Fire Management:

Lessons Learned From the Cerro Grande (Los Alamos) Fire

T-RCED-00-257: Published: Aug 14, 2000. Publicly Released: Aug 14, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the circumstances surrounding the Los Alamos wildfire, focusing on: (1) the events leading up to the prescribed fire and how it was managed; and (2) what fire management policies or practices need to be improved.

GAO noted that: (1) the Cerro Grande fire exposed policy implementation issues that need to be addressed for managing prescribed fires; (2) most of the issues involved procedural gaps or a lack of clarity about how policies are to be implemented; (3) these issues affected both the planning and implementation of the burn; (4) some of the issues are specific to Bandelier National Monument and the National Park Service; (5) however, others involve other federal agencies; and (6) those problems that are not site--or agency--specific raise questions about the readiness of the federal land management agencies to effectively support and administer prescribed burns as a forest management tool.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service required that prescribed burn plans be peer-reviewed on a pilot basis in one region (Intermountain Region), and plans to require that burn plans be peer-reviewed in all regions by the end of calendar year 2004. The requirement for peer-review of prescribed burn plans will be included in Forest Manual 5140.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to require that, in risky situations like Cerro Grande, prescribed burn plans be peer-reviewed by qualified individuals outside the agency responsible for managing the burn.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Secretary of the Interior directed the heads of its land management agencies to require that prescribed burn plans be peer-reviewed by qualified individuals, independent of the preparation of the plan, and from another organization, if possible.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to require that, in risky situations like Cerro Grande, prescribed burn plans be peer-reviewed by qualified individuals outside the agency responsible for managing the burn.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service and Interior are developing a common definition for "contingency resources". A common, interagency definition of "contingency resources" will be included in a draft interagency wildland fire handbook in fiscal year 2005.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to better define what is meant by the term "contingency resources," including clarifying the circumstances under which these resources can be used, the process for getting them, and the appropriate response time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Secretary of the Interior directed the heads of its land management agencies to better define what is meant by the term "contingency resources". In 2002, each of these land management agencies developed a standardized definition for contingency resources for prescribed fires.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to better define what is meant by the term "contingency resources," including clarifying the circumstances under which these resources can be used, the process for getting them, and the appropriate response time.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In developing burn plans, the Forest Service has in place procedures to coordinate and cooperate burn plans with nearby, affected governmental agencies. The updated draft interagency fire management handbook, due October 1, 2004, will further emphasize the importance of coordinating burn plans with nearby, affected governmental agencies.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to require that federal agencies better coordinate and cooperate in developing prescribed burn plans so that public and firefighter safety is the top priority, without regard to agencies' administrative of jurisdictional boundaries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2000 and 2001, the Department of Interior's land management agencies (BIA, BLM, FWS, and NPS) implemented requirements that prescribed fire planning to include intra and interagency coordination, collaboration, and communication.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to require that federal agencies better coordinate and cooperate in developing prescribed burn plans so that public and firefighter safety is the top priority, without regard to agencies' administrative of jurisdictional boundaries.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service will require the responsible officials for each burn plan to complete the analysis in the "go/no go" checklist and that the supporting analysis be documented and reviewed. The draft requirement is expected to be issued by October 1, 2004.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to require that a decision to proceed with the ignition of a prescribed burn is fully justified by requiring the responsible officials to complete the analysis called for in the go/no-go checklist and requiring that the supporting analysis be documented and reviewed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2000 and 2001, the Department of Interior's land management agencies (BIA, BLM, FWS, and NPS) implemented requirements that prior to ignition of a prescribed burn, a go/no-go checklist be completed, documented, and reviewed.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to require that a decision to proceed with the ignition of a prescribed burn is fully justified by requiring the responsible officials to complete the analysis called for in the go/no-go checklist and requiring that the supporting analysis be documented and reviewed.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Fire Use Program Manager of the Forest Service stated that if a prescribed fire exceeds its project boundaries and the fire is not contained within a specific period, then suppression actions will be taken and the entire prescribed fire project will be declared a wildland fire with all subsequent action defined under a wildland fire plan.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to make clear, once a prescribed fire becomes a wildfire, the goal should be to suppress the fire as quickly as possible without compromising firefighter or public safety, even if suppression requires the use of mechanical means.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  10. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Interior's land management agencies (BIA, BLM, FWS, and NPS) implemented requirements that if a prescribed fire exceeded its project boundaries and the fire is not contained within a specific period, then suppression actions will be taken and the entire prescribed fire project will be declared a wildland fire with all subsequent action defined under a wildland fire plan.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to make clear, once a prescribed fire becomes a wildfire, the goal should be to suppress the fire as quickly as possible without compromising firefighter or public safety, even if suppression requires the use of mechanical means.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  11. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service already has in place rules and standards for what experience and training is required at each "level of complexity" of a fire. The Forest Service standards are above and beyond interagency standards for fire positions. An interagency fire management handbook containing fire complexity assessments and the corresponding type, experience, and training required for fire personnel is expected to be issued by October 2005.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to provide guidance to assist in making decisions about the amount and experience of personnel needed to properly manage and control prescribed fires.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  12. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2000 and 2001, the Department of Interior's land management agencies (BIA, BLM, FWS, and NPS) required that, for each prescribed fire, a firefighting organization be developed based upon the objectives, risk, and complexity of prescribed fires.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture should require that the current interagency policy for federal wildfire management and its implementing procedures, as well as those of the respective agencies that are signatories to it, be revised to provide guidance to assist in making decisions about the amount and experience of personnel needed to properly manage and control prescribed fires.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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