Introduction and summary
In New Mexico, the 2022 wildfire season has been particularly severe. From April to June, 900,000 acres of public and private land burned throughout the state—almost four times the annual average from 1995 to 2015. The Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire, the largest in New Mexico’s history, burned at least 150 homes and structures. The severity of the wildfire season can be attributed, in large part, to climate change: As temperatures in the Southwest rise and droughts persist, wildfires are becoming increasingly more frequent, intense, and damaging.1
According to U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Randy Moore:
Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered. … Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions and unpredictable weather changes are challenging our ability to use prescribed fire as a tool to combat destructive fires. This spring in New Mexico, a pile burn of hazardous logs that started in January, smoldered underground for months, persisting through multiple snowstorms and freezing temperatures, before resurfacing as a wildfire. That type of event was nearly unheard of until recently in the century-plus of experience the Forest Service has in working on these landscapes. Fires are outpacing our models and … we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground.2
In response to the increased threat of wildfires, the Biden administration and Congress have committed to building the resilience of rural and disadvantaged communities directly affected by and exposed to climate-driven disasters. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes billions of dollars to help people adapt to and recover from wildfires, including funding through the newly created Community Wildfire Defense Grant (CWDG) program.3
The effects of the recent wildfires in northern New Mexico have demonstrated that the CWDG and programs like it need improvements if they are going to assist at-risk communities in ways that help them build long-term capacity and resilience. The region’s forests are fire adapted, but climate change is driving more severe drought and weather events. Local communities, whose populations are relatively rural, low-income, and nonwhite, are also at heightened risk from wildfires due to strong correlations between poverty, race, and ethnicity, with disparities in health and vulnerability to natural hazards.4 These correlations are due to the country’s history of systemic racism, which has also led to long-standing cultural and historic distrust of federal land management agencies.
Rural communities are often the most susceptible to climate disasters, including wildfires, flooding, drought, and increasingly extreme weather.
Indeed, the shortcomings of the new CWDG program are just one example of a larger threat facing the United States as it attempts to support community safety and build resilience in the face of a changing climate. Rural communities are often the most susceptible to climate disasters, including wildfires, flooding, drought, and increasingly extreme weather. Rural areas cover 97 percent of the U.S. land area5 and will be important to restoration and conservation of the nation’s forests, grasslands, and wetlands that sequester carbon and protect against intensifying natural disasters. Many government programs attempt to reach rural communities, but they are largely unsuccessful. Many rural places lack the basic capacity to access competitive federal grants: They do not have the people, financial resources, expertise, or time to do so. Over time, these barriers to accessing basic assistance have exacerbated geographic inequality and eroded trust in the federal government and the elected officials who trumpet these grants as successes. Yet the United States will not be able to achieve climate resilience or build equitable economies if rural communities are locked out of solutions.
This report is one of two reports released together that explore the ways in which missed opportunities in implementing the CWDG program exemplify the challenges facing rural communities. The report uses northern New Mexico as a case study to explore how the CWDG program can better serve rural areas facing significant wildfire risk and includes findings gleaned from interviews with various experts and federal, state, and local officials. It also offers recommendations for decision-makers as they design and implement programs to include rural communities in efforts to adapt to and recover from the effects of climate change.
Understanding northern New Mexico’s forest and community resilience
Northern New Mexico’s natural environments make the region conducive to large and, at times, extreme wildfires. The region’s forests and grasslands are fire adapted, meaning that fire is a natural part of the landscape and has been for centuries. However, aggressive fire suppression in recent decades has increased the risk of high-intensity wildfire and, combined with climate-driven severe drought,6 heightened northern New Mexico forests’ susceptibility to larger wildfires.7
Aggressive fire suppression in recent decades has increased the risk of high-intensity wildfire and … heightened northern New Mexico forests’ susceptibility to larger wildfires.
