Can Philanthropy Curb the Growing Threat of Wildfire? West Coast Funders Are Giving It a Shot


Many years ago, I was talking to a Californian and I made a native East Coaster's cliché reference to the danger of earthquakes.

"Oh, people here aren't afraid of earthquakes," the guy said. "It's fire that scares them." Now, I live in California and have been through a couple of big earthquakes and I can confirm that while a good shot of earthquaking definitely gets your attention, wildfires can feel like the end of the world.

Few disasters are as terrifying as an extreme wildfire. The conflagrations can cover hundreds of thousands of acres of trees and vegetation before they burn out or are contained. They kill people and animals, destroy homes and other structures, and fill the air with dangerous smoke and pollutants. And for a variety of reasons — climate change, centuries of humans reshaping the land through agricultural practices, forest clear-cutting and habitat fragmentation — they are getting more common.

In the United States, the total area burned by forest fires each year has increased ten-fold in the last 50 years. California, for example, has experienced several of the state's worst-ever wildfires in just the last five years. In fact, what used to be called "fire season" in California — that is, the warmer months in late spring, summer and early fall — is now a year-round concern. It's not just in the U.S. You probably recall the reports and images from Australia during 2019 and 2020, when a so-called megafire incinerated 60 million acres, destroying thousands of buildings, killing 34 people and literally billions of animals.

Given these dangers, it is more than understandable that people have, over the decades, done their best to stop wildfires as quickly as possible. But recently, some science and climate funders are promoting a shift away from this principle of fire exclusion and toward a different approach to fire, one that includes an understanding of fire's natural, even necessary role in the environment. Not solely a threat, fire also clears out old vegetation and makes way for different vegetation to thrive, which in turn provides food and habitat for different animals. In other words, we cannot and should not prevent all forest fires; instead, communities must learn to live successfully and safely with a certain number of them in order to reduce the likelihood of huge and disastrous fires.

These are the concepts behind the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation's recent launch of a $110 million Wildfire Resilience Initiative. According to Moore, the initiative "aims to support a transformation in the role that fire plays and is perceived to play in Western North America, from an unwanted, destructive threat to an essential, integral element in our landscapes." Moore is one of a few West Coast funders taking a more active role in addressing the threat of wildfire. While conservation, including forests, has been a big focus for the funder for many years, the measure may have been influenced at least in part by the Moore Foundation's presence in Northern California and its first-hand proximity to sites of some of the country's most deadly and destructive wildfires.

"So many communities and people have experienced direct impacts and tragic losses in the last few years — and many millions more have been impacted by smoke and other more diffuse effects from these extreme wildfire events," said Genny Biggs, Moore Foundation program director for Wildfire Resilience Initiative and Special Projects. "There’s no question that we’re in a tough situation now, and one that’s projected to get worse — and communities and many ecosystems across Western North America are vulnerable."

Historically, in California philanthropy, much of the response to wildfire has been to provide emergency relief to people displaced or otherwise affected by fire. Some funders that focus on the impacts of climate change, including the increasing frequency and size of wildfires, have backed research to better understand wildfires. To advance the model of wildfire resilience, the new Moore initiative will fund a variety of efforts, including research for improved early fire detection, consequence assessment, and response; mitigations to help communities coexist with the impacts of wildfire and smoke; ecosystem stewardship models to avoid extreme wildfire events and instead burn under appropriate and beneficial conditions, among other work.

Another major environmental funder, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, has also been promoting a similar approach to wildfire resilience in recent years. Since 2020, Hewlett has made dozens of grants to expand research into fire and policies for fire resilience in California, Colorado and other states.  

It might seem that one of the hurdles that Moore and other funders of fire resilience face would be convincing residents that not all fire should be extinguished immediately. But in fact, many residents in fire-prone areas understand fire's natural role and are in favor of finding safe ways to use it for resource management goals, and ultimately, to make their communities safer and the environment healthier, said Jennee Kuang of Resources Legacy Fund, where she is responsible for philanthropic programs that address wildfire resilience and climate change. The organization designs programs and partnerships with funders, government agencies and nonprofits, with a focus on environmental conservation. Kuang was previously at Hewlett Foundation, where she also developed that funder's fire resilience grantmaking strategy.

Among the strategies for resilience are managed wildfire and prescribed fire. Managed wildfire is the strategic choice to allow unplanned fires to burn to achieve resource management objectives, as long as the fires are low risk for people and communities. As a result, Kuang said, such managed wildfire has been traditionally restricted to federal wilderness, national parks or other remote areas. Another fire management tool for ecosystem health is prescribed fire: the controlled, intentional use of fire under specific weather conditions to restore ecosystem health and reduce wildfire risk to communities.

Resources Legacy Fund is aiming to improve wildfire resilience in California and the Western U.S. by 2030 through better policy and significantly increased funding for forest management, community resilience and home hardening, Tribal leadership on forest stewardship and fire management, and public health measures that protect people from the impacts of smoke. Increasingly, wildfire smoke is being linked to a growing number of serious human health issues, as is particulate pollution more generally, making such research a necessary part of community wildfire resilience.

With the risk of fire expected to increase over the coming years and decades, all of the areas mentioned above are topics in which additional philanthropy can play an important role, explained Biggs and Kuang. Some are fairly obvious, such as investing in at-risk communities and community-based organizations to help them pursue a suite of wildfire resilience actions, like improving ventilation and sealing systems in schools and other buildings to reduce smoke exposure; hardening homes to reduce structure-to-structure spread of fire; and establishing evacuation plans.

Resources Legacy Fund has chosen to focus the majority of its strategic grantmaking on supporting better policy development and implementation and sustained funding at scale for land management and restoration, safer communities, Tribal stewardship and public health. Philanthropy can play a crucial role in connecting diverse voices to those making decisions about wildfire resilience funding, according to Kuang. 

Of course, near the top of the grantmaking list for organizations like Resources Legacy Fund and Moore Foundation are fire detection and early warning systems, the better to enable faster response and safer outcomes for people, property and nature.

"We think philanthropy can help advance science and technology solutions to get a better handle on seeing fires earlier, knowing what to do about them, and then responding effectively, all in an integrated way that includes assessing risk accurately, to be able both to let beneficial fire burn and avert severe events," said Biggs. Such advances should free up resources, including community and political will, to implement solutions that are even further upstream.

"We have a choice either to experience fewer, larger, high-severity, destructive fires, or to experience maybe more frequent, but smaller, lower-severity fires," said Biggs.