Climate Change

Forest Service Grants Delayed for Communities in Flammable Forests

A new federal program aimed at reducing wildfire risk has been plagued by delays—in a few cases, by over a year.

April 25, 2024

Last summer, Plumas County Fire Safe Council was hoping to hit the ground running. The nonprofit’s members knew exactly what they were working to prevent—the devastation of wildfires is evident all over the landscape of this Sierra Nevada county, tucked between Tahoe and Lassen. In 2021, the Dixie Fire—California’s second-largest wildfire on record—tore through Plumas, destroying three communities and stretching across five counties. This kind of destruction couldn’t be allowed to happen again.

A year ago, in March 2023, Liam Galleher was excited to hear that the Fire Safe Council, where he works as a county coordinator, would receive $6.8 million from the U.S. Forest Service’s Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program. He had plans for fuel reduction—thinning forests, removing trees, and safely burning the overgrown understory. 

But due to delays at the federal level, the grant agreement went unsigned for months. So the contractors that Galleher’s team had ready to go around the eastern outskirts of Quincy—where wildfire risk level is very high, per CalFire, California’s state fire agency—had to be called off.

“There were projects that we would have really, really liked to apply the funding to. But frankly, we couldn’t,” Galleher says. 

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In 2021, the Dixie Fire burned areas of the Plumas National Forest that had burned in 2007’s Moonlight Fire, leaving the landscape essentially barren. (Courtesy of Feather River RCD)

The council came up with “creative solutions”: it pooled money from private sources, and broke down the big Quincy project into three contracts, to help ease the funding gap. Even then, it was five months before any fuels teams got off the ground, and 10 total before federal funding arrived at all. 

The Community Wildfire Defense Grants are a brand-new program that was kickstarted by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law last year. Nationwide, the program will provide $1 billion dollars over five years to help communities manage their fire risks. Grants are meant for the communities in greatest need, and applicants are weighed by socioeconomic factors as well as fire risk—work happens on private or tribal trust lands, not federal properties. “Some people might be saying, ‘It’s delayed.’ But on the other hand, it’s a new program that they had to stand up very quickly,” says Evan Burks, spokesperson for the USFS. “And it’s been an absolute game-changer.”

Galleher and his colleagues weren’t the only ones who encountered delays. Elsewhere in Plumas County, the Feather River Resource Conservation District, a nonregulatory local agency that works on post-fire restoration, waited 10 months for its $8.5 million grant. Outside of Plumas, the Forest Service says, three of California’s 33 grantees have yet to receive awards totaling over $10 million—and it’s been a year and counting since that round of awards was announced. These include northern California communities in Mendocino, Trinity, and Kern. On average, grants took about 250 days, or about eight months, to execute. 

Data source: U.S. Forest Service. Chart by Anushuya Thapa, Bay Nature.

“High-risk communities have to fret through fire seasons, while they just sort of hope to God that they don’t have a fire come through the neighborhood,” says Hugh Safford, a former regional ecologist who left the Forest Service in 2021. He now works on forest resilience as chief scientist at a tech startup, Vibrant Planet, and holds an ecology research position at UC Davis. “It means that they’re gonna go another fire season without having the work done.”

USFS officials say grants were held up due to small, bureaucratic delays—such as checking signatures were valid, or budget back-and-forths. But Adrienne Freeman, a spokesperson for the grant program, also acknowledges two factors: an agency-wide staffing shortage, and a lack of an external clearinghouse to get the money moving on the beleaguered Forest Service’s behalf. “The Forest Service, [which] has extremely limited capacity, is doing all of these grants. So, fundamentally, it’s gonna be a challenge,” Freeman says. Some states have taken over administering the grants, and CalFire  has distributed some federal money originating from the USDA. But for this round of funding, the state of California opted out, putting the onus back on the federal government.

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The USFS’s workforce numbers have been near-stagnant for decades. The permanent staff count for the agency’s Pacific Southwest region, which includes California, has hovered around 5,000 employees since 2004. Wildfire, in the meantime, has been ramping up its intensity and spread. Since 2020, wildfires have annually burned more than five times as much acreage as they did in the 2010s. And of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s history, 18 occurred in or after 2000.

Burks, the Forest Service spokesperson, says the agency has hired 10  new grant specialists in California since 2022, one specifically for the CWDG project.

Safford likens the funds to water pouring into these communities—the nozzle that they’re coming through just isn’t big enough. “It has a really big opening where the federal government has poured in billions and billions,” he says. “It’s stacked up and overflowing at the top but there's nothing coming out of the bottom.”

