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Testimony: 

Before the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, Committee on 
Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 

GAO: 

For Release on Delivery Expected at 2:30 p.m. EDT: 

Wednesday, June 21, 2006: 

Wildland Fire Suppression: 

Better Guidance Needed to Clarify Sharing of Costs between Federal and 
Nonfederal Entities: 

Statement of Robert A. Robinson, Managing Director: 
Natural Resources and Environment: 

GAO-06-896T: 

GAO Highlights: 

Highlights of GAO-06-896T, a testimony before the Subcommittee on 
Public Lands and Forests, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, 
U.S. Senate. 

Why GAO Did This Study: 

Wildland fires can burn or threaten both federal and nonfederal lands 
and resources, including homes in or near wildlands, an area commonly 
called the wildland-urban interface. Agreements between federal and 
nonfederal firefighting entities provide the framework for working 
together and sharing the costs of fire suppression efforts. GAO was 
asked to (1) review how federal and nonfederal entities share the costs 
of suppressing fires that burn or threaten both of their lands and 
resources and (2) identify any concerns that these entities may have 
with the existing cost-sharing framework. This testimony is based on 
GAO’s May 2006 report Wildland Fire Suppression: Lack of Clear Guidance 
Raises Concerns about Cost Sharing between Federal and Nonfederal 
Entities (GAO-06-570). 

What GAO Found: 

Federal and nonfederal entities used a variety of methods to share the 
costs of fighting wildland fires affecting both of their lands and 
resources. Cooperative agreements between federal and nonfederal 
firefighting entities—which are developed and agreed to by the entities 
involved—provide the framework for cost sharing and typically list 
several cost-sharing methods available to the entities. The agreements 
GAO reviewed, however, often lacked clear guidance for federal and 
nonfederal officials to use in deciding which method to apply to a 
specific fire. As a result, cost-sharing methods were applied 
inconsistently within and among states, even for fires with similar 
characteristics. For example, GAO found that in one state, the costs 
for suppressing a large fire that threatened homes were shared solely 
according to the proportion of acres burned within each entity’s area 
of fire protection responsibility, a method that traditionally has been 
used. Yet, costs for a similar fire within the same state were shared 
differently. For this fire, the state agreed to pay for certain 
aircraft and fire engines used to protect the wildland-urban interface, 
while the remaining costs were shared on the basis of acres burned. In 
contrast to the two methods used in this state, officials in another 
state used yet a different cost-sharing method for two similar large 
fires that threatened homes, apportioning costs each day for personnel, 
aircraft, and equipment deployed on particular lands, such as the 
wildland-urban interface. The type of cost-sharing method ultimately 
used is important because it can have significant financial 
consequences for the entities involved, potentially amounting to 
millions of dollars. 

Both federal and nonfederal agency officials raised a number of 
concerns about the current cost-sharing framework. First, some federal 
officials were concerned that because guidance is unclear about which 
cost-sharing methods are most appropriate in particular circumstances, 
it can be difficult to reach agreement with nonfederal officials on a 
method that all parties believe distributes suppression costs 
equitably. Second, some nonfederal officials expressed concerns that 
the emergence of alternative cost-sharing methods is causing nonfederal 
entities to bear a greater share of fire suppression costs than in the 
past. In addition, both federal and nonfederal officials believed that 
the inconsistent application of these cost-sharing methods has led to 
inequities among states in the proportion of costs borne by federal and 
nonfederal entities. Finally, some federal officials also expressed 
concern that the current framework for sharing costs insulates state 
and local governments from the increasing costs of protecting the 
wildland-urban interface. Therefore, nonfederal entities may have a 
reduced incentive to take steps that could help mitigate fire risks, 
such as requiring homeowners to use fire-resistant materials and 
landscaping. On the basis of a review of previous federal reports and 
interviews with federal and nonfederal officials, GAO believes that 
these concerns may reflect a more fundamental issue—that federal and 
nonfederal entities have not clearly defined their basic financial 
responsibilities for wildland fire suppression, particularly those for 
protecting the wildland-urban interface. 

