Congressional Research Service
CRS Report RL30755
Order Code RL30755
Forest Fire/Wildfire Protection
Updated February 14, 2005
Forest Fire/Wildfire Protection
The spread of housing into forests and other wildlands,  combined with various ecosystem health problems, has substantially increased the risks to life and property from wildfire. Wildfires seem more common than in the 1960s and 1970s, with severe fire seasons in 1988, 1990, 1996, 1999, 2000, and 2002.  National attention was focused on the problem by an escaped prescribed fire that burned 239 houses in Los Alamos, NM, in May 2000. Issues for Congress include oversight of the agencies’ prescribed burning programs, of other fire management activities, and of other wildland management practices that have altered fuel loads over time; consideration of programs and processes for reducing fuel loads; and federal roles and responsibilities for wildfire protection and damages.
Many of the discussions over wildfire protection focus on the several federal agencies that manage lands and receive funds to prepare for and to control wildfires. The Forest Service (FS), in the Department of Agriculture, is the “big brother” among federal wildfire fighting agencies. The Forest Service is the oldest of the federal land management agencies, having been created in 1905 with fire control as a principal purpose. The Forest Service administers more forestland in the 48 coterminous states than any other federal agency, receives more than two-thirds of federal fire funding, and created the symbol of fire prevention, Smokey Bear. The Department of the Interior (DOI) contains several land managing agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with DOI fire protection programs coordinated and funded through the BLM. Despite the substantial attention given to the FS and to other federal agencies, the majority of wildlands are privately owned,  and the states are responsible for fire protection for these lands, as well as for their own lands.
This report provides historical background on wildfires, and describes
concerns about the wildland-urban interface and about forest
and rangeland health. The report discusses fuel management, fire control,
and fire effects. The report then examines federal, state, and landowner
roles and responsibilities in protecting lands and resources from wildfires,
and concludes by discussing current issues for federal wildfire management.
For information on the funding for these wildfire protection programs,
see CRS Report RS21544, Wildfire
Protection Funding; information on wildfire appropriations can
be found in CRS Report RL32306, Appropriations for FY2005: Interior
and Related Agencies.
Wildfire has existed in North America for millennia. Many fires were started by lightning, although Native Americans also used wildland fire for various purposes. Wildfires were a problem for early settlers. Major forest fires occurred in New England and the Lake States in the late 1800s, largely fueled by the tree tops and limbs (slash) left after extensive logging. One particularly devastating fire, the Peshtigo, commonly cited as the worst in American history, burned nearly 4 million acres, obliterated the town of Peshtigo, and killed 1,500 people in Wisconsin in 1871. Large fires in cut-over areas and the subsequent downstream flooding were principal reasons for Congress authorizing the President in 1891 to establish forest reserves (now national forests).
Federal Fire Policy Evolution.
The nascent Forest Service focused strongly on halting wildfires in the national forests following several large fires that burned nearly 5 million acres in Montana and Idaho in 1910. The desire to control wildfires was founded on a belief that fast, aggressive control efforts were efficient, because fires that were stopped while small would not become the large, destructive conflagrations that are so expensive to control. In 1926, the agency developed its “10-acre policy” — that all wildfires should be controlled before they reached 10 acres in size. This was clearly aimed at keeping wildfires small. Then in 1935, the FS added its “10:00 a.m. policy” — that, for fires exceeding 10 acres, efforts should focus on control before the next burning period began (at 10:00 a.m.). These policies were seen as the most efficient and effective way to control large wildfires. 
In the 1970s, these aggressive FS fire control policies began to be questioned. Research had documented that, in some situations, wildfires brought ecological benefits to the burned areas — aiding regeneration of native flora, improving the habitat of native fauna, and reducing infestations of pests and of exotic and invasive species. In recognition of these benefits, the Forest Service and the National Park Service initiated policies titled “prescribed natural fire,” colloquially known as “letburn” policies. Under these policies, fires burning within prescribed areas (such as in wilderness areas) would be monitored, rather than actively suppressed; if weather or other conditions changed or the wildfire threatened to escape the specified area, it would then be suppressed. These policies remained in effect until the 1988 wildfires in Yellowstone National Park. Because at least one of the major fires in Yellowstone was an escaped prescribed natural fire, the agencies temporarily ended the use of the policy. Today, unplanned fire ignitions (by lightning or humans) that occur within site and weather conditions established in fire management plans are identified as wildland fires for resource benefit, and are part of the agencies’ fire use programs. 