The risks to residents in the region’s already significant and rapidly growing wildland-urban interface (WUI) are also increasing. The WUI is the area in which housing, public infrastructure, and other structures are situated within fire-prone landscapes.8 It is often found at the boundaries of public lands, such as where housing abuts national forest land.9 Northern New Mexico experienced a 40 percent increase in residential development, measured as acres developed,10 from 2000 to 2010 but only 6 percent population growth during the same period.11 Nearly 1 in 10 of the homes there are a second home,12 and 58 percent are directly exposed to wildfire risk. Another 40 percent are indirectly exposed, meaning 98 percent of homes have some level of exposure.13
Northern New Mexico is rural, but it does not conform to the convenient narrative that rural areas are monolithic, in decline, and primarily white. It is a majority-minority region with deep familial and cultural ties to the land. Many of the individuals and families in northeast New Mexico have lived on and stewarded the land for generations. Nearly 60 percent of the region’s residents self-identify as Native American14 and/or Hispanic or Latino.15 (see Table 1) The northeast region of New Mexico is home to more than one dozen Pueblos and Apache Tribes. Since the Spanish colonial era, northern New Mexico has been home to Hispanic ranchers, farmers, and landowners. Starting in the 19th century, New Mexico saw an influx of Anglo settlers, and federal agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the USFS acquired public lands through eminent domain. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, the area’s charming landscape has increasingly attracted newcomers—including retirees and remote workers.16
Yet many rural communities in New Mexico have limited capacity for and resilience to wildfires, despite communities’ strong stewardship of the land and cultural and historic knowledge of how to live in fire-adapted areas. Wildfires affect both high- and low-capacity communities, but low-capacity communities are less able to access resources to build resilience before and less able to recover after a wildfire. Some populations, including low-income, Indigenous, people of color, and older communities, are more vulnerable to the consequences of wildfires.17
Wildfire management in the region is complicated by its unique history with the USFS. Following the Mexican-American War that ended in 1848, land that was not apportioned to individuals became “public domain”—owned and operated first by the federal government generally and then by the USFS. Some Indo-Hispanos—people who can trace their ancestry from Spanish and Native American roots—regarded this as “national forest imperialism,” referring to the USFS by the name “la floresta.”18 Resentment has built up over generations as a result of the USFS’ refusal to allow Hispanic and Native American communities to graze livestock, hunt for food, repair acequia headwaters (community-operated irrigation systems), and collect firewood, according to historical and Indigenous land practices.19 Resentment toward government is characteristic of many different rural communities across the United States,20 but it is heightened among Indigenous and Hispanic communities with long cultural and stewardship ties to the land
In New Mexico, this tension has played out visibly. In April 2022, the USFS started setting prescribed burns on national forest land with the intention of reducing fuel loads, but 60 mph winds picked up and spread the fire, ultimately burning thousands of acres of forest land and affecting dozens of communities.21 A post-fire review describes how the USFS miscalculated the risk of a prescribed burn;22 officials believed snowfall the previous day had made surface fuel moist, and weather conditions appeared to be safe.
Rumors spread among locals that the USFS had failed to communicate with local weather experts, who were well aware of the risk of prescribed burns in April—a month known in New Mexico for its high-speed winds. Locals and elected officials attributed the miscalculation not to scientific error, but to an “undervaluing” of northern New Mexico communities. An official review conducted by the USFS confirmed these rumors, with the review determining the risks to people and to cultural and environmental resources warranted “high” risk designation, not the “moderate” designation it received. In response, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM) is reported to have remarked, “These are our communities. These are places they loved. And they thought they were of moderate value?”23
Situating a prescribed burn near those communities, and using scarce resources to conduct the burn, could also suggest that the agency was prioritizing those areas for risk-reduction activities and thus valuing their futures highly. Whatever the motivation, however, the resulting wildfires rekindled and deepened resentment toward the USFS, eroding trust in the agency’s ability to properly assess risk and properly consider the lives and livelihoods of residents.24 Although President Joe Biden visited New Mexico in late spring 2022 to view the damage and promised that the federal government would cover 100 percent of the recovery costs,25 this has done little to breed trust: Many families have faced complications applying for funding, with some even being told that cost sharing is a necessary requirement of receiving funding.26
Northeast New Mexico’s shared common challenges with rural and vulnerable communities nationwide
Rural communities are not all the same.27 Communities in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta region, the Great Plains, and the Southwest United States, for example, each have unique histories, cultures, and assets. And contrary to popular narratives, rural areas are also not all facing decline. Some are losing population and struggling to create opportunity, but others are thriving in creative and innovative ways.
