National wildland fire strategy unveiled

West needs to reduce built-up fuels in forests, report says

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — Communities and government agencies need to work together to make the landscape more resilient to wildfires, according to a new national strategy for coping with wildfires.

The strategy calls for a mixture of fuels reduction, better preparing communities and structures for fires, and coordinated responses to the fires that do break out. The strategy is supposed to provide a unified vision for efforts to reduce the effects of huge fires in high risk areas.

“The gradual accumulation of wildland fuels is perhaps the most difficult and challenging issue to address,” states the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. It compares dealing with growing fuel loads on forests and grasslands to walking up a down escalator: One has to keep moving forward to stay in the same place, and even faster to make progress.

“Despite current investments in priority areas being treated through fuels management or burned in wildfires, some landscapes are accumulating fuels at a rate faster than can be managed,” the strategy states.

Announced jointly by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, the strategy was developed under the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act of 2009, better known as the FLAME Act. That legislation required the two cabinet departments, working in conjunction with other stakeholders, to develop a cohesive wildfire management strategy for the 21st century.

The strategy breaks the country into three regions: northeast, southeast and western, which runs from the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska to the West Coast, including New Mexico and Arizona, but not Texas and Oklahoma. A century of putting out fires instead of letting them burn and reduced active forest management have led to a buildup of dangerous fuels, the strategy notes.

“The forest and rangeland health problems in the West are widespread and increasing, affecting wildlife habitat, water quality and quantity and long-term soil productivity, while providing conditions for uncharacteristically large, severe, and costly wildfires, with increasing threats to human life and property,” the strategy states.

Between 2008 and 2012, the Western region averaged 23,000 reported fires a year, burning almost 4.7 million acres a year, according to the report.

“The West needs large landscape-scale changes in vegetative structure and fuel loadings to significantly alter wildfire behavior, reduce wildfire losses, ensure firefighter and public safety, and improve landscape resiliency,” the strategy states. “Active management of public and private land holdings is needed, including harvesting and thinning operations to reduce hazardous fuels in and around communities and in the middle ground.”

Last month, a group of lawmakers, including Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both D-Ore., touted legislation pending in Congress that would treat the largest 1 percent of wildfires, which consume 30 percent of the federal firefighting budget, as natural disasters like tornadoes or hurricanes. Response to such catastrophic fires would be funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This approach has the support of the Obama administration, which included the change in funding in its 2015 budget request.

This would keep the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management from raiding their other funds to pay for fire suppression, which can easily exhaust their budgets during an active fire season. When that happens, other projects, including hazardous fuels reduction, can be postponed by a lack of funds.

“Through more strategic coordination with local communities, the National Cohesive Strategy will help us better protect 46 million homes in 70,000 communities from catastrophic wildfires,” said Vilsack in a prepared statement. “This effort, combined with the Administration’s newly proposed wildland fire management funding strategy, will allow USDA and our partners to more effectively restore forested landscapes, treat forests for the increasing effects of climate change, and help avert future wildfires.”

The strategy is designed to work with the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, added Mike Boots, acting chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.

“As climate change spurs extended droughts and longer fire seasons, this collaborative wildfire blueprint will help us restore forests and rangelands to make communities less vulnerable to catastrophic fire,” he said.

According to the report, Deschutes and Jefferson counties are among the Oregon counties that pose a high risk of “fires of concern,” or those that consume at least a square mile and take more than two weeks to contain. Crook County’s risk was assessed as moderate.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com