The deadliest wildfire in this country in a century killed at least 100 people in Maui last year, destroying the coastal tourist town of Lahaina. As of earlier this year, 5,400 people remain displaced.

Unlike hurricanes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is not set up to accommodate newly-homeless people as a result of wildfires for a number of reasons. It’s not safe, for one, to simply set up a trailer on land loaded with toxins that are a residual effect of rampaging wildfires.

“This is a very wicked problem,” said David W. Fogerson, chief of the Division of Emergency Management and Office of Homeland Security within Nevada’s Public Safety Department.

Faith and fear during the Maui wildfires
Paradise lost: California city, Lahaina wildfires proof of new reality

Fogerson’s testimony came Thursday during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing convened by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who helped establish the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission — a commission of federal and nonfederal stakeholders to study and recommend fire prevention, mitigation, management and rehabilitation policies for forests and grasslands.

The commission came out with 150 recommendations detailed in a lengthy report advising Congress on how the ongoing and growing threat of cataclysmic wildfires can be reduced in incidence and how agencies can better respond.

“This is a national priority. It is tragic that we continue to have wildfires of the nature we have,” Romney said. “Some have become conflagrations. There’s been massive loss of life. And this is a problem from Hawaii to Canada to the southern border — across the country. And more and more states are being affected by wildfires. It’s not just a few states of the American West as we sometimes think is the case. It is a national concern.”

Going up in flames

The hearing, titled, “A Nation on Fire,” painted a grim picture of the inadequacy of what is happening on the ground both in terms of pre-fire suppression and post-fire response in such a disaster, housing for affected victims and rebuilding efforts.

Pointedly, Christopher P. Currie, director of Homeland Security and Justice within the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said how the nation handles these key issues is hopelessly out of date and cumbersome.

“What I want to do is get into some nuts and bolts and really lay out three key points based on the years of work we’ve done on this area and talking to almost every state in the country, as well, and listening to the challenges they face. The first point is that the current federal system hasn’t really caught up to the modern threat of wildfires. It’s very similar to think of what we’re facing in 2005 with (Hurricane) Katrina when we weren’t ready for those types of disasters,” he said. “The current system focuses on suppression and mitigation in rural and federal lands. And what we’ve seen is that wildfires are now affecting very populated areas over the last 10 years.”

Those testifying pointed to these concerns:

  • More and more people are building homes in wildfire-prone areas and they are often expensive. Currie had this to say: “You know these things tend to hit in places that are extremely expensive for housing. There’s not a lot of hotels and other things to put disaster survivors in. Recently, when I was in Maui, local officials reminded me that the average family home there is about a million and a half dollars. So they don’t have a bunch of small houses sitting around for temporary housing for survivors.”
  • Unlike hurricanes, there is not a national, coordinated response to wildfires like immediately setting up emergency operation centers. “We don’t own the hurricane,” Fogerson said. “We react as a collective community support (for) survivor outcomes using an enterprise wide approach. During projected landfall, federal agencies were collaborating to move resources to support state and local responses. Funds are provided to preposition resources. Emergency operation centers are open with a mindset to protect a whole community and partners come together. Our nation’s response to wildfire is quite different.”
  • Navigating federal relief for wildfires, especially in the aftermath, is problematic if not outright unavailable because of timeframes that were not established with these disasters in mind. The disaster events are separated by 72-hour windows. “As a result, Coconino County, Arizona, has lost access to millions of dollars and FEMA reimbursements and has virtually no access to the Public Assistance Program.,” said Lucinda Andreani, deputy county manager and flood control district administrator for Coconino County. She added that in her county, fire-impacted watersheds have released 26 times more floodwater — a separate disaster.
  • Lawsuits and navigating the federal regulatory approvals run counter to wildfire response, whether before the event happens or for post-wildfire treatments, said Jamie Barnes, director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “We are years behind on getting work done. ... We need to learn to live with fire being the new normal. We need to fight fire with fire putting more fire on the landscape through prescribed burning with lower intensity burning and less impact to water, air quality.” The unexpected, she added, is no longer unexpected.

What needs to happen to fix the wildfire crisis?

Those who testified as a follow-up to the commission’s recommendations agreed there are several actions Congress could take to help combat the threat of catastrophic wildfires and post-disaster and mitigation efforts, including streamlining federal response, tackling the shortage of local, state and federal firefighters with better pay, more equipment and driving home the message that wildfires are a public safety threat that merits a new national consciousness about the problem.

As we talked about, fire season is not just fire season anymore. It’s fire year,” Barnes said. “So compensating is very important. It’s also very important to not have a swift difference in firefighter pay from agency to agency. When a fire happens, it knows no boundary. We’re all out on the landscape. We’re working together. We’re working to put that fire out.”