Yet despite the diversity and vibrancy across parts of rural America, common challenges are evident. Broadly speaking, key barriers facing rural communities include a lack of capacity and attention paid to the built environment; the complexity and cost of existing grants; compounding social vulnerabilities; and a historical lack of trust in government agencies.
Rural communities often lack capacity
Local governments provide a variety of basic services essential to public health and well-being.28 They do so, however, through taxes; this means that necessities such as public drinking water, sanitation, local libraries, parks, and trails largely depend on the capacity and willingness of each community to raise taxes from its local economies. Resilience to disasters, therefore, is higher in communities with greater wealth and trust in government.29 Small communities that lack capacity to provide basic services are often also more vulnerable to climate-driven disasters. They are less able to prepare, have limited access to resources, and take longer to recover. Capacity, in this sense, is the ability to articulate a vision, sustain planning, access resources, and build peer-learning networks and collaborations with regional and national partners.30
When such resources are difficult to access, communities lose trust in the federal government's ability to help them and in the motivations of federal employees and agencies.
Communities in northeast New Mexico have expressed frustration at their lack of capacity. Many areas are unable to access funds because they simply do not have enough workers and people power to apply for and spend federal and state funds. The Santa Fe-Pojoaque Soil and Water Conservation District, for example, has only one part-time staff person.31 As one participant noted in an interview with the authors, many of these communities need coordinating capacity as basic as “someone to set the meeting time and bring the donuts.”32 When such resources are difficult to access, communities lose trust in the federal government’s ability to help them and in the motivations of federal employees and agencies.
Wildfire mitigation programs pay too little attention to the built environment
Over the past two decades, wildfire mitigation at the federal and state levels has focused on the unbuilt—or natural—environment. In particular, wildfire mitigation has focused on decreasing fuel loads through prescribed burns and forest thinning. However, little to no real investment has been made in the built environment: homes, communities, and infrastructure. A lack of investment in home hardening, community planning, and infrastructure upgrades and maintenance means that millions of homes in the WUI are not adequately protected against wildfire damage.33
The lack of investment in the built environment also reflects a broader issue in the federal government—that of jurisdiction and coordination. The USFS has the authority to address the built environment; in fact, the agency funds a creative and innovative partnership to do just that.34 Yet it often tries to shift the responsibility for built environment risks and resilience to other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Regardless of which agency leads community assistance for land use and infrastructure planning, the process requires the authority and capacity to work at the pace and scale necessary to address risks to the built environment. Therefore, coordinating natural and built environment planning and implementation within a single agency or closely between agencies is essential to establishing community resilience. For example, home hardening and roof retrofitting should be integrated with defensible space, forest thinning, and prescribed burning programs. Unfortunately, investing millions, or even billions, of dollars in landscape treatments to protect communities can still leave them at risk due to a disregard for community planning, infrastructure design and maintenance, and home construction practices.
Coordinating natural and built environment planning and implementation within a single agency or closely between agencies is essential to establishing community resilience.
The complexity and cost of federal grants erode existing capacity
A lack of federal rural policy coordination presents additional structural barriers to communities accessing funds: Grants are difficult to write; rural communities are competing against cities for limited funds; and many criteria, such as requirements related to population served and cost-benefit analyses, disadvantage rural communities in securing assistance.35
The high cost of applying to federal programs can be addressed in several ways. First, capacity assistance—in addition to administrative overhead—can be written directly into grants. Capacity in the form of project staff, program assessment, and convening and sustaining collaboration may require up to 20 percent of the grant resources.36 Federal grants can also be better coordinated and streamlined to lower barriers to applying. Federal agencies could assume some work on behalf of communities—for example, by aligning and automating applications to avoid duplication of effort or by making direct investments in data collection and analysis instead of requiring each community to compile those data independently. Agencies could also conduct or contract out program assessment, evaluation, and follow-up with communities to better understand how well programs reach rural communities and meet their specific needs.