While the Forest Service’s staffing numbers have stayed flat, the forests they are charged to manage and protect have grown thick and more flammable—often to the point of becoming unrecognizable, according to forest experts. 

Fire resilience teams like Galleher’s need boots on the ground to understand their own forests. For context, Plumas County wildfire workers have been making decisions based on an assessment of fuels conducted in 2004. Such surveys are usually considered valid for about 10 years. “Not only are we overdue from a timeline perspective, but also the dynamics of our forest have actually changed,” Galleher says. The town of Greenville burned down entirely in the 2021 Dixie Fire; in that same 2004 report, it had been marked as relatively safe and recently thinned. 

“It was a big wake-up call that we need to really reassess what our priorities are,” Galleher says of Dixie. “The first step is to do that is a new hazardous fuels assessment.” It would tell them which areas to target first, and make coordinating wildfire risk reduction tasks across the county’s 50-plus communities that much easier. With months of delays in the latest USFS grant, though, a new survey will have to wait until later this year. 

Galleher knows the kind of trouble that could be in store.

Plumas’s forest was once dominated by large ponderosa pines—with the more timid (and shade-tolerant) white firs waiting patiently in the understory. In a healthy forest system, the pines die naturally from beetles or drought or fire, at which point the tiny firs lay claim to their inheritance: a generous plot of land and open canopy, with enough sunlight to grow big at last. 

Logging of the big, old-growth pines— and decades of policies suppressing fire—left white fir growing unchecked. “These white fir that were just chilling, they had a frickin’ field day. This is exactly what they were waiting for,” Galleher says. Now, ponderosa pines struggle to find footing in a fir-dominated landscape. But the extent of change in Plumas’s forests is still undocumented.

Workers in 2020 reforested a portion of the Plumas National Project in the wake of the 2007 Moonlight Fire. (Courtesy of Feather River RCD)

There’s a tale of two forests in Plumas County, and one of them is cautionary. Michael Hall, district manager at the Feather River Resource Conservation District—the other Plumas recipient whose grant was delayed by ten months—oversees a virtual tree graveyard. He’s working with vast swaths of private land that also burned in the Dixie Fire, now dominated by charred trunks with thin black needles and the precarious few branches they still hold up. It is a picture of what the forests might become if Galleher’s efforts fail, and another devastating fire comes to pass. 

“In a large amount of the areas we work in there is 100% tree mortality,” Hall says. “Just completely cooked.” These are rural areas, at places where dead trees meet with burned-down residences—but despite the lack of green, these areas are presently just as much of a fire risk as the unburned areas—if not more. The ground is dry. The smoked trees, like charcoal at the heart of a hearth, are ready to rekindle at the smallest spark. When a reburn goes through a patch like this, “It's hotter and quicker,” Hall says. “There's not a lot of smoldering because the material is so combustible. So [fires] burn quick and move through fast.” 

Ideally, Hall says, you take a crew into the dead zone within the first year of a devastating fire. At that stage, you can still use herbicides and hand-held tools to clear the burned trees and young shrubs. But when rot starts to set in, branches will weaken. The canopy becomes a hazard of its own. “After four years, large trees become really dangerous,” Hall says. “Your only hope is to maybe knock them over with an excavator.” 

When the federal funds finally arrived in January, the ground in Plumas was snowy, and too wet for tree removal to begin. Hall plans to start the project in the fall instead—a little more than three years since the Dixie Fire. He doesn’t fault the Forest Service for the long delays, saying it’s “pretty darn typical” of a federal agency to be slow, and adds that the conservation district’s been managing fine with other sources of funds. 

This is an area that burned twice: the top segment of healthy forest was replanted in between two megafires, the Moonlight and Dixie fires. The reburned area below was dominated by brush before the Dixie Fire. (Courtesy of Feather River RCD)

They’ve done this before: remove dead trees and brush from private property, and then step in to replant the forest with baby ponderosa pine, incense cedar, sugar pine, and Douglas fir. That’s the way to break the burn cycle, Hall says. 

But he is worried. There’s an eight- to 12-year post-fire window, he says, during which the dead trees and the shrubs growing around them pose a serious threat of reburning—and, with large wildfires coming more frequently nowadays, they are more likely to do so. That’s the real clock they’re up against. “It can burn again,” he says. “It will burn again.”

About the Author

Anushuya joined Bay Nature in 2023 as an editorial fellow focusing on Wild Billions, Bay Nature’s project tracking federal money for nature. Before that, she left her hometown of Kathmandu to study journalism at Northwestern University, and has written for InvestigateWest, The Harvey World Herald, and The Daily Northwestern. Outside of the newsroom, you can find her dancing salsa decently well, or playing chess very poorly.