Strategies for improving wildfire management
By Dena Ali
Profound environmental and land use changes have contributed to longer and more devastating wildfire seasons. In response, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a 2017 report on wildland fire risk reduction. The report’s purpose was to find and explain the most critical factors necessary for wildfire risk reduction to communities. The report also explained the need for performance measures to better track progress toward achieving the cohesive strategy.1 Though a strong case was made for the need to implement all aspects of the cohesive strategy, a key strategy was omitted that would aid in mitigation of wildfire disasters: emergency funding.
Wildland fires are a natural inevitable part of our nation’s land. While they are destructive to human communities, they play an integral role in our ecosystems and have been present long before human existence. (1) Without naturally occurring wildfires, forests would rot and ecosystems would fail, leading to death of vegetation, insect species, and other wildlife. Wildfires burn dead or decaying matter to return nutrients to the soil while also serving to remove diseased plants and harmful insect infestations from a forest. Historically, cycles of fire have prevented overgrowth while also promoting restorative growth by allowing new generations of seedlings to grow. Unfortunately, land management practices during the past century have disrupted the normal frequency of fires in many forests and ecosystems. Overgrowth caused by fire suppression—combined with drought, climate stressors, and altered landscape—has helped to fuel larger and more severe recent wildland fires. (1) Moreover, insect infestation has led to an unprecedented epidemic of dead trees that serve as powerful fuel for ignition and fire spread.
America’s wildfire problem has been further complicated by the growth into the wildland urban interface (WUI). This has resulted in an increased risk to people, businesses, and infrastructures. Further complicating the wildland fire problem are the multiple federal and nonfederal entities involved, as well as private individual rights and decision making. (1) This is why a cohesive strategy for risk reduction is necessary and must go beyond words on paper. Leaders among all agencies and communities affected by wildfire must collaborate, engage their leadership, build relationships, and become aligned with strategic intent.2
Are Wildfires Natural Disasters?
Our government provides emergency funds from a federal disaster fund to communities affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, and most other natural disasters. Yet, destruction caused by wildfire does not qualify for this funding. One reason is the fact that most escaped wildfires are human-caused. Because emergency funding is not available, the Forest Service must use money intended for fire prevention and forest management to pay suppression costs. While the Forest Service budget has stayed pretty flat, spending on wildfire suppression has gone from 15 percent of the annual budget to 55 percent of the annual budget. (1) This cost is projected to increase to two-thirds in 2021.3 While prevention has proven to be highly effective, the Forest Service is unable to fund prevention activities because resources are consistently used for fire suppression. This leads to the continued cycle of escaped wildfire and a need for suppression funds.
In 2009, Congress mandated development of a strategy to comprehensively address wildland fire management across the country. The Cohesive Strategy was developed in collaboration with tribal, state, and local governments; nongovernmental organizations; and members of the public. (1) It treats wildland fire as a part of the natural landscape; identifies that it is unavoidable; and, because of that, stresses that communities should become fire adapted. (1) The collaboration inherent with the Cohesive Strategy aims to make strategic investments to reduce the effects of wildland fire on high-risk areas. (1) The vision of the Cohesive Strategy is “to safely and effectively extinguish fire, when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and, as a nation, live with wildland fire.” (1) Basically, the Cohesive Strategy recognizes that fire respects no jurisdictional boundaries and can only be combatted with collaborative effort to address resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities, and effective fire response. (2) The Cohesive Strategy is not a national standard but rather a strategy to link all people affected by wildfire. All levels can help each other achieve their goals through collaboration and strategic oversight to ensure accountability.
Despite a decade of work on the Cohesive Strategy, it has struggled to gain traction among all stakeholders. Mike Derosky of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation believes the struggle comes from failure to build widespread familiarity with the Cohesive Strategy. (2) He believes for active stakeholder networks to carry out the Cohesive Strategy, identifiable and tangible actions must be established. A set of national outcome performance measures will allow Congress and other stakeholders to monitor and assess progress toward achieving results at risk reduction.
Response to the GAO Report
The GAO comprehensively researched the history of wildfire while also interviewing and incorporating several land management agencies that are responsible for our nation’s wildland. Once it was completed, the GAO sent the draft to the primary agencies tasked with wildland fire management: the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior. While the Department of Agriculture agreed with the report findings and indicated a desire to increase collaboration with other partners, the Department of the Interior did not agree with the recommendations. (1) The Department of the Interior said that the cost of implementing these strategies recommending collaboration and data analysis would pose an undue burden by necessitating considerable time and cost to collect, review, and analyze data. (1) The Department of Interior closed its response by stating that it believes existing means are sufficient to manage wildland fires. (1)
But, are existing means sufficient? The report explained that in 1980, the average fire season for the western United States was 200 days and, according to the 2014 Quadrennial Fire Review, that has increased to 300 days. (1) In both Texas and Oklahoma, the fire season has increased from less than 100 days to more than 300 days in the same period. (1) The 2016 and 2017 wildfire seasons both lasted well into their respective winters. These extended seasons are causing an undue burden on communities, firefighters, and resources necessary for mitigation.
