Wildland Fire Management
Wildland fire plays an important ecological role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, but fires also burn millions of acres each year, cost billions of dollars, and result in loss of life and damage to homes and critical natural resources. The size and intensity of wildland fires have increased in recent decades, in part as a result of climate change, and many scientists and researchers expect fires to become larger and more severe in the future.
Within the federal government, five agencies are responsible for wildland fire management: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. Fire-related activities include not only managing wildland fires that occur by either suppressing them or allowing them to burn for natural resource benefit, but also attempting to lessen the risk and intensity of fires by reducing potentially hazardous vegetation that can fuel fires—an activity known as fuel reduction. Obligations for the federal government’s wildland fire management activities were about $3.3 billion in fiscal year 2014.
Since 2009, these agencies have made several changes related to their wildland fire management programs, including:
- Placing greater emphasis on using wildland fire to provide natural resource benefits for forests and grasslands rather than seeking to suppress all fires.
- Completing the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy in 2014, in collaboration with partners from multiple jurisdictions (i.e., tribal, state, and local governments, nongovernmental partners, and public stakeholders), to help coordinate wildland fire management activities around common wildland fire management goals.
Steps are still ongoing which are intended to address additional challenges in wildland fire management, including:
- Working to develop different tools and systems to determine the distribution of fire management resources intended to better reflect current conditions. Current determinations are made, in part, on the basis of historical amounts generated from a system that is now obsolete.
- Working to modernize aerial firefighting capacity.
- Placing greater emphasis on wildland fire management, restoration, and protection related to the sagebrush steppe ecosystem—particularly with respect to habitat for the greater sage-grouse.
Figure 1: Ways wildland fire can threaten a structure
(Excerpted from GAO-09-877)
Figure 2: Example of one wildland fire's progression over time
* For full interactive version see GAO-12-155, p. 10
GAO-16-217T: Published: Nov 17, 2015. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2015.
As GAO found in its September 2015 report, the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Department of the Interior assess the effectiveness of their wildland fire management programs in several ways, including through performance measures, evaluations of particular activities, and reviews of specific wildland fires. Forest Service and Interior officials told GAO their performance measure...
GAO-15-772: Published: Sep 16, 2015. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 2015.
Since 2009, the five federal agencies responsible for wildland fire management—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 in the Department of the Interior—have made several key changes in their approach to wildland fire management. One key change was the issuance of a...
GAO-13-684: Published: Aug 20, 2013. Publicly Released: Aug 20, 2013.
The Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have undertaken nine major efforts since 1995 to identify the number and type of firefighting aircraft they need, but those efforts--consisting of major studies and strategy documents--have been hampered by limited information and collaboration. Specifically, the studies and strategy documents did not incorporate inf...
GAO-12-155: Published: Dec 16, 2011. Publicly Released: Dec 16, 2011.
The Station Fire started on the afternoon of August 26, 2009, in steep terrain covered with highly flammable vegetation during very dry conditions. After escaping initial containment efforts, the Station Fire underwent periods of rapid growth and extreme fire behavior over the following several days, ultimately threatening thousands of homes in nearby communities. In response, the Forest Service a...
GAO-09-877: Published: Sep 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2009.
The nation's wildland fire problems have worsened dramatically over the past decade, with more than a doubling of average annual acreage burned and federal appropriations for wildland fire management. The deteriorating fire situation has led the agencies responsible for managing wildland fires on federal lands--the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture and four agencies in the Department...
GAO-12-73: Published: Nov 8, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 22, 2011.
Wildland fires can result from both natural and human causes. Human-caused wildland fires are of particular concern in Arizona--especially within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border because this is a primary area of entry for illegal border crossers and GAO has previously reported that illegal border crossers have been suspected of igniting wildland fires. Over half of the land in the Arizona bord...
GAO-09-906T: Published: Jul 21, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 21, 2009.
The nation's wildland fire problems have worsened dramatically over the past decade, with more than a doubling of both the average annual acreage burned and federal appropriations for wildland fire management. The deteriorating fire situation has led the agencies responsible for managing wildland fires on federal lands--the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Indian A...
GAO-09-444T: Published: Apr 1, 2009. Publicly Released: Apr 1, 2009.
Our nation's wildland fire problems have worsened in the past decade. The Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture and four agencies within the Department of the Interior (Interior) are responsible for managing fires on federal lands. Federal appropriations to these agencies for wildland fire management have more than doubled since the late 1990s, averaging $2.9 billion annually in rece...