What GAO Recommends: 

In its report, GAO recommended that the Secretaries of Agriculture and 
the Interior, working with relevant state entities, provide more 
specific guidance on when to use particular cost-sharing methods and 
clarify the financial responsibilities for fires that burn or threaten 
to burn across multiple jurisdictions. The Forest Service and Interior 
generally agreed with the recommendations but the National Association 
of State Foresters disagreed, stating that the recommendations would 
not provide the flexibility needed to address the variability in local 
circumstances and state laws. 

[Hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-06-896T]. 

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click on 
the link above. For more information, contact Robert A. Robinson at 
(202) 512-3841 or robinsonr@gao.gov. 

[End of Section] 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: 

I am pleased to be here today to discuss how federal and nonfederal 
entities share the costs of suppressing wildland fires that burn or 
threaten both federal and nonfederal lands and resources. As you know, 
fighting wildland fires--which can burn across federal, state, and 
local jurisdictions--requires significant investments of firefighting 
personnel, aircraft, equipment, and supplies, resulting in substantial 
and increasing fire suppression expenditures. Since 2000, federal 
suppression expenditures alone have averaged more than $1 billion 
annually. Firefighting efforts are mobilized through an interagency 
incident management system, which depends on the close cooperation and 
coordination of federal, state, tribal, and local fire protection 
entities. At the federal level, five principal agencies are involved in 
firefighting efforts--the Forest Service within the Department of 
Agriculture and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land 
Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service within 
the Department of the Interior. Federal and nonfederal firefighting 
entities share their personnel, equipment, and supplies and work 
together to fight fires, regardless of which entity has jurisdiction 
over the burning lands. Agreements between cooperating entities, 
commonly referred to as master agreements, govern these cooperative 
fire protection efforts and include general provisions for sharing 
firefighting costs. 

My testimony today summarizes the findings of our report[Footnote 1] 
released on June 13, 2006, which discusses (1) how federal and 
nonfederal entities share the costs of suppressing wildland fires that 
burn or threaten both of their lands and resources and (2) concerns 
federal and nonfederal entities have with the existing cost-sharing 
framework. To address these objectives, we reviewed applicable federal 
statutes, policies, and procedures; and federal and nonfederal studies 
related to wildland fire suppression costs. We reviewed master 
agreements between federal and nonfederal entities governing 
cooperative fire protection in 12 western states that frequently 
experience wildland fires.[Footnote 2] We also reviewed fire records 
and interviewed federal and nonfederal firefighting officials to 
discuss methods chosen to share suppression costs for eight recent 
fires--two each in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Utah--which 
burned or threatened both federal and nonfederal lands and 
resources.[Footnote 3] 

Summary: 

Federal and nonfederal entities used a variety of methods to share the 
costs of fighting wildland fires affecting both of their lands and 
resources, but they applied these varied methods inconsistently to 
fires with similar characteristics. Master agreements between 
firefighting entities provide the framework for cost sharing and, 
typically, list several cost-sharing methods available to the entities. 
The agreements we reviewed, however, often lacked clear guidance for 
federal and nonfederal officials to use in deciding which method to 
apply to a specific fire. As a result, cost-sharing methods were 
applied inconsistently within and among states, even for fires with 
similar characteristics. For example: 

* In one state, the costs for suppressing a large fire that threatened 
homes were shared solely according to the proportion of acres burned 
within each entity's area of fire protection responsibility. 

* In the same state, costs for a similar fire were shared differently-
-the state paid for certain aircraft and fire engines used to protect 
homes, while the remaining costs were shared on the basis of acres 
burned. 

* In another state, officials used yet a different cost-sharing method 
for two similar large fires that threatened homes, apportioning costs 
each day for personnel, aircraft, and equipment deployed on particular 
lands, such as the wildland-urban interface, an area where homes and 
other structures are located in or near wildlands. 

* The type of cost-sharing method ultimately used is important because 
it can have significant financial consequences for the entities 
involved, potentially amounting to millions of dollars. 

* Federal and nonfederal agency officials we interviewed raised a 
number of concerns about the current cost-sharing framework. 

* First, some federal officials said that because master agreements and 
other policies do not provide clear guidance about which cost-sharing 
methods to use, it has sometimes been difficult to obtain a cost- 
sharing agreement that they believe shares suppression costs equitably. 

