Severe Wildland Fires:

Leadership and Accountability Needed to Reduce Risks to Communities and Resources

GAO-02-259: Published: Jan 31, 2002. Publicly Released: Jan 31, 2002.

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Dangerous accumulations of brush, small trees, and other vegetation on federal lands, particularly in the western United States, have helped fuel devastating wildfires in recent years. Although a single focal point is critical for directing firefighting efforts by federal, state, and local governments, GAO found a lack of clearly defined leadership at the federal level. Authority and responsibility remain fragmented among the Department of the Interior, the Forest Service, and the states. Implementation of a performance accountability network also remains fragmented. As a result, GAO could not determine if the $796 million earmarked for hazardous fuels reduction in 2001 and 2002 has been targeted to communities and areas at highest risk. The five federal land management agencies--the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Forest Service--have yet to begin the research needed to identify and prioritize vulnerable communities near high-risk federal lands. Moreover, the agencies are not collecting the data needed to determine if changes are needed to expedite the project-planning process. They also are not collecting data needed to measure the effectiveness of efforts to dispose of the large amount of brush and other vegetation on federal lands.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2002, legislation was introduced that would require the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to establish an interagency council to coordinate implementation on the National Fire Plan. Among other duties, the proposed legislation called upon this council to (1) provide criteria to identify affected communities, (2) establish clearly defined and outcome-oriented goals and objectives, and (3) develop a comprehensive long-term strategy. In April 2002, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing the Wildland Fire Leadership Council to provide leadership, oversight, and coordination to effectively implement the National Fire Plan and Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy. The Council's goals include developing common data elements and reporting systems to support performance management and accountability; common, outcome-based performance measures; and monitoring of field unit performance.

    Matter: Moreover, to better ensure that funds appropriated to reduce hazardous fuels as well as funds appropriated for other elements of the National Fire Plan are spent effectively, Congress should consider directing the Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture to consolidate under the council the current fragmented implementation of a sound performance accountability framework. Such a framework should include, among other things, (1) consistent criteria to identify and prioritize wildland-urban interface communities within the vicinity of federal lands that are at high risk from severe wildland fires; (2) clearly defined and outcome-oriented goals and objectives, as well as quantifiable long-term and annual performance measures, to assess progress in reducing the risks of severe wildland fires in wildland-urban interface areas as well as other areas; (3) a comprehensive long-term strategy that incorporates the criteria, goals, objectives, and measures; and (4) yearly performance plans and reports.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2002, legislation was introduced that would require the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to establish an interagency council to coordinate implementation of the National Fire Plan, as recommended by GAO and the National Academy of Public Administration. In April 2002, prior to the passage of the pending legislation, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing the Wildland Fire Leadership Council. The council's mission is to provide leadership, oversight, and coordination for the effective implementation of the National Fire Plan and the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy.

    Matter: To provide the clearly defined and effective leadership required to ensure that funds appropriated to reduce hazardous fuels as well as to implement other key elements of the National Fire Plan, such as fire suppression, are spent in an efficient, effective, and timely manner, Congress should consider directing the Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture to establish the interagency national council recommended by National Academy of Public Administration.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to Interior, the LANDFIRE project, coupled with standard procedures for field determination of condition class, will provide more accurate, higher resolution, nationally consistent mapping of lands that are in urgent need of hazardous fuels reduction and/or forest health treatments to keep them from deteriorating to a higher risk condition. Interior and the Forest Service executed interagency agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to provide funding to hire additional biologists for expedited Endangered Species Act consultation. The agreement calls for more up-front involvement of ESA biologists in project planning, design, and mitigation, thereby avoiding the need for lengthy "after the fact" project review. Interior and the Forest Service have issued guidance to their field offices to batch both NEPA analysis and ESA consultations, develop NEPA analysis on a landscape basis, and approach both ESA consultation and NEPA analysis without regard to administrative boundary and share staff resources to gain efficiencies in the fuels treatment planning process. The Joint Fire Science Program has 221 on-going or completed research projects, including 37 new projects added in fiscal year 2004.These projects will assess the risks associated with fuel build-up; develop new alternatives for managing fuel and using hazardous fuel byproducts, and evaluating the effects of fuel treatment on the ecosystem. The Joint Fire Science Program has targeted a significant portion of funding to local field office fuels treatment and restoration demonstration projects. These projects are planned to solve practical fuels management issues and provide for better understanding of fuels treatment issues and options among agency personnel, community leaders and other stakeholders. A National Fire Plan Operations Reporting System was designed and deployed to collect and report data pertinent to hazardous fuels treatment, community assistance and rehabilitation. Interior plans to enhance the system to allow financial obligations, fire incident data and other inputs for the 10-year performance measures.

    Recommendation: To make more informed decisions about, and to better measure progress in, reducing hazardous fuels, the Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should jointly direct the heads of the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Forest Service to collect the accurate, complete, and comparable data needed to (1) better identify and prioritize wildland-urban interface communities within the vicinity of federal lands that are at high risk from wildland fire (2) determine if changes are needed to expedite the project-planning process, and (3) measure the effectiveness of efforts to dispose of the large amount of brush, small trees, and other vegetation that must be removed to reduce the risk of severe wildland fire.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Healthy Forests Initiative, National Fire Plan, Healthy Forests Restoration Act, Forest Service Strategic Plan for Fiscal Year 2004-2008, 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy for A Collaborative Approach for Reducing Wildland Fire Risks to Communities and the Environment, and the Implementation Plan for the 10-Year Strategy provide the direction and framework for the USDA Forest Service to make more informed decisions and measure progress in reducing hazardous fuels. In 2002, 2003, and 2004, the Forest Service issued memos citing the collaborative process of Interior/Forest Service to ensure effective fuel treatment efforts including priority criteria (e.g., funding will be targeted on a priority basis to the wildland urban interface), responsibilities, timeframes, performance measures, and reporting accomplishments.

    Recommendation: To make more informed decisions about, and to better measure progress in, reducing hazardous fuels, the Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should jointly direct the heads of the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Forest Service to collect the accurate, complete, and comparable data needed to (1) better identify and prioritize wildland-urban interface communities within the vicinity of federal lands that are at high risk from wildland fire (2) determine if changes are needed to expedite the project-planning process, and (3) measure the effectiveness of efforts to dispose of the large amount of brush, small trees, and other vegetation that must be removed to reduce the risk of severe wildland fire.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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