Too often, federal assistance is “helicoptered in”: Federal programs often narrowly prescribe what kinds of projects are eligible; establish standards that may be overbuilt and inappropriate for small communities; or provide funding for projects often built by specialized workers and contractors from outside the region who may then leave without sharing and fostering expertise, funding, or partnerships that allow communities to operate and maintain projects over time.37 New federal initiatives, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Partners Network, demonstrate the benefits of taking the time to understand more deeply community needs and the barriers they face in accessing resources. Through the Rural Partners Network, USDA staff identify communities—using their own data tools—that are eligible to receive federal assistance but are not successfully applying for it, or are not applying at all. The department then sends “community liaisons” to these communities to meet with local leaders, better understand local needs, and provide help in accessing appropriate tools and resources.38 The Rural Partners Network is currently only a pilot program active in six states, including New Mexico.
Rural communities often have compounding social vulnerabilities
Compounding social vulnerabilities can also make it difficult for communities in northern New Mexico to prepare for, respond to, and recover from wildfires. Communities with larger shares of very young and very old people, where language barriers are significant, where incomes are lower and poverty rates higher, and/or where housing is inadequate are substantially more vulnerable to the economic, health, and revenue impacts of natural disasters. Communities with greater social vulnerability often enter a disaster with poorer health outcomes, infrastructure that is in poor condition, higher debt and financial costs, and limited access to emergency services.39 These compounding social vulnerabilities put communities at an additional level of risk and make it harder for them to bounce back from disaster quickly.
A lack of trust in local and federal government agencies is pervasive in rural America
The difficulty rural communities face in accessing federal assistance erodes trust in government and can discourage some states and local governments from applying for resilience funding. For decades, Congress has failed to provide funding, staff, and flexibility for agencies to do the real work required to build trust. Many residents of rural communities, including those in New Mexico, view agencies such as the USFS as intruding on their land rights and way of life. Additionally, because of many agencies’ lack of capacity, there is simply not enough staff to build long-term trusted relationships with members of these communities.
Analyzing the ability of the CWDG program to promote rural resilience
The Community Wildfire Defense Grant program represents a major new investment in community resilience. It provides $1 billion over five years for competitive grants targeted at communities with high wildfire hazard potential, relatively low incomes, or previous impacts of a severe disaster.
Using northern New Mexico as a case study, this section attempts to answer two questions:
- As climate change intensifies the severity of natural disasters across the globe, what do rural communities that are physically and socially vulnerable to wildfires need in order to begin to recover immediately and build resilience in the long term? Specifically, what tools do at-risk and low-resource communities need to a) make plans and b) actually maintain and implement them?
- Does the new billion-dollar program included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—the CWDG program for at-risk communities—meet those needs and help build resilience at the community level?
This section assesses the CWDG program using a framework based on criteria deemed important to program implementation in rural places. The authors gleaned criteria from one dozen informational interviews with rural development and community resilience experts and practitioners as well as syntheses of secondary assessments of rural assistance policy and implementation.40 The authors used the framework to assess the CWDG program, conducting semistructured interviews with seven federal, state, and local officials affected by wildfire and experienced in designing, supporting, and applying for federal grants.
The CWDG program resolves some rural challenges with innovative features
The CWDG program offers relatively small grants—up to $250,000—to communities to develop community wildfire protection plans (CWPPs) as well as larger grants of up to $10 million for project implementation. The design of the program reflects its focus on at-risk communities, as discussed in the subsections below.
