Congressional Research Service
CRS Report RL30755
Order Code RL30755
Forest Fire/Wildfire Protection
Updated February 14, 2005
The severe fire seasons in recent years have raised many wildfire issues for Congress and the public. There have been spirited discussions about the effects of land management practices, especially timber sales, on fuel loads. A significant range of opinion exists on this issue, but most observers generally accept that current fuel loads reflect the aggressive fire suppression of the past century as well as historic logging and grazing practices. Some argue that catastrophic wildfires are nature’s way of rejuvenating forests that have been mismanaged in extracting timber, and that the fires should be allowed to burn to restore the natural conditions.  Others argue that the catastrophic fires are due to increased fuel loads that have resulted from reduced logging in the national forests over the past decade, and that more logging could contribute significantly to reducing fuel loads and thus to protecting homes and communities.  However, the extent to which timber harvests affect the extent and severity of current and future wildfires cannot be determined from available data.  Some critics suggest that historic mismanagement — excessive fire suppression and past logging and grazing practices — by the FS warrants wholesale decentralization or revision of the management authority governing the National Forest System. 
Research information on causative factors and on the complex circumstances surrounding wildfire is limited. The value of wildfires as case studies for building predictive models is restricted, because the a priori situation (e.g., fuel loads and distribution) and burning conditions (e.g., wind and moisture levels, patterns, and variations) are generally not well studied. Experimental fires in the wild would be more useful, but are dangerous and generally unacceptable to the public. Prescribed fires could be used for research, but the burning conditions are necessarily restricted. Fires in the laboratory are feasible, but often cannot duplicate the complexity and variability of field conditions. Thus, research on fire protection and control is challenging, and predictive tools for fire protection and control are often based substantially on expert opinion and anecdotes, rather than on documented research evidence. 
Concerns over forest and rangeland health, particularly related to fuel loads, have been discussed for a decade; a major conference on forest ecosystem health was held in Idaho in 1993.  Significant funding to address these concerns, however, was not proposed until September 2000. While higher funding for wildfire protection, including fuel reduction, has persisted, some question whether this additional funding is sufficient to adequately reduce fuel loads. In 1999, GAO estimated that it would cost $725 million annually — nearly $12 billion through 2015 — to reduce fuels using traditional treatment methods on the 39 million FS acres that were estimated to be at high risk of catastrophic wildfire.  This is more than three times higher than the significantly increased appropriations for FS fuel reduction since FY2001.
The cost of a comprehensive fuel reduction program, as many advocate, would likely exceed the GAO estimate of $12 billion, because the scope of potential costs and proposed programs has increased. The FS estimate of FS acres at high risk of ecological loss due to catastrophic fire increased from 39 million acres in 1999 to 51 million acres in 2003. In addition, the GAO cost figure (received from the FS) of $300 per acre on average for fuel reduction might be low. One might anticipate more careful federal prescribed burning after the May, 2000 escaped prescribed fire burned 239 homes in Los Alamos, NM; more cautious prescribed burning is likely to have higher unit costs than the GAO figure. Also, many advocate emphasizing fuel reduction in the wildland-urban interface, and treatment costs in the interface are higher, because of the risk to homes and other structures.
GAO also addressed a subset of the widely-advocated comprehensive fuel reduction program, by estimating the cost for the initial treatment of FS high-risk acres. The FS estimates that there are 23 million high-risk acres of DOI land and 107 million high-risk acres of other land. In addition, many advocate reducing fuels on lands at moderate risk — 80 million FS acres, 76 million DOI acres, and 313 million other acres. Finally, in frequent-fire ecosystems, retreatment would be needed on the 5-35 year fire cycle (depending on the ecosystem), suggesting that fuel management costs would need to be continued beyond the 16-year program examined by GAO.
If a comprehensive program were undertaken to reduce fuels on all high-risk and moderate-risk federal lands, using GAO’s treatment cost rate of $300 per acre, the total cost would come to $69 billion — $39 billion for FS lands and $30 billion for DOI lands — for initial treatment. This would come to $4.3 billion annually over 16 years, whereas the Administration’s requested budget for fuel treatment in FY2004 was $417.6 million ($231.4 million for the FS and $186.2 million for the BLM), about 10% of what some implicitly propose. This raises questions about whether a comprehensive fuel reduction program is feasible and how to prioritize treatment efforts.
Finally, there is the significant question: would it work? The answer depends, in part, on how one defines successful fire protection. Fuel reduction might help restore more “natural” conditions to forests and rangelands, as many advocate, and would likely yield some social benefits (e.g., improved water quality, more habitat for fire-dependent animal species). Others, however, advocate fuel reduction to allow greater use of forests and rangelands, for timber production, recreation, water yield, etc. Fuel reduction will certainly not reduce the conflict over the goals and purposes of having and managing federal lands. Reducing fuel loads might reduce acreage burned and the severity and damages of the wildfires that occur. Research is needed in various ecosystems to document and quantify the relationships among fuel loads and damages and the probability of catastrophic wildfires, to examine whether the cost of fuel reduction is justified by the lower fire risk and damage. However, it should also be recognized that, regardless of the extent of fuel reduction and other fire protection efforts, as long as there is biomass for burning, especially under severe weather conditions (drought and high wind), catastrophic wildfires will occasionally occur, with the attendant damages to resources, destruction of nearby homes, other economic and social impacts, and potential loss of life.
68 William N. Dennison, Plumas County Supervisor, District 3, “Statement,” Hearing on the Use of Fire as a Management Tool and Its Risks and Benefits for Forest Health and Air Quality, House Committee on Resources, Sept. 30, 1997 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1997), pp. 107-116. Serial No. 105-45.
71 Fire experts typically believe (and must believe, to do their jobs effectively) that catastrophic wildfires can and should be controlled; thus, their opinions may be biased, overstating the effectiveness and efficiency of control efforts.
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