Living With Fire: Donors Want to Focus on Reducing Risk, Not on Disaster
In Northern California’s East Bay, the Moraga-Orinda Fire District sometimes goes nine months without rain. The area has lots of open space and high concentrations of brush along with decaying eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees. Add in high winds in the fall and “the potential is there for a tremendously damaging fire if there is an ignition,” says David Winnacker, chief of the fire district.
Winnacker is trying to make the region safer for people to live with the threat of fire. But like many local government agencies, the fire district lacks a budget to explore new solutions to address the risks. So he has taken an unusual step: turning to philanthropy.
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In Northern California’s East Bay, the Moraga-Orinda Fire District sometimes goes nine months without rain. The area has lots of open space and high concentrations of brush along with decaying eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees. Add in high winds in the fall, and “the potential is there for a tremendously damaging fire,” says David Winnacker, chief of the fire district.
Winnacker is trying to make the region safer for people to live with the threat of fire. But like many other local government agencies, the fire district lacks a budget to test new solutions. So he has taken an unusual step: turning to philanthropy.
A nearly $1.4 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in July 2020 helped pay for technology that simulates the spread of fire and helps stitch together maps that aid first responders and residents when they need to evacuate. That grant is part of about $12 million the foundation has given since 2018 to help detect and respond to wildfires before they become catastrophic.
Because of a warming climate and changes in land use, wildfires are expected to become more frequent and intense in the coming years, driving an increased need for better solutions.
And yet nonprofits and governments spend a lot more on disaster relief and recovery than they do on steps to reduce fire risks. In the last five years, foundations, charities, and corporate donors gave $117.3 million to address wildfire in the United States, according to data from Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Just $16.6 million of that went toward wildfire resilience, risk reduction, mitigation, or preparedness. But that old and dominant disaster mind-set may be starting to shift.
A growing group of donors, including wealthy Americans and large foundations, are exploring approaches communities can take before wildfires devastate their regions. They’re supporting strategies to adapt landscapes, change policies, and help people prepare for and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. The dollar amounts are still relatively small but point to seeds of change.
For instance, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation made its first foray into wildfire philanthropy in 2020 with a three-year, $6 million investment.
Grants largely went to groups focused on state-level policy advocacy in California, Colorado, Montana, and Washington.
Some grantees are working to expand the use of controlled fires, the intentional blazes set to clear vegetation that can fuel wildfires. Other groups shape land-use planning decisions that influence the risk and severity of wildfires. Last year, the Argosy Foundation, a family fund, made $180,000 in grants to build fire resilience in Colorado and plans to continue supporting that work.
Also in 2021, a foundation that wants to remain anonymous gave $1 million to the Humboldt Area Foundation in California to support Indigenous groups working to restore and expand traditional fire practices. Smaller amounts from other foundations are also supporting Indigenous organizations as they continue to advocate for longstanding use of controlled burning as a cultural practice. These burns are beneficial for the ecosystem and can offer long-term fire protection for residents.
Efforts that help regions adapt and prepare for fire before catastrophe strikes remain chronically underfunded. Advocates say donors can play a unique role in supporting this work. Philanthropy can provide flexible dollars to complement more restrictive federal grants and help nonprofits as they wade through grant-application processes. It can foster new partnerships to advance policies and on-the-ground solutions. It can help ensure government dollars are equitably distributed to marginalized people who need them most.
While philanthropy should continue to support disaster relief, resilience must be a part of the conversation, says Keytra Meyer, director of advancement and philanthropic innovation at the Humboldt Area Foundation.
“We’re going to have fires every year,” she says. “We’ll never get ahead of it if we’re working in response mode.”
A Complement to Government
Philanthropy can accelerate solutions in partnership with government agencies, as Winnacker learned.
The Moore foundation’s investment in the wildfire detection technology was a catalyst. Financial support and the foundation’s connections allowed the company, Zonehaven, to build on an evacuation system that was developed on a small scale in Winnacker’s fire district. Now the tool is a growing part of the public-safety ecosystem, shaping how first responders make evacuation decisions and how that information is shared with residents.
