November 30, 2022
Wildfires in the United States have become more catastrophic and expensive in recent years, with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service nearly doubling their combined spending on wildfire management in the last decade. Wildfire management consists of preparing for, fighting, recovering from, and reducing the risk of fires. To execute these activities, states, localities, the federal government, and Tribes, as well as nongovernment entities such as nonprofit organizations and private property owners, participate in a complex system of responsibilities and funding dictated by land ownership and an interconnected set of cooperative agreements.As more frequent and severe fires drive up public spending, policymakers at all levels of government are faced with decisions about how to pay for the diverse array of interventions required to deal with them. In recent years, the federal government has enacted budgeting policies to ensure money is available for fire suppression—efforts to extinguish or manage the path of fires—as well as mitigation activities that could help make future fires less severe. State governments operate under various resource constraints, levels of fire risk, and organizational approaches to wildfire management, but unlike the federal government, they must balance their spending and revenue every budget cycle. Local governments, although not the focus of this study, also face significant challenges meeting wildfire expenses and navigating the direct impacts of fires on communities.A small body of research about the state role in paying for and budgeting for wildfire activities has emerged in recent years, but a lack of data and information persists. The Pew Charitable Trusts undertook this study to improve the available data and understanding of the impact of wildfire spending on state fiscal policy. To do so, Pew researchers examined the intergovernmental system involved in paying for wildfire management to bring the state role into focus. Pew then identified current state-level approaches to budgeting for the entire range of wildfire management activities, the pressures facing states as they face growing risks and spending on wildfires, and potentially promising practices for alleviating these pressures. For further details about this study, see methodology.In addition to an extensive review of existing research and publicly available data, Pew researchers completed 18 semi-structured interviews between December 2021 and July 2022 with wildfire and budgeting experts in six states—Alaska, California, Florida, Nevada, Texas, and Washington—as well as the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Wildland Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Congressional Research Service, and the National Association of State Foresters (NASF). States were selected based on a combination of high number of fires, acres burned, and geographical and regional variation.