The CWDG program allows states and nongovernmental organizations to apply on behalf of communities
The CWDG program allows nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to apply on behalf of communities, helping address some of the barriers imposed by limited capacity. NGOs can write grant proposals, provide technical assistance and training, secure matching funds, and complete or contract for required studies. NGOs can also take a regional approach, applying on behalf of multiple communities, coordinating grants across landscapes, and sharing success stories by building networks and collaboration among key regional stakeholders.41
The CWDG program allows states to opt in or opt out of program implementation
Having the option to opt in or opt out of the CWDG program gives states the opportunity to determine how best to allocate resources. Some federal programs, such as FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grants, put states in charge of soliciting applications, providing technical assistance, reviewing and scoring applications, and deciding which communities’ applications to send to the federal agency.42 But not all states have the capacity to manage a large and complicated federal grant program. The CWDG program is innovative in that it allows states to choose if they have capacity to take on program administration and implementation. Those that opt in are given funding for staff overhead to provide assistance to communities that lack capacity. States that opt out leave the selection of which communities are prioritized to the federal agencies, and the USDA administers and implements the program in that state. States can choose to opt out for various reasons. Some opt out because of lack of capacity, because relative wildfire risk may be lower than other states, or for other administrative and budgetary limitations.43
The CWDG program allows flexibility in defining at-risk communities
An important feature of the CWDG program is its focus on equity; the program prioritizes at-risk communities for funding. Targeting grants to at-risk communities advances the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative and helps ensure that resilience funding is directed to communities with greater social vulnerability and lower capacity.44 One challenge for the USDA is determining how to define at-risk communities. Income is often used as a single measure of risk, such as the per capita personal income adjustment in the USDA’s Secure Rural Schools program, but these single-variable measures often miss broader definitions of vulnerability and capacity. Yet adding multiple variables can quickly become complicated and unwieldy; for example, HUD’s requirement that communities use a standardized tool to prioritize services to vulnerable people has been criticized as being overly complicated and as excluding certain low-income communities.45
To overcome these limits, the CWDG program allows applicants to use alternative definitions and data sources, which may allow more communities to compete successfully for a grant. Organizations such as Headwaters Economics have developed tools for federal agencies to identify at-risk populations and have begun exploring data that can measure capacity.46 These creative and innovative tools may be useful to a range of communities that are often missed by traditional measures of income and vulnerability.
The CWDG program replicates key failures of previous federal resilience funding
The opportunity provided by the CWDG program should not be understated: The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the CWDG program provide substantial new resources, prioritize equity in grant-making, and work to build resilience before a natural disaster occurs. However, how the program is implemented is crucial to its success. And despite the advancements mentioned above, interviews with program advocates, community leaders, and agency officials reveal that the program sometimes fails to address the core needs of rural communities.
The CWDG program fails to recognize that low-income is not equivalent to low-capacity
Local practitioners and national experts consistently stress that a lack of capacity among very small communities is a main barrier to securing grants and implementing wildfire protection projects. For example, several rural states failed to utilize their full allocation of BRIC funds due to limited capacity and complex federal grant requirements, leaving guaranteed money on the table.47 This illustrates that while the funds exist, lack of capacity makes it impossible to spend it down.
First, program advocates noted that the way the CWDG program defines “low-income,” “underserved,” and “at-risk” does not adequately represent all types of overburdened, underfunded, and underresourced communities who are most at risk to wildfires.48 For example, nearly half of the most recent round of grants through FEMA’s BRIC program went to low-income communities, but these communities are in high-capacity states and had the ability to navigate and finance BRIC’s complex and costly application process.49 Low-capacity communities largely missed out on funding or did not apply in the first place.
Flexibility in defining at-risk communities is necessary but not sufficient. Communities most at risk are least able to access and utilize flexibility written into the CWDG program. The USDA must also use data tools internally and provide communities with maps, data, and assistance directly rather than requiring each community to find and report these data independently. The USDA’s Rural Partners Network, mentioned previously, provides a useful model of building capacity within the agency to relieve the burden on capacity-limited communities.50
At the local level, soil and water conservation districts do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to community-level wildfire planning. Watershed coalitions and collaboratives as well as larger landscape associations are often the direct grant writers and beneficiaries of federal grants targeted at building community wildfire resilience. Additional funding should go toward these organizations so that they can build capacity.
The USDA can leverage NGOs’ ability to apply on behalf of communities by providing block grants to existing entities that can serve as regional hubs. In New Mexico, the Forest Guild’s Fire Adapted New Mexico Learning Network provides a repository of information that already exists regarding community planning and funding streams. The network is tasked with ensuring that communities can access and share existing and up-to-date planning documents.51
Providing block-style capacity grants to regional hubs could achieve several priorities expressed by local practitioners,52 such as hiring WUI coordinators. For example, a recently updated northern New Mexico CWPP recommends hiring a county WUI coordinator to:
Work with the county fire marshal and support ongoing work related to this CWPP. The 2022 landscape-scale funding from the federal government is a potential source for such a position. Alternatively, or additionally, state funding may be identified to support this position.53
Rural practitioners who work on leadership development and capacity building recommend allocating 20 percent of a given grant toward capacity building.54 For the CWDG program, this may include 20 percent as capacity block grants to communities, NGOs, and regional hubs.
