Policy in the Field: U.S. fire policy in the wake of catastrophic fire seasons

by Abby Seadler
Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Somebody turn down the heat!

Almost every region of the U.S. was on fire at some point in June. The fourth-hottest June on record in the United States, June 2012 also rounded out the hottest 12-month period since record-keeping began in the U.S. in the 1890s. July was the single hottest ever recorded.

By June 1, eleven large wildfires burned not only in the West, but also in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and across the Southeast. The number of fires jumped from 11 to 22 by mid-June, with 20 burning in the Intermountain West, and two additional fires in Missouri and North Carolina. By the end of June, 57 fires were burning across the United States, including in Alaska and Hawaii. As of August 6, 13 states are still currently reporting 43 large fires.

Deviating weather patterns and prolonged periods of drought are fueling more destructive wildfires than ever before. So far in 2012, we have experienced more than 38,000 wildfires, which have consumed more than 1.6 million hectares of land. To date, this fire season is still less severe than the catastrophic fire season we experienced in 2011. At this time last year, more than 46,000 fires had singed more than 2.4 million hectares of land. Yet, compared to similar fire seasons, fires this year have burned more land with fewer flames.

What policies are in place in to help protect not only citizens, but also forests and wildlife from devastating fires? Because forest fires do not conveniently stop at state lines, and because they do not avoid property simply because it is locally owned, effective national wildfire policy involves a variety of stakeholders.

Obviously, not all forest fires are “bad.” Many forests throughout the U.S. are characterized as “fire-dependent,” as they require periodic fire in order to maintain healthy and resilient ecosystems. Unfortunately, many experts say that a century of misguided fire exclusion policy in the U.S. has left significant portions of forests unhealthy and many towns at risk from even more catastrophic fires.

Today, the United States has an integrated approach to fire policy. The National Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy was developed in 2009 pursuant to the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME Act). Passed by Congress, the FLAME Act includes many agencies of the Department of the Interior, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Agriculture and establishes a sustainable suppression fund for emergency wildfires on federal land. These three agencies, along with state, tribal, local, county and municipal governments make up the Wildland Fire Leadership Council to implement overarching national fire policies, goals and management activities. They — along with NOAA, which provides fire weather data — are also members of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), which is the U.S.’s support center for actually fighting forest fires.

The Cohesive Strategy lays out three primary focus areas for increased outreach and research: 1) restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes through responsible fire policy; 2) creating fire-adapted communities through outreach and educational programs; and 3) safely and quickly responding to wildfires. These policies set the standard for fire prevention throughout federal, state, tribal and local communities.

Safety and prevention are arguably the most important factors in national wildfire policy. Each unplanned fire has its own unique management plan based on the location of the fire, the risks it poses to human life and property, the abundance of fuels, current and predicted weather patterns, and topography. Federal, state and local officials help to physically prevent forest fires through fuels reduction. (Fuels include any mass of forest debris such as branches and leaves that accumulate along the forest floor.) Types of treatments for fuels buildup include mechanical processes such as thinning and mowing, prescribed fire in which a planned fire is intentionally ignited by park managers and other techniques, such as cattle grazing to remove fuels. However, although fuels management helps prevent fires to an extent, it is not a silver bullet.

In 2011, the U.S experienced more than 74,000 wildfires. Of those, more than 63,000 were caused by people. Educated and fire-adapted communities are extremely important to help limit destruction and save lives. The National Fire Protection Association, an international nonprofit dedicated to reducing fire damage through codes, standards and education, has created Firewise, a program to encourage local communities to actively engage in preventing forest fires. Firewise offers workshops and training, as well as resources to help homeowners and various stakeholders protect themselves and their homes from fire.

Now, more than ever, Americans must heed the words of Smokey the Bear — the Forest Service mascot since the 1940s — only we can prevent forest fires.

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