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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

Fire Control

Wildfire Management Funding.

The cost of federal fire management is high and rising. Wildfire appropriations for the FS and DOI totaled less than $1 billion annually prior to FY1997. Since FY2003, funding has been more than $3 billion annually. (See CRS Report RS21544, Wildfire Protection Funding.) One critic has observed that emergency supplemental appropriations, to replenish funds borrowed from other accounts to pay for firefighting, are viewed by agency employees as “free money” and has suggested that this has led to wasting federal firefighting funds, which he calls “fire boondoggles.” [48] Another critic asserts that “poorly designed incentives” are the principal cause of the current problems and that the current fire management funding system will not resolve those problems. [49]

Over the past decade, the FS has received about 70% of the funds appropriated by Congress for wildfire preparedness and operations (including emergency supplemental funds). The other 30% goes to the BLM, which coordinates wildfire management funding for the DOI land managing agencies (BLM, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs); the BLM has received about 60% of DOI funding for wildfire activities.

Fire Control Policies and Practices.

Federal fire management policy was revised in 1995, after severe fires in 1994 and the deaths of several firefighters. Current federal wildfire policy is to protect human life first, and then to protect property and natural resources from wildfires. [50] This policy includes viewing fire as a natural process in ecosystems where and when fires can be allowed to burn with reasonable safety. But when wildfires threaten life, property, and resources, the agencies act to suppress those fires.

Despite control efforts, some wildfires clearly become the kind of conflagration (stand replacement fire or crown fire) that gets media attention. As noted above, relatively few wildfires become conflagrations; it is unknown how many wildfires might become conflagrations in the absence of fire suppression.

A wide array of factors determine whether a wildfire will blow up into a conflagration. Some factors are inherent in the site: slope (fires burn faster up steep slopes); aspect (south-facing slopes are warmer and drier than north-facing slopes); and ecology (some plant species are adapted to periodic stand replacement fires). Other factors are transient, changing over time (from hours to years): moisture levels (current and recent humidity; long-term drought); wind (ranging from gentle breezes to gale force winds in some thunderstorms); and fuel load and spatial distribution (more biomass and fuel ladders make conflagrations more likely).

Whether a wildfire becomes a conflagration can also be influenced by land management practices and policies. Historic grazing and logging practices (by encouraging growth of many small trees), and especially fire suppression over the past century, appear to have contributed to unprecedented fuel loads in some ecosystems. Fuel treatments can reduce fuel loads, and thus probably reduce the likelihood and severity of catastrophic wildfires; however, some policies and decisions may restrict fuel treatment — for example, air quality protection that limits prescribed burning or wilderness designation that prevents fuel reduction with motorized or mechanical equipment. Other practices and policies are more problematic. For example, timber harvesting can reduce fuel loads, if accompanied by effective slash disposal, but data on the need for and extent of slash disposal are not available. Similarly, road construction into previously unroaded areas can increase access, and thus facilitate fuel treatment and fire suppression; conversely, roadless area protection and even road obliteration [51] can impede fuel treatment, but may reduce the likelihood of a wildfire starting, because human-caused wildfires are more common along roads.

Once a wildfire becomes a conflagration, halting its spread is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. Dropping water from helicopters or fire retardant (“slurry”) from airplanes (“slurry bombers”) can occasionally return a crown fire to the surface, where firefighters can control it, and can be used to protect individually valuable sites (e.g., structures). Setting backfires — lighting fires from a fire line to burn toward the conflagration — can eliminate the fuel ahead of the conflagration, thus halting its spread, but can be dangerous, because the backfire sometimes becomes part of the conflagration. Most firefighters recognize the futility of some firefighting efforts, acknowledging that some conflagrations will burn until they run out of fuel (move into an ecosystem or an area where the fuel is insufficient to support the conflagration) or the weather changes (the wind dies or precipitation begins).

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48 Robert H. Nelson, A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000), pp. 15-43. Hereafter referred to as Nelson, A Burning Issue.

49 Randal O’Toole, Reforming the Fire Service: An Analysis of Federal Fire Budgets and Incentives (Bandon, OR: Thoreau Institute, July 2002). Hereafter referred to as O’Toole, Reforming the Fire Service.

50 U.S. Dept. of the Interior and Dept. of Agriculture, Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review: Final Report (Washington, DC: Dec. 18, 1995), 45 p.

51 Road obliteration is closing the road and returning the roadbed to near-natural conditions.

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