The CWDG program separates natural and built landscape assistance, compromising community resilience
CWDGs cannot be used for land use planning or retrofitting homes and neighborhoods to build resilience in the built environment. The USFS’ cohesive strategy includes three elements: restore and maintain landscapes resilient to fire-related disturbances; create fire-adapted communities where human populations and infrastructure can withstand a wildfire without loss of life and property; and improve wildfire response.55 However, the CWDG program’s implementation grants can only be used to restore and maintain landscape resilience. For example, fuel reduction around a structure would qualify, but replacing rooftops in a given community would not.
By not integrating landscape and community resilience, the CWDG program fails to adequately protect communities from wildfires. Homes ignite not only because a fire encroaches and reaches a structure, but also because commonly, embers can travel miles ahead of a wildfire front and land on a wooden roof or deck, or embed into gutters and eaves. And once one structure in a community catches fire, neighboring structures are at much higher risk.
The USDA can fill this gap in one of several ways. First, home hardening, land use planning, and infrastructure upgrades should be eligible for CWDG implementation grants. Second, the USDA should coordinate with sister agencies that can fund these projects to align funding in at-risk communities. The USDA and other federal agencies can also coordinate applications, provide technical assistance, and provide block grants to states and regional hubs to alleviate the need for capacity created by the complex and siloed federal funding programs, as well as add capacity that can be targeted to at-risk communities. Federal partnership programs, such as the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program, could be expanded and replicated.56
The CWDG program should not rely on ineffective CWPPs without expanding capacity and assistance
The CWDG program requires communities to include community wildfire protection plans in their applications for implementation grants, and these plans’ purpose and content can be effective and useful to communities. However, the Ecological Restoration Institute assessed CWPPs and found several problems with their effectiveness:57
- “The expectations of agencies, required plan contents, and processes or steps for creating an ‘official’ CWPP are often unclear.” As a result, “Many CWPPs lack clarity in their purpose, use, and audience and try to accomplish too many things at once … and many CWPPs lack clear plans for community outreach and engagement.”
- “There are numerous methods for conducting wildfire risk assessment and treatment prioritization processes, but many communities lack the capacity to effectively select methods and interpret the outputs without outside assistance. … Contractors can provide much needed capacity and experience for developing and updating CWPPs, but CWPP processes that are not community-led tend to have less participation from the public” and do not build capacity.
- “Engagement in CWPPs tends to be largely focused on the plan development process. Although the collaborative process of developing a CWPP is often cited as one of its biggest benefits, a lack of momentum into implementation may be creating the sense that CWPPs just ‘sit on shelves.’ Furthermore, many CWPPs lack leadership in the implementation phase to help maintain accountability and facilitate communication among partners.”
- “There is uneven tracking of CWPP-related accomplishments, which makes it difficult to determine whether a given CWPP’s recommendations were achieved. This also inhibits understanding of how treatments related to a CWPP may have affected wildfires that occurred in the CWPP area,” which is essential to learning networks and future policy development and reform.
Due to limitations related to capacity, focus, and monitoring, CWPP processes are not always ideal for communities and often reflect and reinforce the very inequities—namely social vulnerability and ability to bounce back quickly after a fire—that the CWDG program is intended to solve. The Ecological Restoration Institute’s assessment suggests that additional technical assistance and capacity is required to ensure CWPPs effectively address many of the root causes of ineffective wildfire preparedness.