The GAO report described the various land use and management practices that have reduced our nation’s ecosystems resiliency to fire including fire suppression, grazing, and timber harvesting. (1) In addition to land management practices, changing climatic conditions have contributed to an increase in the length and severity of wildfire seasons. Simultaneously, growth of the WUI has made it more difficult to manage wildfires and balance the need for prescribed burning. Sixty percent of new homes built in the United States since 1990 were built in the WUI, which now represents 40 percent of single-family homes in the United States. (1) Nearly half the homes in the United States are at risk for wildfire, and this demonstrates the need to ensure all components of the Cohesive Strategy are implemented. Between 1999 and 2015, 2,750 structures were destroyed by wildfire annually, but in 2015, 4,636 structures were destroyed by wildfire. (1) The 2017 Tubbs fire in California consumed 5,500 structures alone.4
The response from the Department of Interior claimed that current procedures are adequate, and the Cohesive Strategy would cost taxpayers more than it would save them. Unfortunately, the GAO report failed to quantify the wildfire problem in terms of property loss and loss of life. While the report discussed a single wildfire in 2016 that resulted in a loss of 14 lives, it did not discuss annual loss of life or annual cost to control wildfires. In 2013, 19 wildland firefighters died while battling a single wildfire in Arizona, yet the GAO report made no mention of such sacrifice. This type of information was omitted and would counter the Department of the Interior’s claims that current practices are adequate. Without data and performance outcome measures, it is difficult to make claims of what will and will not cause undue burden on taxpayers.
Another notable omission was the rising cost associated with wildfire suppression. As reported by Bill Gabbert, suppression costs have climbed from $400 million in 1990 to near $1.5 billion annually in 2000.5 According to the National Interagency Fire Center, these costs reached nearly $2 billion in 2016, and in 2017 the costs neared $3 billion.6
Funding Must Be Available for Prevention
While the GAO report failed to examine the economic cost of suppression, it explained how preparedness activities help communities protect themselves during a wildland fire. It also thoroughly explained the need for prevention activities. The report explained that from 2001 through 2011, approximately 85 percent of wildfires in the United States were human-caused. (1) Additionally, members found that communities with effective wildfire prevention programs were less likely to have human-caused fires. Prevention and education activities are not only designed to address ignitions, they also reduce risk by helping homeowners and communities understand the actions they can take to reduce risk.
Programs such as Firewise Communities are designed to improve fire risk awareness and promote steps to reduce the risk of fire. Among other things, the Cohesive Strategy emphasizes the importance of these programs, education, increasing incentives for private landowners to address defensible spaces, and promoting local government initiatives to implement fire sensitive land use planning and fuel reduction. However, without dedicated funding for prevention and land management, we may never reach our goals for risk reduction.
1. Government Accountability Office, “Wildland Fire Risk Reduction: Multiple factors affect federal-nonfederal collaboration, but action could be taken to better measure progress,” (GAO Publication No. 17-357) Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2017.
2. Derosky, M, “After Nearly a Decade, Searching for Cohesion in our Cohesive Strategy,” 2018, www.iawfonline.org/article/after-nearly-a-decade-searching-for-cohesion-in-our-cohesive-strategy/.
3. Boxall, B, “An explosive wildfire season drives firefighting costs to record levels,” 2017, www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-wildfire-costs-20171228-story.html.
4. Krishnakumar, P., Fox, J., and Keller, C, “Here’s where more than 7,500 buildings were destroyed and damaged in California’s wine country fires,” 2017, Retrieved April 08, 2018, from http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-me-northern-california-fires-structures/.
5. Cova, T.J., “Public Safety in the Urban-Wildland Interface: Should Fire-Prone Communities Have a Maximum Occupancy?” Natural Hazards Review, 6(3), 99-108, 2005.
6. National Interagency Fire Center, 2018, Statistics. Retrieved April 08, 2018, from https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_statistics.html.
Dena Ali is a captain with the Raleigh (NC) Fire Department and, prior to becoming a firefighter, she served five years as a police officer in North Carolina. Ali has a degree from North Carolina State University. She is a graduate student at UNCP, and her research focuses on firefighter suicide. Ali taught her class on suicide prevention at FDIC International 2018. She is an avid cyclist and founding member of the Carolina Brotherhood. Ali also serves as an advocate for 555 Fitness.