Congress continues to face questions about forestry practices, funding
levels, and the federal role in wildland fire protection. The 2000 and
2002 fire seasons were, by most standards, among the worst in the past
half century. National attention began to focus on wildfires when a
prescribed burn in May 2000 escaped control and burned 239 homes in
Los Alamos, NM. President Clinton responded by requesting a doubling
of wildfire management funds, and Congress enacted much of this proposal
in the FY2001 Interior Appropriations Act (P.L. 106-291). President
Bush responded to the severe 2002 fires by proposing a Healthy Forests
Initiative to reduce fuel loads by expediting review processes.
Many factors contribute to the threat of wildfire damages. Two major
factors are the decline in forest and rangeland health and the expansion
of residential areas into wildlands — the urban-wildland interface.
Over the past century, aggressive wildfire suppression, as well as past
grazing and logging practices, have altered many ecosystems, especially
those where light, surface fires were frequent. Many areas now have
unnaturally high fuel loads (e.g., dead trees and dense thickets) and
an historically unnatural mix of plant species (e.g., exotic invaders).
Fuel treatments have been proposed to reduce the wildfire threats.
Prescribed burning — setting fires under specified conditions
— can reduce the fine fuels that spread wildfires, but can escape
and become catastrophic wildfires, especially if fuel ladders (small
trees and dense undergrowth) and wind spread the fire into the forest
canopy. Commercial timber harvesting is often proposed, and can reduce
heavy fuels and fuel ladders, but exacerbates the threat unless and
until the slash (tree tops and limbs) is properly disposed of. Other
mechanical treatments (e.g., precommercial thinning, pruning) can reduce
fuel ladders, but also temporarily increase fuels on the ground. Treatments
can often be more effective if combined (e.g., prescribed burning after
thinning). However, some fuel treatments are very expensive, and the
benefit of treatments for reducing wildfire threats depend on many factors.
It should also be recognized that, as long as there is biomass, drought,
and high winds, catastrophic wildfires will occur. Only about 1% of
wildfires become conflagrations, but which fires will “blow up”
into catastrophic wildfires is unpredictable. It seems likely that management
practices and policies, including fuel treatments, affect the likelihood
of such events. However, past experience with wildfires are of limited
value for building predictive models, and research on fire behavior
under various circumstances is difficult, at best. Thus, predictive
tools for fire protection and control are often based on expert opinion
and anecdotes, rather than on research evidence.
Individuals who choose to build homes in the urban-wildland interface
face some risk of loss from wildfires, but can take steps to protect
their homes. Federal, state, and local governments can and do assist
by protecting their own lands, by providing financial and technical
assistance, and by providing relief after the fire.
This is a background report and is unlikely to be updated.