* Second, nonfederal officials were concerned that the emergence of 
alternative cost-sharing methods has caused nonfederal entities to bear 
a greater share of fire suppression costs than in the past. In 
addition, these officials, as well as some federal officials, were 
concerned that the federal government was treating nonfederal entities 
in different states differently, thereby creating inequities. 

* Finally, some federal officials expressed concern that the current 
framework for sharing costs insulates state and local governments from 
the cost of protecting the wildland-urban interface, thereby reducing 
their incentive to take steps that could help mitigate fire risks and 
reduce suppression costs in the wildland-urban interface. 

On the basis of our review of previous federal reports and interviews 
with federal and nonfederal officials, we believe these concerns may 
reflect a more fundamental issue--that federal and nonfederal entities 
have not clearly defined their financial responsibilities for wildland 
fire suppression, particularly for the wildland-urban interface. 

Background: 

Although wildland fires triggered by lightning are a natural, 
inevitable, and in many cases a necessary ecological process, past 
federal fire suppression policies have led to an accumulation of fuels 
and contributed to larger and more severe wildland fires. In recent 
years, both the number of acres burned by wildland fires and the costs 
to suppress fires have been increasing. From 1995 through 1999, 
wildland fires burned an average of 4.1 million acres each year; 
from 2000 through 2004, the fires burned an average of 6.1 million 
acres each year--an increase of almost 50 percent. During the same 
periods, the costs incurred by federal firefighting entities to 
suppress wildland fires more than doubled, from an average of $500 
million annually to about $1.3 billion annually.[Footnote 4] Although 
efforts to fight these larger, more severe fires have accounted for 
much of the increase in suppression costs, the continuing development 
of homes and communities in areas at risk from wildland fires and the 
efforts to protect these structures also contribute to the increasing 
costs. Forest Service and university researchers estimate that about 44 
million homes in the lower 48 states are located in the wildland-urban 
interface. When fire threatens the wildland-urban interface, 
firefighting entities often need to use substantial resources-- 
including firefighters, fire engines, and aircraft to drop retardant-- 
to fight the fire and protect homes. 

As wildland fire suppression costs have continued to rise, increasing 
attention has focused on how suppression costs for multijurisdictional 
fires are shared. To share suppression costs for a specific fire, local 
representatives of federal and nonfederal firefighting entities 
responsible for protecting lands and resources affected by the fire-- 
guided by the terms of the master agreement--decide which costs will be 
shared and for what period. They document their decisions in a cost- 
sharing agreement for that fire. According to federal officials, 
cooperating entities traditionally shared suppression costs on the 
basis of the proportion of acres burned in each entity's protection 
area because the method was relatively easy to apply and works well 
when the lands affected by a wildland fire are similar. Officials said 
that the use of alternative cost-sharing methods has been increasing in 
recent years. 

Unclear Guidance and Inconsistent Application of Cost-Sharing Methods 
Can Have Significant Financial Consequences for Entities Involved: 

Federal and nonfederal entities included in our review used a variety 
of methods to share the costs of fighting fires that burned or 
threatened both federal and nonfederal lands and resources. Although 
master agreements between federal and nonfederal entities typically 
listed several cost-sharing methods, the agreements often lacked clear 
guidance for officials to follow in deciding which cost-sharing method 
to apply to a specific fire. Consequently, for eight fires we reviewed 
in four states, we found varied cost-sharing methods used and an 
inconsistent application of these methods within and among states, 
although the fires had similar characteristics. The type of cost- 
sharing method chosen is important because it can have significant 
financial consequences for the federal and nonfederal entities 
involved. 

Master Agreements Provided Cost-Sharing Framework, but Those We 
Reviewed Lacked Clear Guidance: 

Master agreements provide the framework for federal and nonfederal 
entities to work together and share the costs of fighting wildland 
fires. The master agreements we reviewed for 12 western states all 
directed federal and nonfederal entities to develop a separate 
agreement, documenting how costs were to be shared for each fire that 
burned--or, in some cases, threatened to burn--across multiple 
jurisdictions. The master agreements varied in the cost-sharing methods 
specified: 

* The master agreement for 1 state (Idaho) did not identify any 
specific cost-sharing method to use. 