With more than 24 California and Oregon counties signed up, close to 400 fire and 300 law-enforcement agencies use the platform covering a residential population of 10 million.
Society has largely thought of wildfire as something that federal and state governments are responsible for managing, but they have severely underfunded fire resilience until recently. The record-setting 2020 wildfire season led to a cascade of government funding, with billions of dollars now on tap from state and federal agencies. The new federal infrastructure act, for example, gives more than $5 billion over five years to wildfire management, but details of how that will be allocated are still unclear.
Marek Smith, who leads the Nature Conservancy’s fire-ecology programs in North America, says we view fire as a disaster or an emergency, as “something that happens to you as opposed to something that you’re working with and living with. If we approached fire in that way, then maybe we’d have more sectors seeing room for them to help.”
When donors do step in, complex wildfire issues can feel intractable and overwhelming. In addition to overcrowded forests that are more dry and flammable than ever, there’s a growing number of homes and infrastructure in wildfire-prone places. What’s more, wildfire smoke endangers the health of many Americans.
“Almost anywhere that you provide support right now is helpful,” says Jennee Kuang, who leads wildfire grant making at the Hewlett Foundation.
(The Hewlett Foundation is a financial supporter of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)
Hewlett’s 20 wildfire grantees include tribal groups, statewide networks of citizens helping their communities prepare for wildfires, and large organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the American Lung Association. Now that the foundation has made its initial $6 million investment, staff members are taking stock of what they’ve learned. This summer they’ll determine what role the foundation will play in supporting the work going forward.
‘Sense of Exasperation’
As with climate change more broadly, people often struggle to see the value in early preventative work, says Ray Foote, executive vice president of the National Forest Foundation. The foundation brings together federal, private, and community-based partners and resources for conservation projects on U.S. Forest Service land.
“It’s much more straightforward to deal with the aftereffects of something than to get ahead of it and try to prevent it,” he says. Take tree planting, for example. When a company comes in and plants 500,000 trees after a wildfire has decimated the forest, that’s concrete, visible, and easily measurable.
“That’s easier to see and that feels really good,” says Foote, “but how do we get these generous institutions and individuals to accelerate the money, to put it in on the front end so that the fire never happens?”
Donors and those considering giving have been coming together to learn about wildfire issues and identify ways to get involved. Starting in 2020, Philanthropy California, an alliance of grant makers, put together a speaker series called Building Wildfire Resilience in the West. Foundation staff members with more specialized interests in technology, policy, and social justice continue to discuss the ways wildfire issues intersect with their giving. Other regional and issue-focused networks of donors have hosted similar conversations.
“There’s a sense of exasperation that they have been funding disaster relief for consecutive years, and they really want to figure out how to broaden their giving or investment to also address wildfire resilience within the context of climate change,” says Alan Kwok, director of climate and disaster resilience at Northern California Grantmakers.
Many donors are still exploring, although Kwok hopes the conversations will lead to more investment. There’s still a deep need to support equitable disaster relief and long-term recovery, he says, “but we also need to equally invest in preventing or mitigating or reducing the harm and the risk from experiencing a disaster.”
Last year, with the help of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the League of California Community Foundations trained member organizations how to be prepared to provide relief and help residents recover after a wildfire. Based on feedback and interest from members, the league is developing a second program focused on community foundations’ role in building resilience and reducing risks from natural hazards.
While it’s easier to raise money during a disaster, some community foundations have seen an uptick in donor interest in restoring nearby forests. Last year the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, for example, launched a three-year, $30 million campaign to help prevent catastrophic forest fires in the region. So far, local donors, as well as those with second homes in the area, have pitched in $3.3 million, says Kate Frankfurt, the foundation’s director of philanthropy.
