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On Tuesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the launch of a new $1 billion Community Wildfire Defense Grant program. This new, five-year, competitive program is being funded by the massive Build Back Better bipartisan infrastructure law passed late last year. Vilsack said that the program is designed to assist at-risk communities, including Tribal communities, non-profit organizations, state forestry agencies and Alaska Native corporations with planning for and mitigating wildfire risks.

Vilsack made the announcement during his keynote address at the Western Governors’ Association’s 2022 annual meeting where discussions focused on wildfire threats, restoring burned landscapes and the effects of drought in the West.

Auburn University wildland fire expert Heather Alexander, associate professor of forest and fire ecology, recently commented on how landowners and managers can help reduce occurrences and damage.

“It is important to understand that not all forest fires are bad,” Alexander said. “Unintentional and uncontrolled fires, or wildfires, are the fires that we usually try to prevent, and the best way to do this is limit both fuel accumulation and ignition sources.

“One accepted practice for preventing fuel build up is the periodic application of prescribed fire. Prescribed fires are planned extensively and set under very specific weather conditions and with proper personnel and safety measures to avoid fire escapes, smoke issues or extreme burning of forest trees and other forest resources. Prescribed fires not only reduce fuels but also serve many other important ecological functions, including increasing plant and animal biodiversity and reducing unwanted pests like ticks and chiggers. In fact, many forests, including those in the West, depend on fire for their perpetuation and regeneration. … The problem is that we have intentionally suppressed natural fires for many decades, allowing fuels to accumulate and forest trees to grow very dense, conditions that promote rapid fire spread and high fire severity when ignited unintentionally. Climate warming is not helping the situation because fuels are much drier than in the past so more easily ignite.”

Alexander said that it is important to prevent the unintentional ignition of wildfires by making sure to put out campfires and cigarettes and avoid producing sparks from machinery or automobiles. Homeowners can limit risks associated with wildfires by performing simple safety measures around their homes, which are described by National Fire Protection Association.

“This summer’s wildfire season is predicted to be another bad one due to dry, warm conditions, especially in the U.S. West and Southwest, but also in parts of the coastal Southeast due to moderate to severe drought,” Alexander said. “As of July 1, 2022, the National Interagency Fire Center reported that year-to-date acres burned for the U.S. was approximately 220% above the 10-year average, with most of the areas burned being in Alaska and the Southwest and South. Details about Alabama fire weather can be found through the Alabama Forestry Commission.”

According to Joel N. Myers, AccuWeather founder and CEO, the estimated costs of the 2021 wildfire season in the U.S. were between $70 billion and $90 billion.

Alabama is 72% forested so forest fires in a dry year have the potential to negatively impact many communities across the state.

As for the USDA program, individual grants will fund up to $250,000 to create and update community wildfire protection plans or conduct outreach and education and up to $10 million for associated infrastructure and resilience projects. Local and Tribal governments are encouraged to conduct planning exercises to assist their communities with wildfire preparedness, response and adaptation efforts. Projects must be completed within five years of the award obligation. The number of projects selected will be determined by available funding, which is currently $200 million annually.

Earlier this month, USDA, the Department of the Interior and the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced appointments for a new Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, created by the infrastructure bill, which will assemble policy recommendations on how the agencies can better mitigate, prevent, and respond to wildfire risk. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also provides an historic $8.25 billion investment for wildfire management, through a suite of programs aimed at reducing wildfire risks, detecting wildfires, instituting firefighter workforce reforms and landmark pay increases for federal wildland firefighters.

For more information on the program or to apply, visit the Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email brandon.moseley@1819News.com.

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