U.S. Wildfire Risk Beyond Any Scale Yet Witnessed

WASHINGTON, DC, August 1, 2001 (ENS) - Large fires are now blazing across seven western states, the National Interagency Fire Center reports from its Boise, Idaho headquarters. Firefighters contained four large fires Tuesday, while three new ones were reported.

All western states are reporting very high to extreme fire conditions, which could increase due to a warming trend over the next several days. More than 100 new smaller fires were reported Wednesday, most of which were contained by initial attack efforts.


Plane drops fire retardant chemicals on the Green Knoll Fire on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, near Wilson, Wyoming, July 25. (Photo by Teton Interagency Fire Crew courtesy National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC))
In this mid-summer national wildlands fire report, the federal agency responsible for firefighting says 1,547,312 acres have been burned so far this year. The area burned is below the 10 year average, and half the area burned at this time last year, a severe fire season.

The fire situation could get much worse, warns Barry Hill, director of the Natural Resources and Environment division of the General Accounting Office. Testifying before the House Forest and Forest Health Subcommittee Tuesday, Hill said there are problems with the Forest Service and Interior Department's implementation of the National Fire Plan.

The General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigation branch of the U.S. Congress, was charged by Congress to investigate whether the nearly $3 billion appropriated in Fiscal Year 2001 is being used effectively by the agency to implement the National Fire Plan. The plan was issued jointly in September 2000 by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior.

"Human activities, especially the federal government's decades-old policy of suppressing all wildland fires, including naturally occurring ones, have resulted in dangerous accumulations of hazardous fuels on federal lands. As a result, conditions on 211 million acres, or almost one-third of all federal lands, continue to deteriorate," Hill told the House subcommittee.

"According to the federal wildland fire management policy, these conditions have increased the probability of large, intense wildland fires beyond any scale yet witnessed. Coupled with the explosive growth of people and structures in areas where human development meets or intermingles with undeveloped wildland - the wildland-urban interface - these fires will, in turn, increase the risk to communities, watersheds, ecosystems, and species. They will also place in jeopardy the lives of the public as well as the lives of the firefighters charged with controlling or suppressing them," Hill warned.

Four young firefighters, Tom Craven, Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson, and Devin Weaver, lost their lives when they were trapped in a narrow canyon July 10 in the midst of the Thirty Mile Fire on the Okanogan National Forest in Washington State. That fire has now been contained.


Firefighters ready their gear to fight in Arthur Fire in Yellowstone National Park, July 31. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth acknowledged to the subcommittee that there is room for improvement. "We must now focus our attention to treating the hazardous buildup of vegetation that fuels these fires. The National Fire Plan is the beginning of the solution," he said.

Hill testified that implementation of the National Fire Plan lacks coordination, consistency and agreement called for in the 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Policy. "The highest risk communities have not been identified. And, effective implementation of the National Fire Plan may require changes to the agencies organizational structures," he said.

Hill told the subcommittee that because there is no prioritization for communities at risk, the National Fire Plan wrongly targets forests for fuels reduction treatments that are not fire dependent such as many of the forests in the Eastern United States.


Dale Bosworth was appointed chief of the U.S. Forest Service on April 12. Previously he was regional forester for the Northern Region of the Forest Service, headquartered in Missoula, Montana, since August 1997.(Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Bosworth said improvements are underway. "We are hiring and training personnel to improve future fire management capabilities. We are stabilizing and rehabilitating many of the sites damaged during the fires in 2000. The reduction of hazardous fuels reflects an expanded scale of action with extensive planning underway for 2002 and 2003. In cooperation with the states, the list of communities at risk has been revised, and will be an important tool to plan future projects," Bosworth explained to the subcommittee.

Bosworth and Interior Secretary Gale Norton have worked out a strategy that engages state and local communities, both officials say.

Norton said Monday, "We are working closely with local communities to protect people, homes and landscapes most at risk to wildland fire. We need to meet the challenges of protecting communities and landscapes from the wrath of wildland fires, and we're getting it done by partnering with local residents across the nation."

"For the past six months, we have improved the Department's fire suppression and fuels treatment programs and our working relationships with communities and local officials. By consulting, cooperating and communicating, we have succeeded in developing a comprehensive approach for community outreach, input, and coordination to reduce underbrush and dead and dying vegetation," Norton said.


Secretary Norton meets with employees thinning dead and dying trees at Grand Teton National Park, May 24. (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)
Along with expanding outreach efforts and emphasizing education to homeowners and communities about wildland fire prevention, Norton said, the Interior Department has "moved forward with its Rural Fire Assistance Program for contracting the thinning and fuels reduction efforts with local businesses and organizations, and increasing employment opportunities" in a number of western states such as Oregon, California, and Alaska.

In Oregon, the Bureau of Land Management's Lakeview district near Klamath Falls will use unemployed farm workers this summer to reduce hazardous fuels in the Bly Mountain wildland-urban interface area. At a cost of $3 million, about 3,000 acres of land will be treated by clearing brush, thinning trees and removing other forest fuels that can feed a wildfire.

The California BLM received nearly $6 million in April to fund efforts on nonfederal lands and will distribute $4 million this year to local groups applying for federal funding to implement community protection and assistance projects. The remaining $2 million will fund 13 California Department of Forestry projects as well as support the State of California Fire Plan Geographic Information System.

Across the country, a new $10 million Rural Fire Assistance program for the Interior Department provides rural fire departments with assistance for training, equipment purchase, and prevention activities to increase firefighter safety, enhance fire protection capabilities, enhance protection in the wildland urban interface, and increase the coordination among local, state, tribal, and federal firefighting resources.

As of June, Interior had given 944 awards to rural and volunteer fire departments, totaling $5.1 million.