Wildland Fire Management:

Important Progress Has Been Made, but Challenges Remain to Completing a Cohesive Strategy

GAO-05-147: Published: Jan 14, 2005. Publicly Released: Feb 14, 2005.

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Over the past two decades, the number of acres burned by wildland fires has surged, often threatening human lives, property, and ecosystems. Past management practices, including a concerted federal policy in the 20th century of suppressing fires to protect communities and ecosystem resources, unintentionally resulted in steady accumulation of dense vegetation that fuels large, intense, wildland fires. While such fires are normal in some ecosystems, in others they can cause catastrophic damage to resources as well as to communities near wildlands known as the wildland-urban interface. In 1999, GAO recommended that the Forest Service develop a cohesive strategy for responding to wildland fire threats. As a follow-up, 5 years later, GAO was asked to identify the (1) progress the federal government has made in responding to wildland fire threats and (2) challenges it will need to address within the next 5 years.

Over the last 5 years, the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture and land management agencies in the Department of the Interior, working with the Congress, have made important progress in responding to wildland fires. The agencies have adopted various national strategy documents addressing the need to reduce wildland fire risks; established a priority for protecting communities in the wildland-urban interface; and increased efforts and amounts of funding committed to addressing wildland fire problems, including preparedness, suppression, and fuel reduction on federal lands. In addition, the agencies have begun improving their data and research on wildland fire problems, made progress in developing long-needed fire management plans that identify actions for effectively addressing wildland fire threats at the local level, and improved federal interagency coordination and collaboration with nonfederal partners. The agencies also have strengthened overall accountability for their investments in wildland fire activities by establishing improved performance measures and a framework for monitoring results. While the agencies have adopted various strategy documents to address the nation's wildland fire problems, none of these documents constitutes a cohesive strategy that explicitly identifies the long-term options and related funding needed to reduce fuels in national forests and rangelands and to respond to wildland fire threats. Both the agencies and the Congress need a comprehensive assessment of the fuel reduction options and related funding needs to determine the most effective and affordable long-term approach for addressing wildland fire problems. Completing a cohesive strategy that identifies long-term options and needed funding will require finishing several efforts now under way, each with its own challenges. The agencies will need to finish planned improvements in a key data and modeling system--LANDFIRE--to more precisely identify the extent and location of wildland fire threats and to better target fuel reduction efforts. In implementing LANDFIRE, the agencies will need more consistent approaches to assessing wildland fire risks, more integrated information systems, and better understanding of the role of climate in wildland fire. In addition, local fire management plans will need to be updated with data from LANDFIRE and from emerging agency research on more cost-effective approaches to reducing fuels. Completing a new system designed to identify the most cost-effective means for allocating fire management budget resources--Fire Program Analysis--may help to better identify long-term options and related funding needs. Without completing these tasks, the agencies will have difficulty determining the extent and location of wildland fire threats, targeting and coordinating their efforts and resources, and resolving wildland fire problems in the most timely and cost-effective manner over the long term.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Given the recommendation language to prepare the plan in time for the Congress's consideration of the agencies' fiscal year 2006 wildland fire management budgets and the lack of any cohesive strategy or tactical plan as of April 2008, this recommendation is now closed - not implemented.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should provide the Congress, in time for its consideration of the agencies' fiscal year 2006 wildland fire management budgets, with a joint tactical plan outlining the critical steps the agencies will take, together with related time frames, to complete a cohesive strategy that identifies long-term options and needed funding for reducing and maintaining fuels at acceptable levels and responding to the nation's wildland fire problems.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Given the recommendation language to prepare the plan in time for the Congress's consideration of the agencies' fiscal year 2006 wildland fire management budgets and the lack of any cohesive strategy or tactical plan as of April 2008, this recommendation is now closed - not implemented.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should provide the Congress, in time for its consideration of the agencies' fiscal year 2006 wildland fire management budgets, with a joint tactical plan outlining the critical steps the agencies will take, together with related time frames, to complete a cohesive strategy that identifies long-term options and needed funding for reducing and maintaining fuels at acceptable levels and responding to the nation's wildland fire problems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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