* The master agreements for 3 states (Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico) 
listed the acres-burned method as the primary or only method to be 
used. Although two of these agreements allowed the use of alternative 
cost-sharing methods, they did not explicitly state under what 
circumstances an alternative method would be appropriate. 

* The master agreements for 8 remaining states listed multiple, 
alternative cost-sharing methods but did not provide clear guidance on 
when each method should be used. 

Cost-Sharing Methods Were Inconsistently Applied for the Eight Fires We 
Reviewed: 

Federal and nonfederal entities used varied cost-sharing methods for 
the eight fires we reviewed, although the fires had similar 
characteristics. As shown in figure 1, the cost-sharing methods used 
sometimes varied within a state or from state to state. 

Figure 1: The Varied Cost-Sharing Methods Used for Eight Similar Fires 
We Reviewed: 

[See PDF for image] 

[A] A complex consists of two or more individual fires located in the 
same general area and managed by a single incident commander. 

[End of figure] 

The costs for the two fires that we reviewed in Utah were shared using 
two different methods, although both fires had similar characteristics. 

* For the Blue Springs Fire, federal and nonfederal officials agreed 
that aircraft and engine costs of protecting an area in the wildland- 
urban interface during a 2-day period would be assigned to the state 
and the remaining costs would be shared on the basis of acres burned. 
Federal and state officials explained that, because the Blue Springs 
Fire qualified for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management 
Agency (FEMA), state officials agreed to bear a larger portion of the 
total fire suppression costs.[Footnote 5] 

* For the Sunrise Complex of fires, in contrast, state officials were 
reluctant to share costs in the same manner. Although these fires also 
threatened the wildland-urban interface, they did not meet the 
eligibility requirements for FEMA reimbursement of nonfederal costs. 
Consequently, federal and nonfederal officials agreed to share costs 
for the Sunrise Complex on the basis of acres burned. 

* The costs for the two fires we reviewed in Arizona were also treated 
differently from each other. 

* For the Cave Creek Complex of fires, federal and state officials 
agreed to share suppression costs using an acres-burned method for the 
southern portion of the complex, which encompassed federal, state, and 
city lands and required substantial efforts to protect the wildland- 
urban interface. The federal government paid the full costs for the 
northern portion of the fire. 

* For the Florida Fire, federal and nonfederal officials were unable to 
reach an agreement on how to share costs. Officials from the affected 
national forest proposed a cost-sharing agreement, whereby the state 
would pay the costs of firefighting personnel, equipment, and aircraft 
used to protect the wildland-urban interface, and all other fire 
suppression costs would be paid by the federal government. The state 
official, however, did not agree with this proposal. He believed that 
the Forest Service, not the state, was responsible for protecting areas 
of the wildland-urban interface threatened by the Florida Fire and that 
he was not authorized to agree to the terms of the proposed 
agreement.[Footnote 6] 

* Methods used to share suppression costs for fires with similar 
characteristics also varied among states. For example, costs for the 
fires we reviewed in California and Colorado were shared using methods 
different from those used for similar fires we reviewed in Arizona and 
Utah. 

* In California, federal and nonfederal officials agreed to share the 
costs of two fires using the cost-apportionment method--that is, costs 
were apportioned on the basis of where firefighting personnel and 
equipment were deployed. Officials said that they had often used this 
method since the mid-1980s because they believed that the benefit it 
provides in more equitable cost sharing among affected firefighting 
entities outweighs the additional time required to apportion the costs. 

* In Colorado, federal and nonfederal officials agreed to share 
suppression costs for both of the fires we reviewed in that state using 
guidance they had developed and officially adopted in 2005, called 
"fire cost share principles." Under these principles, aviation costs 
for fires burning in the wildland-urban interface are shared equally 
for 72 hours, and other fire suppression costs, such as firefighting 
personnel and equipment, are shared on the basis of acres burned. 