Aggressive fire control policies were ultimately abandoned for federal wildfire planning in the late 1970s. The Office of Management and Budget challenged as excessive proposed budget increases based on these policies and a subsequent study suggested that the fire control policies would increase expenditures beyond efficient levels. 
Concerns about unnatural fuel loads were raised in the 1990s. Following the 1988 fires in Yellowstone, Congress established the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters, whose 1994 report described a situation of dangerously high fuel accumulations.  This report was issued shortly after a major conference examining the health of forest ecosystems in the intermountain west.  The summer of 1994 was another severe fire season, leading to more calls for action to prevent future severe fire seasons. The Clinton Administration developed a Western Forest Health Initiative,  and organized a review of federal fire policy, because of concerns that federal firefighting resources had been diverted to protecting nearby private residences and communities at a cost to federal lands and resources. In December 1995, the agencies released the new Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy & Program Review: Final Report, which altered federal fire policy from priority for private property to equal priority for private property and federal resources, based on values at risk. (Protecting human life is the first priority in firefighting.)
Concerns about historically unnatural fuel loads and their threat to communities persist. In 1999, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued two reports recommending a cohesive wildfire protection strategy for the FS and a combined strategy for the FS and BLM to address certain firefighting weaknesses.  The Clinton Administration developed a program, called the National Fire Plan, and supplemental budget request to respond to the severe 2000 fire season. In the FY2001 Interior Appropriations Act (P.L. 106-291), Congress enacted the additional funding, and other requirements for the agencies.
During the severe 2002 fire season, the Bush Administration developed a proposal, called the Healthy Forests Initiative, to expedite fuel reduction projects in priority areas. The various elements of the proposal were debated, but none were enacted during the 107th Congress.  Some elements have been addressed through proposed regulatory changes, while others were addressed in legislation in the 108th Congress. (For information on those regulatory and legislative developments on wildfire protection, see CRS Report RS22024, Wildfire Protection in the 108th Congress.)
Efficacy of Fire Protection.
FS fire control programs appeared to be quite successful until the 1980s. For example, fewer than 600,000 acres of FS protected land  burned each year from 1935 through 1986, after averaging 1.2 million acres burned annually during the 1910s. As shown in Table 1, the average annual acreage of FS protected land burned declined nearly every decade until the 1970s, but has risen substantially in the past two decades, concurrent with the shift from fire control to fire management. Furthermore, the acreage of FS protected land burned did not exceed a million acres annually between 1920 and 1986; since then, more than a million acres of FS protected land have burned in each of six years — 1987, 1988, 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2002. In contrast, the acreage burned of wildlands protected by state or other federal agencies has declined substantially since the 1930s, and has continued at a relatively modest level for the past 40 years, as shown in Table 1.
There are still occasional severe fire seasons, with more than six million acres burned six times since 1960 — 1963, 1969, 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2002. Nonetheless, the worst of these fire seasons (2000) is below the average annual total acres burned in the 1950s. The last period shown appears significantly worse than the preceding periods; it is unclear whether this is a statistical anomaly or a significant increase in the worsening trend.
It should also be recognized that only a small fraction of wildfires become catastrophic. In one case study, for 1986-1995 in Colorado, less than 1% of all wildfire ignitions grew to more than 1,000 acres, but these larger fires accounted for nearly 79% of the acreage burned.  More than 95% of the fires were less than 50 acres, and these 12,608 fires accounted for only 3% of acreage burned. Thus, a small percentage of the fires account for the vast majority of the acres burned, and probably an even larger share of the damages and control costs, since the large fires (conflagrations) burn more intensely than smaller fires and suppression costs (per acre) are higher for conflagrations because of overhead management costs and the substantial cost of aircraft used in fighting conflagrations.
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