In early April, the foundation made its first $1 million in grants to nine organizations. The National Forest Foundation will use its funds for three forest-treatment projects, for example, while the Great Basin Institute will have more resources for its forestry work-force development programs.
Future grants may offer financial incentives for homeowners to manage their backyards and support businesses that create new uses and markets for the hazardous plant material removed from overcrowded forests.
Colorado’s Wake-Up Call
In December, the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colo. — the most damaging in the state’s history — swept through densely populated suburban neighborhoods. The blaze destroyed nearly 1,100 homes and structures. For the Argosy Foundation, the fire served as a terrifying wake-up call. It burned just a few miles from the foundation’s local office. The foundation’s headquarters and most of its staff members are in Milwaukee, with an additional office in Birmingham, Ala.
The wildfire also was an affirmation of sorts. Last year, one of the foundation’s trustees began targeting more support for wildfire preparedness and adaptation in Colorado.
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The family foundation, founded in 1997 by John Abele, co-founder of Boston Scientific, has made wildfire-related grants as part of its focus on the environment. For example, in 2018 it made a $75,000 grant to Headwaters Economics to help communities make land-use planning decisions that take into account the increasing wildfire risk. And as part of its disaster-response grant making, the foundation provided relief funds in the wake of the 2020 Colorado wildfire and 2019 Australian wildfire.
Trustees, who each have a set amount to give where they want, tend to focus on issues that haven’t attracted significant funding and where it seems their support can have the greatest impact. One Boulder-based trustee, whom the foundation didn’t want to identify, realized that one of those issues was in their own backyard. Last year, the trustee made $180,000 in grants for wildfire resilience, including community planning and landscape-treatment projects. The grants supported small nonprofits doing important work on a shoestring budget.
While those grants were just a small fraction of the trustee’s $4 million in grant making last year, Matt Gaboury, a program officer at Argosy, says wildfires are a growing focus for the foundation. Organizations the foundation had given money to less than a year earlier were able to help with relief efforts and long-term rebuilding plans for some of the neighborhoods damaged by the Marshall fire.
“From our experience so far,” Gaboury says, “this just shows how foundations of all sizes and scales can play an outsized role in this space — even if they have relatively small budgets, don’t have dedicated staff in this area, or haven’t funded in it before.”
Rebecca Samulski, executive director of Fire Adapted Colorado, a nonprofit network of individuals and groups dedicated to reducing the negative impact of wildfires, says money that flows through state and federal agencies often supports projects to treat large tracts of land but not the critical work around people’s homes. State grants may support an organization’s equipment purchase but not the full scope of its work. With $25,000 from the Argosy Foundation, Fire Adapted Colorado was able to award grants to nine of its member organizations to support hard-to-fund wildfire-resilience projects.
One of those organizations, the Two Rivers Wildfire Coalition in Mesa County, recently completed a project in a low-income neighborhood with a high risk of fire to create a buffer zone between an overgrown river habitat in a state park and nearby homes. The project, which involved Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a utility company, and financial support from an association of local realtors, focused on removing invasive species and creating space for firefighter safety and access should there be a fire. Using $3,000 from the Argosy grant, the group will expand its outreach to get more residents in adjacent neighborhoods on board for future treatments and put up signs to showcase what the project accomplished.
Support from Hewlett also brought Samulski’s group together with Western Resource Advocates, a research, policy, and advocacy organization focused on conservation. Together they developed a legislative agenda that could help change Colorado’s approach to mitigating wildfire risk.
One of the proposed parts of the law would remove barriers and provide some protection for landowners who want to conduct controlled burning on their property. Getting permits for these treatments often involves a lot of red tape. The draft legislation has bipartisan support and could move forward in the next legislative session.
Donors Back Cultural Burning
For Indigenous tribes in Northern California, low-intensity controlled burns are used to clear underbrush to create prairies that attract culturally important species like elk and allow traditional food sources such as berries to flourish. The spring following a burn, sprigs of hazelnut trees shoot from the scorched earth. The pliable twigs are prized by Indigenous basket weavers like Margo Robbins.