The Cost-Sharing Method Used Can Lead to Significantly Different 
Financial Outcomes: 

Having clear guidance as to when particular cost-sharing methods should 
be used is important because the type of method ultimately agreed upon 
for any particular fire can have significant financial consequences for 
the firefighting entities involved. To illustrate the effect of the 
method chosen, we compared the distribution of federal and nonfederal 
costs for the five fires we reviewed in which the actual cost-sharing 
method used was not acres burned with what the distribution would have 
been if the method used had been acres burned. We found that the 
distribution of costs between federal and nonfederal entities differed, 
sometimes substantially, depending on the cost-sharing method used. The 
largest differences occurred in California, which used the cost 
apportionment method. 

* For the Deep Fire, using the cost-apportionment method, federal 
entities paid $6.2 million, and nonfederal entities paid $2.2 million. 
Had the costs been shared on the basis of acres burned, federal 
entities would have paid an additional $1.7 million, and nonfederal 
entities would have paid that much less because most of the acres 
burned were on federal land. According to federal and state officials, 
the nonfederal entities bore a larger share of the cost than they would 
have under an acres-burned method because of the efforts to protect 
nonfederal lands and resources. 

* For the Pine Fire, using cost apportionment, federal entities paid 
$5.2 million, and nonfederal entities paid $8.1 million. Had an acres- 
burned method been used, federal entities would have paid about $2 
million less, and nonfederal entities would have paid that much more. 
According to a federal official who worked on apportioning costs for 
that fire, the higher costs that the federal entities paid under cost 
apportionment were largely due to extensive firefighting efforts on 
federal land to ensure that the fire was extinguished. 

* In Colorado and Utah, the differences in federal and state entities' 
shares between the methods used and the acres-burned method were less 
pronounced, likely because the cost-sharing methods used still relied 
heavily on acres burned. In each case, federal entities' shares would 
have been more and nonfederal shares less had an acres-burned method 
been used, due to the efforts to protect the wildland-urban interface. 
For example, the federal share of costs for the Blue Springs Fire in 
Utah would have been about $400,000 more and the nonfederal share that 
much less if an acres-burned method had been used for the whole fire. 
In Colorado, we estimated that the federal share of costs for the Mason 
Gulch Fire would have been about $200,000 more and the nonfederal share 
that much less under an acres-burned method. 

Current Cost-Sharing Framework Raises Several Concerns: 

Federal and nonfederal agency officials we interviewed raised a number 
of concerns about the current cost-sharing framework. First, some 
federal officials said that because master agreements and other 
policies do not provide clear guidance about which cost-sharing methods 
to use, it has sometimes been difficult to obtain a cost-sharing 
agreement that they believe shares suppression costs equitably. Second, 
nonfederal officials were concerned that the emergence of alternative 
cost-sharing methods has caused nonfederal entities to bear a greater 
share of fire suppression costs than in the past. Finally, some federal 
officials expressed concern that the current framework for sharing 
costs insulates state and local governments from the cost of protecting 
the wildland-urban interface, thereby reducing their incentive to take 
steps that could help mitigate fire risks and reduce suppression costs 
in the wildland-urban interface. We believe these concerns may reflect 
a more fundamental issue--that is, that federal and nonfederal entities 
have not clearly defined their financial responsibilities for wildland 
fire suppression, particularly for the wildland-urban interface. 

Lack of Clear Guidance Can Lead to Difficulties in Sharing Costs: 

Some federal officials said that the lack of clear guidance can make it 
difficult to agree to use a cost-sharing method that they believe 
equitably distributes suppression costs between federal and nonfederal 
entities, particularly for fires that threaten the wildland-urban 
interface. As discussed, different cost-sharing methods were used for 
the two fires we reviewed in Utah, even though both fires required 
substantial suppression efforts to protect the wildland-urban 
interface. A federal official said that because of the state officials' 
unwillingness to use a method other than acres burned on one of the 
fires and because of the lack of clear guidance about which cost- 
sharing method should be used, he agreed to use an acres-burned method 
and did not seek a cost-sharing agreement that would have assigned more 
of the costs to the nonfederal entities. Some federal officials in 
Arizona expressed similar views, saying that the lack of clear guidance 
on sharing costs can make it difficult to reach agreement with 
nonfederal officials. For example, federal and state officials in 
Arizona did not agree on whether to share costs for one fire we 
reviewed in that state. 

