Key Issues > Wildland Fire Management
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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.

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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

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

Figure 2: Example of one wildland fire's progression over time

* For full interactive version see GAO-12-155, p. 10

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