The United States government is ramping up efforts to protect vulnerable states and at-risk communities from devastating wildfires.
The Agriculture Department announced Thursday that $490 million from President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act will be earmarked for projects to reduce fire risks in parts of Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
These projects add to $440 million in wildfire mitigation efforts that launched last year using funds from Biden's $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law.
Together, these resources will help protect up to 45 million acres in the western U.S., said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. This includes 134 high-risk areas of land where a wildfire could pose a serious risk to communities and infrastructure. The USDA’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, published in January 2022, identified 250 of these high-risk “firesheds” across the western states.
“We expect and anticipate that around 200 communities in the western U.S. will see a mitigated wildfire risk as a result,” Vilsack said Wednesday in a news briefing.
Ongoing "megadrought" conditions in the West have made many states vulnerable to destructive wildfires, turning distinct wildfire seasons into year-round threats. Studies have also shown that climate change will increase both the frequency and intensity of such blazes.
The USDA’s work will focus on 11 landscapes, areas that were selected based on wildfire risks to nearby communities and buildings. The agency is also prioritizing the protection of underserved communities, public water sources, critical infrastructure and tribal lands, Vilsack said.
“We also factored into this determination the most current predictive science and research that will allow us to determine where risks are highest,” he said. “It’s not a matter of whether or not a forest will burn. It’s just a matter of when and where.”
The projects will include various methods to help prevent new fires from igniting, including prescribed burns, thinning dense stands of trees and removing buildups of leaves and branches on the ground that can act as fuel for fires.
The Forest Service will also be involved in reforestation programs, including efforts to restore old growth forests and recover areas affected by past wildfires.
“We know from science, we know from models, we know from input from those who live, work and raise their families in communities around these forests who understand and know the forest, that there are critical areas that need to be worked on,” Vilsack said. “And by working on them, essentially you create a circumstance that should there be a fire, you minimize the risk of the fire getting to a point where it risks communities or critical infrastructure.”