Officials from the Forest Service's and the Department of the 
Interior's national offices agreed that interagency policies for cost 
sharing could be clarified to indicate under what circumstances 
particular cost-sharing methods are most appropriate. They said that 
the acres-burned method, for example, is likely not the most equitable 
method to share costs in cases where fires threaten the wildland-urban 
interface. Officials noted that the National Fire and Aviation 
Executive Board--made up of the fire directors from the five federal 
land management agencies and a representative from the National 
Association of State Foresters--was developing a template for both 
master and cost-sharing agreements. As of May 2006, this template had 
not been finalized, but our review of a draft version indicated that 
the template might not provide additional clarity about when each cost- 
sharing method should be used. 

Nonfederal Officials Were Concerned about Increased Costs and Equity 
among States: 

While federal officials expressed the need for further guidance on how 
to share costs, nonfederal officials were concerned that the emergence 
of alternative cost-sharing methods was leading state and local 
entities to bear a greater share of suppression costs than in the past, 
and they questioned whether such an increase was appropriate. 
Nonfederal officials also said that wildland fire suppression costs 
already posed budgetary challenges for state and local entities and 
that using alternative cost-sharing methods more often could exacerbate 
the situation. State officials said that if a state's suppression costs 
in a given year exceed the funds budgeted, they must seek additional 
state funds, which can be difficult. Moreover, they said, in many 
states, protecting structures is primarily a local responsibility, and 
many local entities are unable to pay the costs of fighting a large 
fire that threatens the wildland-urban interface.[Footnote 7] Although 
clarifying guidance about which cost-sharing methods are most 
appropriate for particular circumstances could cause nonfederal 
entities to bear more wildland fire suppression costs, over the long 
term, such clarification would also allow each entity to better 
determine its budgetary needs and take steps to meet them. 

In addition to their concerns about increased costs, nonfederal as well 
as federal officials were concerned that the federal government was 
treating nonfederal entities in different states differently, thereby 
creating inequities. Federal and nonfederal officials said that because 
some states use particular cost-sharing methods more often than other 
states, the proportion of costs borne by federal and nonfederal 
entities likely varies from state to state, resulting in nonfederal 
entities' paying a higher proportion of costs in some states and a 
lower proportion in other states. Clarifying which cost-sharing methods 
should be used in particular situations could increase nonfederal 
officials' assurance that the federal government is treating them 
equitably relative to other states. 

Cost-Sharing Framework May Reduce Incentives to Mitigate Fire Risks in 
the Wildland-Urban Interface: 

Federal officials said that the current cost-sharing framework 
insulates state and local governments from the cost of protecting the 
wildland-urban interface. As we have previously reported, a variety of 
protective measures are available to help protect structures from 
wildland fire including (1) reducing vegetation and flammable objects 
within an area of 30 to 100 feet around a structure and (2) using fire- 
resistant roofing materials and covering attic vents with mesh 
screens.[Footnote 8] However, some homeowners and homebuilders resist 
using these protective measures because they are concerned about 
aesthetics, time, or cost. As a result, federal and nonfederal 
officials said, it can be politically difficult for state and local 
governments to adopt--and enforce--laws requiring such measures, and 
many at-risk areas have not done so. The states and communities we 
visited exhibited various degrees of progress in adopting laws 
requiring protective measures. For example, California requires 
homeowners in the wildland-urban interface to maintain 100 feet of 
defensible space and, in areas at particularly high risk from wildland 
fires, also requires new structures to be constructed with fire- 
resistant roofing materials and vents. The other states we visited do 
not have such statewide requirements, but they are taking a variety of 
steps to require or encourage protective measures. For example, Utah 
passed a law in 2004 requiring its counties to adopt standards for 
landscaping and building materials if they want to be eligible to 
receive state funds to assist with fire suppression costs. Other 
counties had efforts underway to educate homeowners about measures they 
could use to reduce their risk without requiring that such measures be 
used. 

