Reducing Wildfire Threats:

Funds Should Be Targeted to the Highest Risk Areas

T-RCED-00-296: Published: Sep 13, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 13, 2000.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the efforts to reduce the future risk of catastrophic wildfires to human lives and property, focusing on (1) why conditions on federal forests and rangelands have reached the point that they pose a significant risk to nearby communities and to the ecological sustainability of lands and natural resources; (2) the history and status of efforts by the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to reduce the risk; and (3) budget-related issues that should be addressed to better ensure that the agencies spend effectively and account accurately for funds appropriated to reduce hazardous fuels.

GAO noted that: (1) the media and others have attributed much of the blame for this year's destructive wildfire season to the prolonged drought that has gripped the interior West; (2) however, the Forest Service has observed that, in hindsight,"uncontrollable wildfire should be seen as a failure of land management and public policy, not as an unpredictable act of nature"; (3) millions of acres of forests and wildlands were cleared for agricultural crops and livestock pastures, and grass cover and soil were lost as a result of intensive livestock grazing; (4) during most of the 20th century, the federal government's policy was to suppress all fires, and for 75 years, federal land management agencies were highly effective in implementing this policy; (5) the federal government's approach to reducing hazardous fuels has evolved over time in response to new information and events; (6) from the 1950s to the 1970s, land managers within Interior experimented with allowing fires ignited both by lightning and by the managers themselves to burn, under controlled conditions; (7) by 1972, both Interior and the Forest Service had formally adopted the policy of using fire as a tool to reduce the buildup of hazardous fuels; (8) until recently, both agencies continued to emphasize prescribed fire as the tool of choice in reducing the accumulation of hazardous fuels; (9) however, in the past several years, land managers have increasingly recognized that in many areas, the volume of accumulated fuels has increased to the point that thinning and mechanical treatments must be used before fire can be reintroduced into the ecosystems; (10) both Congress and the administration are now prepared to fund an aggressive campaign to reduce hazardous fuels; (11) it is imperative that the Forest Service and Interior act quickly to develop a framework to spend effectively and to account accurately for what they accomplish with the funds; and (12) rather than allocating funds to the highest-risk areas, the Forest Service allocates funds for hazardous fuels reduction on the basis of the number of acres treated.

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