Capacity limits in federal agencies undermine implementation of the CWDG program
The main agencies in charge of wildfire response, recovery, and pre-fire resilience planning and implementation are the USDA, the U.S. Department of Interior, and FEMA. In the recent New Mexico fires, FEMA and the USFS could not thoroughly provide the funding needed for residents recovering from wildfires, to the point that the New Mexico delegation in Congress has drafted the Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act (HPFAA) to alleviate some of the holes in recovery funding.58 The HPFAA would provide funding for business, property, and financial loss. Because FEMA only covers the costs of rebuilding a primary residence, additional structures such as barns, cabins, and guesthouses—labeled as so-called unnecessary property59—would not be covered. Lost property of ranchers, including livestock and feed, would be covered under USDA funding, but no coverage would exist for things such as destroyed fencing.
Many of the needs of northern New Mexico communities are not met by either agency, demonstrating a lack of capacity and authority. Congress appears willing to address these gaps in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, indicated by the likely passage of the HPFAA.
Agencies should also look to already successful programs when considering reform measures. For example, collaborative projects between the USFS and local communities—such as the Cerro Negro Forest Council’s Leñeros program, which provides locals with money to thin forest land by gathering firewood on national forest land around a given property60—are essential in building trust, collaboration, and capacity between communities and federal agencies.
Addressing limited capacity and ineffective coordination among federal agencies before a disaster strikes would lower federal costs and protect community assets. It would also build trust that the federal government can make good on promises to work with communities to build resilience and equity in the face of accelerating climate change and economic inequality.
Summary of solutions to build rural resilience through Community Wildfire Defense Grants61
Problem: Grant requirements often define being “at-risk” as being low-income.
Solution: “Low-income” is not the same as “low-capacity.” Use different metrics to better measure vulnerability and capacity, such as demographic and local-government capacity metrics.
Problem: Low-capacity communities are least able to access and utilize flexibility written into CWDGs.
Solution: Expand communities’ capacity by having agencies streamline and coordinate federal applications and assume some application tasks. For example, the USDA can use internal data tools to provide communities with assistance rather than requiring each community to find and report required data independently.
Problem: Competitive grants disadvantage and discourage low-capacity communities from applying.
Solution: Provide block grants for capacity building, fund coordinators for the WUI, and make smaller projects eligible and competitive.
Problem: The separation of built and natural environments undermines resilience.
Solution: Add built environment to implementation grants, align CWDGs with other sources of funding for the built environment, and ensure plans focus on strategies for their implementation.
Problem: CWPPs are required but do not effectively meet rural capacity needs.
Solution: Eliminate or de-emphasize CWPPs in awarding implementation grants. Instead, provide assistance to help communities complete regional CWPPs and enable CWDG planning grants to better meet community needs.
Problem: Federal agencies have capacity and jurisdictional barriers.
Solution: Provide adequate funding to agencies, encourage coordination between them, and expand the purposes of disaster resilience funding.
As climate change continues to increase the severity, duration, and frequency of wildfires across the United States, more communities find themselves facing increased risks of catastrophic events. Left unaddressed, limited capacity in rural areas will exacerbate wildfire impacts, deepen existing inequality among communities, and further erode trust that government can be a capable partner in addressing communities’ needs.
The new CWDG program makes significant advancements on several fronts, including significantly higher funding for community wildfire resilience projects; greater flexibility and opportunity for collaboration among agencies, NGOs, and communities; and a new focus on equity to ensure funding reaches communities with the greatest vulnerability.
However, the CWDG program appears trapped by legacy challenges that limit its effectiveness. Importantly, its large-scale implementation grants cannot be used to address the built environment, which undermines the benefits of funded landscape treatments and does not do enough to reduce community vulnerability. The program is further hamstrung by grant criteria and limited capacity, authority, and coordination among federal agencies, which reduce its effectiveness in reaching the most vulnerable communities and building long-term capacity and resilience in rural areas susceptible to wildfire.
These gaps are being filled, to some extent, by reactive congressional action—and by NGOs and foundations stepping in to provide additional technical assistance and long-term leadership and capacity assistance as well as to fund the gaps in disaster mitigation and recovery. However, Congress cannot be relied on to pass timely and effective place-based legislation for each community affected by wildfires and other climate-driven disasters. And foundation and NGO partners often expend limited capacity to address gaps in the CWDG program. Community resilience to disasters will only improve if Congress and the USDA take steps to enhance the next round of funding through the CWDG program.