Federal officials expressed concern--and some nonfederal officials 
acknowledged--that the use of cost-sharing methods that assign more 
costs to federal entities, and the availability of federal emergency 
assistance, insulate state and local governments from the cost of 
providing wildland fire protection. These federal officials pointed out 
that wildland fires threatening structures often require added 
suppression efforts. Under some cost-sharing methods, such as acres 
burned, federal entities often end up paying a large proportion of the 
costs for these efforts. Some federal and nonfederal officials also 
noted that the availability of FEMA assistance to nonfederal entities-
-which can amount to 75 percent of allowable fire suppression costs for 
eligible fires--further insulates state and local governments from the 
cost of protecting the wildland-urban interface. Of the eight fires 
included in our review, nonfederal officials were seeking reimbursement 
for the allowable costs of the five fires that FEMA determined met 
eligibility requirements. Federal officials suggested that to the 
extent that state and local governments are insulated from the cost of 
protecting the wildland-urban interface, these governments may have a 
reduced incentive to adopt laws requiring homeowners and homebuilders 
to use protective measures that could help mitigate fire risks. Some 
officials said that by requiring homeowners and homebuilders to take 
such measures, more of the cost of protecting the wildland-urban 
interface would then be borne by those who chose to live there. 

Officials' Concerns May Reflect Ambiguity over Financial 
Responsibilities: 

On the basis of our review of previous federal reports and interviews 
with federal and nonfederal officials, we believe that the concerns we 
identified may reflect a more fundamental issue--that federal and 
nonfederal firefighting entities have not clearly defined their 
fundamental financial responsibilities for wildland fire suppression, 
particularly those for protecting the wildland-urban interface. Federal 
officials said that the continuing expansion of the wildland-urban 
interface and rising fire suppression costs for protecting these areas 
have increased the importance of resolving these issues. Federal 
wildland fire management policy states that protecting structures is 
the responsibility of state, tribal, and local entities; 
but the policy also says that, under a formal fire protection agreement 
specifying the financial responsibilities of each entity, federal 
agencies can assist nonfederal entities in protecting the exterior of 
structures threatened by wildland fire. Federal and nonfederal 
officials agreed that federal agencies can assist with such actions, 
but they did not agree on which entities are responsible for bearing 
the costs of these actions. Federal officials told us that the purpose 
of this policy is to allow federal agencies to use their personnel and 
equipment to help protect homes but not to bear the financial 
responsibility of providing that protection. Nonfederal officials, 
however, said that these actions are intended to keep a wildland fire 
from reaching structures, and financial responsibility should therefore 
be shared between both federal and nonfederal entities. 

Further, the presence of structures adjacent to federal lands can 
substantially alter fire suppression strategies and raise costs. A 
previous federal report and federal officials have questioned which 
entities are financially responsible for suppression actions taken on 
federal lands but intended primarily or exclusively to protect adjacent 
wildland-urban interface. Fire managers typically use existing roads 
and geographic features, such as rivers and ridgelines, as firebreaks 
to help contain wildland fires. If, however, homes and other structures 
are located between a fire and such natural firebreaks, firefighters 
may have to construct other firebreaks and rely more than they 
otherwise would on aircraft to drop fire retardant to protect the 
structures, thereby increasing suppression costs. Nonfederal officials 
in several states, however, questioned the appropriateness of assigning 
to nonfederal entities the costs for suppression actions taken on 
federal lands. These officials, as well as officials from the National 
Association of State Foresters, said that accumulated fuels on federal 
lands is resulting in more severe wildland fires and contributing to 
the increased cost of fire suppression. They also said that federal 
agencies are responsible for keeping wildland fires from burning off 
federal land and should, therefore, bear the costs of doing so. Federal 
officials in the states we visited recognized this responsibility, but 
some also said that with the growing awareness that wildland fires are 
inevitable in many parts of the country, policy should recognize that 
wildland fires will occur and are likely to burn across jurisdictional 
boundaries. In their view, those who own property in areas at risk of 
wildland fires share a portion of the financial responsibility for 
protecting it. Previous federal agency reports also have recognized 
this issue and have called for clarifying financial responsibility for 
such actions. 

