It’s Monday, January 23, and new funding from the Biden administration aims to protect communities from wildfire.

Creek fire in the Sierra National Forest

Rising temperatures and a sprawling “megadrought” have turned wildfire season into a year-round threat for much of the American West. Now, the Biden administration is expanding efforts to keep people and infrastructure safe.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, said on Thursday it would put $490 million toward mitigating the risk of wildfires in 11 fire-prone landscapes across Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. The funding, made possible by President Joe Biden’s landmark climate spending and bipartisan infrastructure laws, builds on the federal government’s previously announced Wildfire Crisis Strategy, which in 2022 identified 250 high-risk zones across the Western U.S. and awarded fire resilience funding for projects in 10 initial areas.

The new funding will help the Forest Service (which is part of the USDA) lower the risk of explosive wildfires by thinning forests and conducting prescribed burns, low-intensity fires that are intentionally set in order to keep forests healthy and clear out dense vegetation. The USDA also plans to invest in community programs to create wildfire protection plans and help residents make their homes more fireproof. The agency says its efforts will mitigate fire risk to some 200 communities across the West and that it’s prioritizing protections for “underserved communities, critical infrastructure, public water sources, and tribal lands.”

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“We will use every tool we have to address this crisis and make your communities safer,” Homer Wilkes, the USDA’s undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, said in a statement. Between 2015 and 2021, wildfires burned more than 56 million acres nationwide and destroyed thousands more structures than in previous years.

Brian Kittler, vice president of forest restoration for the nonprofit American Forests, applauded the government for, as the Forest Service puts it, “learning to live with wildland fire” — a stark contrast with the agency’s historical tendency to suppress forest fires at all costs. By managing rather than preventing wildfires, Kittler told me, the Biden administration can not only protect people’s homes but also reduce fire-related air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and improve forest health.

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