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Opinion: Federal investments in science are needed to reduce wildfire

Better data, better tech, and better urban planning are key to prevention and recovery

It used to be that October marked the end of wildfire season, and the most destructive fires occurred in or around forested areas. But increasingly, more Americans experience the impacts of wildfires year-round.

Clockwise from top left: U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, Zoe Lofgren and Jerry McNerney of California

 In 2021, nearly 50,000 wildfires were reported, which burned over  seven million acres of land. And as we saw with the Marshall fire in Boulder County, sometimes the most devastating fires can happen in suburban areas in the dead of winter.

As members of Congress representing parts of Colorado , California and Oregon, we know firsthand what is at stake when it comes to the threat of wildfires. We know that Congress must advance better strategies and strengthen funding across our federal science agencies to address wildfires. Lives depend on it.

The vicious cycle of drought and extreme heat in a warming climate exacerbates increasingly long and dangerous fire seasons and has made megafires a regular occurrence. The effects of climate change, combined with inadequate land management practices over the past several decades and increased development in wildlands, have contributed to sharp increases in the severity and frequency of wildfires, and their impacts on our communities.

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Extreme heat and drought in the West have dried trees, grasses, shrubs, and other burnable biomass—or fuels—leading to a consistent addition of nine extra days of high fire potential each year. In just a few decades, the wildfire-prone areas in the western states have grown by a land-mass equivalent of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

As a result, more and more homes and structures are being destroyed by flames, communities throughout the country are being exposed to harmful wildfire smoke, and families are tragically losing loved ones. Conditions are worsening, and Americans throughout the West are facing an existential threat from wildfires.

While our respective states have been working to adapt to this new reality, the federal government’s focus on suppression and forest management, while crucial, is insufficient without science-based mitigation strategies. Simply throwing everything we have at each megafire  is neither a near-term nor long-term solution.

It is critical we harness the full potential of the American scientific community to better prevent and respond to increasingly destructive wildfires and provide more immediate relief to our states, communities, and emergency responders.

The U.S. Forest Service and its partners at the state and local levels are on the frontlines of wildfire response. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , home to the National Weather Service, along with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, provide the best available wildfire satellite observations for pre-fire conditions, fire detection, and post-fire response. They also supplycrucial information about how and where smoke will travel.

Agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation also have a critical role to play in helping to increase understanding of the risk of wildfires in the wildland-urban interface—the transition area between unoccupied land and human development—and fire behavior.

People’s homes and lives were literally on the front lines of the Marshall fire. The stronger-than-anticipated winds and extreme drought conditions created a fire that grew rapidly and unexpectedly, and burned in population centers never seen before in Colorado. That is why we need even better science, technology and firefighting strategies as we head into future fire seasons with different, hotter and other unprecedented types of wildfires.  

Investing in technological advancements in addition to the collection of science-based information and ensuring a cohesive strategy across our federal agencies can help better address wildfires and save lives. These strategies include:

  • Life-saving advancements in forecasting that will increase warning times for evacuating communities and more effective firefighting operations, using real-time or near-real time detection of when a fire starts, through improvements in earth-observing satellites;
  • The means to control burn areas with better data of the fuels on the ground;
  • Reduced frequency and limited scope of public safety power shutoff events through enhanced fire risk models;
  • Providing a science- and evidence-based approach to forest management to reduce wildfire threats;
  • And the ability to mitigate property damage by wildfires through improved building and zoning standards in the wildland-urban interface, and more. 

As members of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, we must ensure the federal government strategically invests in wildfire science and technologies. Congress cannot continue treating wildfires differently and less holistically than other natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. As with those other deadly extreme weather events, we must implement a whole-of-government approach to better understand fire and develop improved strategies to protect life and property.

The federal government, guided by leadership in Congress, can start to build up the coordination of research and response efforts and focus on what Americans need to stay safe. We can and will make great progress in how we address wildfires by encouraging collaboration between the government and private sector, targeting and strengthening investments in cutting-edge science and technology, and implementing good, comprehensive policy.

The nation is counting on us to act, and we intend to follow through on our commitment to the people.


This column was co-authored by U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, and Zoe Lofgren and Jerry McNerney of California. They are members of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.


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