New 10-Year Strategy from the U.S. Forest Service to Tackle Wildfire Hazardous Fuel Issue

On January 18, the federal government announced plans to seriously tackle the hazardous fuels that feed that nation’s wildfire crisis. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has long acknowledged the problem created by the dead trees, overgrown undergrowth and brush left by decades of vigorous wildfire suppression, bark beetle infestations and neglect. But, it has been routinely stymied by the lack of resources to address the problem at its true scale—hundreds of millions of acres.

On January 18, Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, along with Arizona Senator Mark Kelly, and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Moore, announced the federal government’s intention to treat 50 million acres1 over the next ten years and have a plan in place for maintaining that work going forward. Years of research from the USFS and others have mapped out large areas of land, known as firesheds, where wildfire ignition would likely expose communities to risk. Through this research, land managers now have a better understanding of how to prioritize and target landscape treatments to get the most risk reduction possible from the smallest footprint of treatment area. The plan released yesterday noted the USFS will use this science to guide its actions, starting with high-risk areas in California, Arizona, Washington, and Oregon.

The hazardous conditions of the nation’s forests and grasslands is a major factor in the extreme wildfire conditions on display over the past several years. NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire initiative has called for a significant increase in the federal government’s response to these hazardous conditions through prescribed fire and mechanical thinning. With the funds provided through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the USFS has nearly $3 billion directly for fuel treatments to kickstart their 10-year initiative. However, as acknowledged in the strategy document released yesterday, this initiative will require policymakers to solve ongoing funding issues, build the sizable workforce necessary to carry this out, and coordinate large projects across multiple jurisdictions—all long-standing challenges.

After successive years of punishing wildfires, the Forest Service’s public acknowledgement of the need to greatly increase the scale of fuel reduction, and its commitment to treating 50 million acres of wildfire risk over the next 10 years, is a breakthrough. The impact of it though will depend on the appetite to solve the long-standing implementation barriers like funding and workforce, that currently stand in the way of the hoped for “paradigm shift” in land management. However, with strong advocacy and continued stakeholder engagement, progress on these hard issues can be gained.

Treating the hazardous fuel conditions that enable destructive wildfires is critical. However, it is not the only action needed to solve the problem. Science points to a future with more wildfire, even as land management policies seek to mitigate the worst possible outcomes. To live safely in this future, communities must embrace risk reduction policies—codes, retrofits, education, and strong support for their fire departments. Without similarly lofty goals for each of these needs, the end of community destruction by wildfires will remain out of reach.

1 20 million acres of National Fire Land and 30 million acres of other federal, tribal, state, and private lands.

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Meghan Housewright
Director, Policy Institute

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