Conclusions: 

Wildland fires are inevitable and will continue to affect both federal 
and nonfederal lands and resources. Federal, state, and local 
firefighting entities have taken great strides to develop a cooperative 
fire protection system so that these entities can effectively work 
together to respond to these fires. Efforts are now needed to address 
how to best share the costs of these cooperative fire protection 
efforts when the fires burn or threaten multiple jurisdictions, 
particularly when suppression efforts may focus more heavily on one 
entity's lands and resources. The need for clear guidance on when to 
use a particular cost-sharing method is becoming more acute as the 
wildland-urban interface continues to grow and wildland fire 
suppression costs continue to increase. Before such guidance can be 
developed, however, federal and nonfederal entities must agree on which 
entity is responsible for the costs of protecting areas where federal 
and nonfederal lands and resources are adjacent or intermingled, 
particularly in the wildland-urban interface. Without explicit 
delineation of financial responsibilities, federal and nonfederal 
entities' concerns about how these costs are shared are likely to 
continue. 

Thus, to strengthen the framework for sharing wildland fire suppression 
costs, we recommended that the Secretaries of Agriculture and the 
Interior, working in conjunction with relevant state entities, provide 
more specific guidance as to when particular cost-sharing methods 
should be used and clarify the financial responsibilities for 
suppressing fires that burn, or threaten to burn, across multiple 
jurisdictions. 

In responding to our report, the Forest Service and the Department of 
the Interior generally agreed with the findings and recommendations. 
The National Association of State Foresters did not agree, stating that 
developing national guidance would not provide the flexibility needed 
to address the variability in local circumstances and state laws. 
Although we agree that a certain amount of flexibility is needed, 
without more explicit guidance to assist local federal and nonfederal 
officials responsible for developing cost-sharing agreements for 
individual fires, the inconsistencies in how suppression costs are 
shared within and among states are likely to continue, along with 
concerns about perceived inequities. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be pleased 
to answer any questions that you or other Members of the Subcommittee 
may have at this time. 

GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

For further information about this testimony, please contact me at 
(202) 512-3841 or robinsonr@gao.gov, or Robin M. Nazzaro at (202) 512- 
3841 or nazzaror@gao.gov. David P. Bixler, Assistant Director; Jonathan 
Dent; Janet Frisch; and Richard Johnson made key contributions to this 
statement. 

FOOTNOTES 

[1] GAO, Wildland Fire Suppression: Lack of Clear Guidance Raises 
Concerns about Cost Sharing between Federal and Nonfederal Entities, 
GAO-06-570 (Washington, D.C.: May 30, 2006). 

[2] The 12 states selected were Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, 
Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and 
Wyoming. Although wildland fires can affect all states, we selected 
these western states because they have substantial federal lands and 
often experience wildland fires. 

[3] The 12 master agreements reviewed, 4 states visited, and two 
wildland fires reviewed within each visited state are all 
nonprobability samples. Therefore, the results from these samples 
cannot be used to make inferences about all master agreements, states, 
or wildland fires. 

[4] These dollars have been adjusted for inflation using the gross 
domestic product price index, with fiscal year 2005 as the base year. 

[5] Under its Fire Management Assistance Grant Program, FEMA provides 
financial assistance to nonfederal entities for the mitigation, 
management, and control of any fire on public or private forest land or 
grassland that would constitute a major disaster. Under this program, 
nonfederal entities can be reimbursed for 75 percent of the allowable 
fire suppression costs. FEMA evaluates the threat posed by a fire or 
fire complex according to the following criteria: (1) threat to lives 
and improved property, including threats to critical facilities/ 
infrastructure, and critical watershed areas; 
(2) availability of state and local firefighting resources; 
(3) high fire danger conditions, as indicated by nationally accepted 
indexes such as the national fire danger ratings system; 
and (4) potential major economic impact. 

[6] Specifically, the state official said that under Arizona law, the 
state had no responsibility to protect the private lands and resources 
in the wildland-urban interface threatened by the Florida Fire because 
the fire did not threaten state lands, and the private properties that 
the fire threatened were not covered by cooperative fire agreements 
with the state. 

[7] Some states have provisions whereby wildland fires exceeding the 
logistic and financial capabilities of local entities can be managed 
and paid for by the state, but officials said that state funds to do so 
are also limited. 

[8] GAO, Technology Assessment: Protecting Structures and Improving 
Communications during Wildland Fires, GAO-05-380 (Washington, D.C.: 
Apr. 26, 2005). 

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