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Congressional Research Service

CRS Report RL30755
Forest Fire / Wildfire Protection

Historical Background
Concerns and Problems
Fuel Management
Fire Control
Wildfire Effects
Roles and Responsibilities
Current Issues

CRS Report RS21544 Wildfire Protection Funding

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Order Code RL30755

CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web

Forest Fire/Wildfire Protection

Updated February 14, 2005

Forest Fire/Wildfire Protection

The spread of housing into forests and other wildlands, [1] 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. [2] 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, [3] 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.

Historical Background

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. [4]

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. [5]

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. [6]

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. [7] This report was issued shortly after a major conference examining the health of forest ecosystems in the intermountain west. [8] 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, [9] 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.[10] 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. [11] 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. [12] 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 [13] 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. [14] 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.

Table 1. Average Annual Acreage Burned by Decade Since 1910
(in acres burned annually)

Average Annual Acres Burned, Forest Service Protected Lands
Average Annual Acres Burned, Non-FS Federal and Nonfederal Lands
acres not available
616,834 acres
25,387,733 acres
343,013 acres
38,800,182 acres
269,644 acres
22,650,254 acres
261,264 acres
9,154,532 acres
196,221 acres
4,375,034 acres
242,962 acres
2,951,459 acres
488,023 acres
3,748,206 acres
554,577 acres
3,093,020 acres
1,104,130 acres
4,832,814 acres


U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Forest Service Historical Fire Statistics, unpublished table (Washington, DC).

U.S. Dept. of the Interior and Dept. of Agriculture, National Interagency Fire Center, Wildland Fire Statistics, at [] on Sept. 20, 2000 (historical data are no longer available at that site), with Forest Service acres burned deducted.

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1 Wildlands is a term commonly used for undeveloped areas — forests, grasslands, brush fields, wetlands, deserts, etc. It excludes agricultural lands and pastures, residential areas, and other, relatively intensively developed areas.

2 These are the five most recent years with more than 5 million acres burned nationally. The severity of fire seasons is commonly assessed by acreage burned, but larger fires may not be “worse” if they burn less intensely, because their damages may be lower. However, fire intensity and damages are not measured for each wildfire, and thus cannot be used to gauge the severity of fire seasons. It is uncertain whether acreage burned might be a reasonable approximation of severity.

3 In 1997, there were 809.5 million acres of private forests and rangelands in the coterminous 48 states. (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Iowa State Univ., Statistical Laboratory, Summary Report: 1997 National Resources Inventory (revised December 2000), pp. 18-24.) This is substantially more than the 426.1 million acres of all federal lands in those 48 states. (U.S. General Services Administration, Office of Governmentwide Policy, Federal Real Property Profile, as of September 30, 2002, pp. 16-17.)

4 See Julie K. Gorte and Ross W. Gorte, Application of Economic Techniques to Fire Management — A Status Review and Evaluation, Gen. Tech. Rept. INT-53 (Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service, June 1979).

5 U.S. Dept. of the Interior and Dept. of Agriculture, Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy & Program Review: Final Report (Washington, DC: Dec. 18, 1995).

6 Stephen J. Pyne, Fire In America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Princeton NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 293-294.

7 R. Neil Sampson, chair, Report of the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters (Washington, DC: 1994).

8 See R. Neil Sampson and David L. Adams, eds., Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West: Papers from the American Forests Workshop, November 14th-20th, 1993, Sun Valley, Idaho (New York, NY: Food Products Press, 1994). Hereafter referred to as Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West.

9 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, State and Private Forestry, Western Forest Health Initiative (Washington, DC: Oct. 31, 1994).

10 Bob Armstrong, Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, “Statement,” Fire Policy and Related Forest Health Issues, joint oversight hearing, House Committees on Resources and on Agriculture, Oct. 4, 1994 (Washington, DC: U.S. GPO, 1995), p. 9. Serials No. 103-119 (Committee on Resources) and 103-82 (Committee on Agriculture).

11 U.S. General Accounting Office, Western National Forests: A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats, GAO/RCED-99-65 (Washington, DC: April 1999); and Federal Wildfire Activities: Current Strategy and Issues Needing Attention, GAO/RCED-99-233 (Washington, DC: Aug. 1999). Hereafter referred to as GAO, Cohesive Strategy Needed.

12 See CRS Report RL31679, Wildfire Protection: Legislation in the 107th Congress and Issues in the 108th Congress, by Ross W. Gorte.

13 Under several cooperative agreements, developed to improve protection efficiency, the Forest Service protects some nonfederal lands, while other organizations protect some national forest lands; the total acres protected by the Forest Service roughly equals the acres in the National Forest System.

14 Neuenschwander, Leon F., James P. Menakis, Melanie Miller, R. Neil Sampson, Colin Hardy, Bob Averill, and Roy Mask, “Indexing Colorado Watersheds to Risk of Wildfire,” Mapping Wildfire Hazards and Risks, R. Neil Sampson, R. Dwight Atkinson, and Joe W. Lewis, eds. (New York, NY: Food Products Press, 2000), pp. 35-55.

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