Western National Forests:

Nearby Communities Are Increasingly Threatened By Catastrophic Wildfires

T-RCED-99-79: Published: Feb 9, 1999. Publicly Released: Feb 9, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the wildfire hazards faced by communities located adjacent to national forests in the dry, inland portion of the Western United States, focusing on: (1) the extent and seriousness of threats posed by national forest wildfires to nearby communities in the interior West; (2) agency efforts to address them; and (3) barriers to successfully implementing these efforts.

GAO noted that: (1) during this century, two major changes have occurred in the national forests of the interior West: (a) the Forest Service's decades-old policy of putting out fires in the national forests resulted in increased undergrowth and density of trees creating high levels of fuels for catastrophic wildfires; and (b) the number of people living along the boundaries of national forests has grown significantly; (2) as a result, the increasing number of large wildfires, and of acres burned by them pose increasingly grave risks to human health, safety, property, and infrastructure in these areas which are commonly referred to as wildland/urban interface areas; (3) during the 1990s, the Forest Service began to address this problem by: (a) establishing an objective of increasing the number of acres on which excessive fuel levels are reduced; (b) announcing a priority for such reductions in wildland/urban interface areas; (c) restructuring its budget to better ensure that funds are available for such reductions; and (d) proposing demonstration projects to test innovative approaches for reducing fuels; (4) Congress has supported these efforts by increasing funding for fuels reduction, authorizing demonstration projects, and authorizing a multi-year research program to better assess problems and solutions; (5) these efforts may fall short because the Forest Service lacks a cohesive strategy for overcoming several barriers to effectively and efficiently reducing fuels on national forests; and (6) these barriers include: (a) potential conflicts between fuel reduction efforts and other agency stewardship responsibilities, including protecting air quality, watersheds, and wildlife habitat; (b) program incentives that tend to focus efforts on areas that may not represent the highest fire hazards; (c) agency contracting procedures that are not designed for removing large amounts of materials with little or no commercial value; and (d) the high costs of such removals, which may be as much as several hundred million dollars annually.

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