has greater flexibility to use federal funds to protect non-federal values.Time is also an issue: BAER if designed for short-term, quick response to immediate threats. BAR has a longer window of opportunity. Response efforts by local communities may take longer to implement. This leads to a disconnect between different restoration work, and limits opportunities for collaboration between federal agencies, states, local governments and private landowners. Allowing BAER to address longer-term respiration concerns would allow both USFS and BLM to better coordinate response activities, especially when cross-boundary restoration efforts are underway. Creating a program within the USFS that operates like BAR, with a focus on restoration and longer-term land management objectives, would provide USFS greater flexibility to address restoration needs.
Agency Culture Challenges
Cross-Agency Awareness. One challenge is simply being aware of the various programs offered by other federal agencies and their relationship to each other, and of the value derived from an integrated, multi-agency response across land ownerships in a post-wildfire scenario. This can be achieved by sensitizing personnel on the importance of gaining a basic understanding of other agencies’ post-fire assistance programs and the interrelationship of various programs to one another.
Life-Cycle Planning. All elements of wildfire-related land management – pre-fire planning and mitigation, the fire event, and post-fire restoration – must be considered as a whole, with each aspect informing the others. Some disaster assistance programs are only available if pre-fire mitigation efforts can be demonstrated, and assessments conducted during a wildfire event can inform restoration decisions. Agency personnel must be aware of the post-fire implications of pre-fire activities to improve the entire cycle of mitigation – suppression – restoration work. Accomplishing this task requires basic education of agency personnel on assistance program eligibility and timeframes.
Funding Innovation. Agencies can consider how to integrate funding from non-governmental sources for the roadmap and its ongoing maintenance and for facilitating the role of post-fire navigator. This can be accomplished by educating agency personnel on how private monies can assist or leverage federal agency efforts with specific information on how private monies can supplement agency work and the processes to take advantage of these funds.
Communication and Outreach. Agencies could do a more effective job of communicating pre-wildfire risks to communities to facilitate mitigation action and could likewise expend greater and more coordinated effort to inform communities of restoration needs and available assistance in post-fire situations. This could be addressed in a post-fire master agreement; if such an agreement is not desired, it should be addressed here. This element could be addressed by including risk communication and solutions in communications and public information responsibilities and by building communications training modules or providing agency personnel appropriate educational materials on risk communication.
BAER Designation. BAER assignments are ad hoc based on a supervisor’s assessment of post-fire emergency restoration needs. Agency personnel should be educated on the importance of designating BAER personnel and prioritizing BAER activity to respond timely to post-fire circumstances.
Integration of Land Management and Fire Management Responsibilities – Agencies have appropriately transformed over time to meet the needs of public and political influences. It may be a unique moment in time to more closely align land management and fire/suppression management principles and responsibilities to better connect how actions are taken on the ground. Through better integration between the land and fire management continuum, longer-term landscape resiliency and risk reduction may occur.