Federal Wildfire Activities:

Issues Needing Future Attention

T-RCED-99-282: Published: Sep 14, 1999. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed various aspects of the Forest Service's and the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) firefighting programs.

GAO noted that: (1) each year, wildfires on federal lands burn millions of acres of forests, grasslands, and desert vegetation; (2) while wildfires are being increasingly recognized as having ecological value in some circumstances, they can adversely affect human lives and property on state and private lands adjacent to federal lands; (3) in an effort to reduce the adverse impacts of wildfires, the Forest Service and BLM spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually preparing for, controlling, and extinguishing wildfires on federal lands; (4) the Forest Service's and BLM's firefighting workforce is shrinking, thus leaving fewer firefighters to handle the workload; (5) some employees are committed to performing their primary job responsibilities and no longer choose to become qualified to fight wildfires and others cite family commitments as a reason for not fighting fires; (6) also, many firefighters nearing retirement age are no longer willing or able to fight wildfires; (7) because fewer employees are qualified to fight wildfires, fewer Forest Service and BLM firefighters will be available to fill critical wildfire management positions in the future and firefighter safety could be compromised; (8) the Forest Service and BLM are implementing new radio technology; (9) however, the two agencies are purchasing different radio systems that may not be able to communicate with each other or with the systems used by other firefighting organizations; (10) as a result, field officials are concerned that the new systems may prevent them from communicating with federal, state, and local firefighting organizations and could compromise firefighter safety; (11) the Forest Service is using an outdated test to measure the physical fitness of its firefighters; the test used by BLM is recognized as more reliable; and (12) while the Forest Service plans to adopt BLM's test, it has not decided when the test will be implemented.

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