“Fire is supposed to be part of the ecosystem to keep things healthy and in balance,” says Robbins, a Yurok tribal member and director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, a nonprofit that helps other tribal members reclaim their traditions that involve fire.
For more than a century, U.S. forestry policies have focused on extinguishing fires at all costs, severely restricting native peoples’ ability to manage the land. Indigenous people have been active advocates for the expanded use of intentional fires — a practice they have used for thousands of years.
A wealth of evidence shows that prescribed fires are effective at mitigating wildfire risks, but barriers such as the lack of a dedicated work force and limited funding have prevented them from being used more widely.
In partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the fire-management council hosts Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges. During these events, Northern California tribal members and others earn entry-level firefighter qualifications while burning excess dry vegetation that could fuel a wildfire.
Although the mechanics of these burns are similar to those a fire agency might conduct, these fires take cultural considerations into account when deciding where, when, and why to burn. For smaller burns, Indigenous people of all ages are invited to join, passing on traditional ecocultural knowledge to younger generations.
Donors have taken notice. In the past few years, the nonprofit council has attracted support from foundations, including $190,000 from Hewlett and $50,000 from the Schmidt Family Foundation’s 11th Hour Project.
The council grew out of a $10 million investment from the California Endowment more than a decade ago. The endowment supported 14 regions in improving their health and well-being and helped residents identify priority issues. For residents of Del Norte County and its adjacent tribal lands, bringing the use of fire back to the land emerged as the top concern.
“People are looking to native people for answers because we managed this land for tens of thousands of years and kept it in balance and harmony,” says Robbins. “They’re starting to realize that we do in fact know how to keep our lands healthy or restore them, and they’re really happy to learn that doing so also prevents wildfire.”
As the Humboldt Area Foundation set out to distribute $1 million from an anonymous donor in support of Indigenous-led fire management, building grantees’ fiscal capacity was a priority. In addition to making grants to Robbins’s group, the Karuk Tribe Eco-Cultural Revitalization Trust, and the Hoopa Fire Department, the foundation gave $400,000 to the North Coast Resource Partnership. That group will work with local tribes, volunteer fire departments, and other local organizations to assess their funding needs and help them secure more government money.
While it’s a promising sign that more government resources will flow to resilience projects than ever before, the new blocks of funding do not automatically translate into solutions. Philanthropy can continue to help ensure that happens by supporting groups’ long-term capacity and operations to better sustain their work, experts say.
For years, Robbins and her colleagues mostly volunteered their time with the Cultural Fire Management Council. Now a state grant reimburses them for some of the work. But it is the unrestricted support from philanthropy that provides the group with cash to carry through and expand its work. It can now pay families to burn small parcels of land and hire a crew to clear the brush that remains after a larger burn.
Meanwhile, funding from the Humboldt Area Foundation will allow the group to conduct burns with the Hoopa and Karuk tribes on their ancestral territories. The money also will let the group send its trained fire crew out to teach others how to burn on different kinds of landscapes.
Over the last decade, Robbins has seen change in both the people and the land. In the spring, there are now so many hazel sticks sprouting from recently burned land that they invite neighboring tribes to pick with them. There are now several weaving classes and more basket weavers; she often sees babies carried in the traditional baskets. And the view along the winding highway she drives from her home to the nearest store, once so thick with vegetation that you couldn’t see through, is now clear.
“Now when we look up the hill, we can see the skyline,” she says.
The Yurok ancestral territory is half a million acres, far more than can be treated with fire in Robbins’s lifetime. But she hopes the next generations will continue the work, thanks in part to her organization’s training efforts and to the help of philanthropy.
“There’s such a huge, daunting task to think about where we need to go with fire,” she says. “It is really such a great feeling to see our young men and women who are helping to restore the land and to see their sense of pride in what they’re doing.”
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. See more about the grant and our gift-acceptance policy.