Wildfires in California killed 159 people and destroyed more than 32,000 structures, including many homes, in 2017 and 2018. According to recent environmental assessments, fire seasons are increasing in length, putting more people and infrastructure at risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has obligated approximately $2.4 billion toward housing, debris removal, and other assistance.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, published October 9, found that FEMA helped state and local officials obtain and coordinate federal resources to provide for the needs of wildfire survivors and execute recovery efforts. The agency supplied staff to assist at Emergency Operations Centers and establish Disaster Recovery Centers and provided public assistance grant funds to local jurisdictions to help address community infrastructure needs. FEMA also assigned federal agencies to perform various missions to help with response and recovery—for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was assigned with contracting for debris removal services in some instances.
Officials from jurisdictions that GAO spoke with described practices that aided in wildfire response and recovery, but also reported experiencing challenges. Specifically, officials in affected areas noted that collaboration between FEMA and California’s Office of Emergency Services allowed for timely information sharing, and FEMA’s assistance at Disaster Recovery Centers greatly assisted survivors in obtaining necessary services.
Among the challenges cited were onerous documentation requirements for FEMA’s public assistance grant program and locating temporary housing for survivors whose homes were completely destroyed. In addition, the unique challenge of removing wildfire debris led to confusion over soil excavation standards and led to overexcavation on some homeowners’ lots, lengthening the rebuilding process.
FEMA has developed an after-action report identifying lessons learned from the October and December 2017 wildfires, but GAO says it could benefit from a more comprehensive assessment of its operations to determine if additional actions are needed to ensure that policies and procedures are best suited to prepare for future wildfires. The watchdog added that the combination of recent devastating wildfires and projections for increased wildfire activity suggest a potential change in FEMA’s operating environment, and that such changes should be analyzed and addressed to help ensure that agencies maintain their effectiveness.
Following the GAO review and consequent recommendation for FEMA to assess its operations, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has set out several planned actions. These actions include the use of sheltering and housing field teams to support states’ efforts to house disaster survivors; continued updates to direct housing guidance; developing guidance for the use of FEMA-issued, state-administered direct housing grants authorized by the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 and development of a project to analyze and improve capabilities and identify areas of innovation in response to wildfire disasters. DHS anticipates that these efforts will be put into effect by December 2020.