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Feds to send nearly $200 million to help communities prepare for wildfires

Feds to send nearly $200 million to help communities prepare for wildfires

  • The Bighorn Fire burning along the Catalina Mountains near Golder Ranch and Oracle Roads in 2020.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comThe Bighorn Fire burning along the Catalina Mountains near Golder Ranch and Oracle Roads in 2020.

The Biden administration will send $197 million from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to help communities prepare for wildfires this summer, Vice President Kamala Harris and other administration officials said Monday.

The funding represents the first round of a new $1 billion Community Wildfire Defense Grant program authorized under the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed in November 2021. Grants in the first year of the program would be available for more than 100 projects in 22 states, according to a White House fact sheet

The funding is meant to help communities prepare for wildfires, which Harris said was preferable to responding to fires already wreaking havoc.

“The best time to fight a fire is before it starts,” she said on a Monday call with reporters.

The funding announced Monday can be used to write or update wildfire preparedness plans or on other mitigation efforts, such as clearing highly flammable brush. 

Among the largest grants was a $9.9 million disbursement to the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District in eastern Oregon to clear hazardous fuels from evacuation routes on county roads. 

The New Mexico nonprofit Cimarron Watershed Alliance also received $8 million to create defensible space around homes and fuel breaks designed to stop a fire’s spread.

Archuleta County, Colorado, will also receive $1.1 million to remove hazardous fuels over 600 acres.

Harris also cited examples of $341,000 for Gila County, Arizona, for evacuation planning and clearing flammable brush around buildings and $1.4 million for North Carolina to help cities and counties develop better plans to prepare for and respond to fires.

Communities in Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota and Wisconsin will also receive grants.

A full list of grants announced Monday is available here.

The remaining roughly $800 million will be released over the next four years, Harris said.

“This is an initial round of funding,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “This is a critical down payment.”

The Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department, judged grant applications on three criteria, Vilsack said: communities that have experienced a severe disaster, are at high risk of a wildfire and are low income. All grants announced Monday met at least two of the three criteria and most met all three, he said.

The infrastructure law established the criteria, he said.

Climate change a culprit

Wildfires have become more destructive in recent decades for a variety of reasons, including hotter and drier weather because of climate change, as well as increased development in areas at high risk of fire.

Harris emphasized that wildfires were a symptom of climate change, which she said was only worsening. A Monday report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should be a call to action, she said.

“Our future is not yet written, and the solutions are at hand,” Harris said. “Let that be an alarm that lets us know that we must act with haste, and we can actually, right now, have an impact on how this all plays out.”

Prescribed burns to continue

The Forest Service plans to continue using prescribed burns to manage wildfire fuels, despite such a burn leading to massive wildfires in New Mexico last year, Vilsack said. 

The Forest Service undertook a comprehensive review of prescribed burns, where firefighters purposely start and control small fires to clear brush and other flammable materials to prevent them from becoming out of control in a wildfire, following the New Mexico blazes, Vilsack said.

The Forest Service would more closely monitor local conditions when assessing whether to conduct controlled burns, but the technique remained “an important tool that we have in terms of making sure that we can reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” he said.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore is scheduled to testify this week before the spending subcommittees in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate that write bills funding the Interior Department. The president’s budget request for fiscal 2024 includes a 21% increase for Interior Department wildland fire management funding.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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