Forest Fire/Wildfire Protection
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
Congress continues to face questions about forestry practices, funding levels, and the federal role
in wildland fire protection. Recent fire seasons have been, by most standards, among the worst in
the past half century. National attention began to focus on wildfires when a prescribed burn in
May 2000 escaped control and burned 239 homes in Los Alamos, NM. President Clinton
responded by requesting a doubling of wildfire management funds, and Congress enacted much
of this proposal in the FY2001 Interior appropriations act (P.L. 106-291). President Bush
responded to the severe 2002 fires by proposing a Healthy Forests Initiative to reduce fuel loads
by expediting review processes.
Many factors contribute to the threat of wildfire damages. Two major factors are the decline in
forest and rangeland health and the expansion of residential areas into wildlands—the urban-
wildland interface. Over the past century, aggressive wildfire suppression, as well as past grazing
and logging practices, have altered many ecosystems, especially those where light, surface fires
were frequent. Many areas now have unnaturally high fuel loads (e.g., dead trees and dense
thickets) and an historically unnatural mix of plant species (e.g., exotic invaders).
Fuel treatments have been proposed to reduce the wildfire threats. Prescribed burning—setting
fires under specified conditions—can reduce the fine fuels that spread wildfires, but can escape
and become catastrophic wildfires, especially if fuel ladders (small trees and dense undergrowth)
and wind spread the fire into the forest canopy. Commercial timber harvesting is often proposed,
and can reduce heavy fuels and fuel ladders, but exacerbates the threat unless and until the slash
(tree tops and limbs) is properly disposed of. Other mechanical treatments (e.g., precommercial
thinning, pruning) can reduce fuel ladders, but also temporarily increase fuels on the ground.
Treatments can often be more effective if combined (e.g., prescribed burning after thinning).
However, some fuel treatments are very expensive, and the benefit of treatments for reducing
wildfire threats depend on many factors.
It should also be recognized that, as long as biomass, drought, and high winds exist, catastrophic
wildfires will occur. Only about 1% of wildfires become conflagrations, but which fires will
“blow up” into crown wildfires is unpredictable. It seems likely that management practices and
policies, including fuel treatments, affect the probability of such events. However, past experience
with wildfires are of limited value for building predictive models, and research on fire behavior
under various circumstances is difficult, at best. Thus, predictive tools for fire protection and
control are often based on expert opinion and anecdotes, rather than on research evidence.
Individuals who choose to build homes in the urban-wildland interface face some risk of loss
from wildfires, but can take steps to protect their homes. Federal, state, and local governments
can and do assist by protecting their own lands, by providing financial and technical assistance,
and by providing relief after the fire.
Federal Fire Policy Evolution.............................................................................................2
Efficacy of Fire Protection..................................................................................................3
Concerns and Problems.............................................................................................................5
Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI)........................................................................................5
Forest and Rangeland Health..............................................................................................6
Salvage and Other Timber Harvesting..............................................................................12
Other Fuel Management Tools..........................................................................................13
Fuel Management Funding...............................................................................................14
Wildfire Management Funding.........................................................................................14
Fire Control Policies and Practices...................................................................................15
Roles and Responsibilities......................................................................................................18
State and Local Government Roles and Responsibilities.................................................18
Federal Roles and Responsibilities...................................................................................19
Refere nces ............................................................................................................................... 23
Table 1. Average Annual Acreage Burned by Decade Since 1910..................................................4
Table 2. Lands at Risk of Ecological Change, by Historic Fire Regime.........................................9
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................24
he 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 the last three years being 2T
the most severe since 1960. 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’ fire management activities and 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.
Funding for wildfire protection programs is also a significant congressional issue, but is covered
separately in CRS Report RL33990, Wildfire Funding, by Ross W. Gorte.
Many discussions of wildfire protection focus on the federal agencies that manage lands and
receive funds to prepare for and control wildfires. The Forest Service (FS), in the Department of
Agriculture, is the “big brother” among federal wildfire-fighting agencies. The FS is the oldest
federal land management agency, created in 1905, with fire control as a principal purpose. The FS
administers more forestland in the 48 coterminous states than any other federal agency, receives
about 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), National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and
Bureau of Indian Affairs; DOI fire protection programs are coordinated and funded through the
BLM. Despite the substantial attention given to the FS and DOI agencies, the majority of 3
wildlands are privately owned, and 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.
Wildfire has existed in North America for millennia. Many fires were started by lightning,
although Native Americans also used 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 wildfire in American history, burned
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 National Interagency Fire Center, “Fire Information—Wildland Fire Statistics,” available at http://www.nifc.gov/
fire_info/fires_acres.htm, on Jan. 18, 2008.) Fire season severity is commonly assessed by acres 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 Dec. 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.)
nearly 4 million acres, obliterated a town, 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).
The nascent FS 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—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 4
seen as the most efficient and effective way to control large wildfires.
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 FS
and the National Park Service initiated policies titled “prescribed natural fire,” colloquially
known as “let-burn” 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 identified in fire management
plans are called wildland fires for resource benefit, and are part of the agencies’ fire use 5
Aggressive fire control policies were 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 6
expenditures beyond efficient levels.
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 7
report described a situation of dangerously high fuel accumulations. This report was issued
shortly after a major conference examining the health of forest ecosystems in the intermountain
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). Hereafter referred to as 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Review.
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).
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 9
Initiative, 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 10
at a cost to federal lands and resources. 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 remains the first priority in
Concerns about historically unnatural fuel loads and their threat to communities persist. In 1999,
the General Accounting Office (GAO; now the Government Accountability Office) issued two
reports recommending a cohesive wildfire protection strategy for the FS and a combined strategy 11
for the FS and BLM to address certain firefighting weaknesses. 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 th12
elements of the proposal were debated, but none were enacted during the 107 Congress. Some
elements have been addressed through regulatory changes, while others were addressed in th
legislation in the 108 Congress, especially the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (P.L. 13
FS fire control programs appeared to be quite successful until the 1980s. For example, fewer than 14
600,000 acres of FS protected land burned each year from 1935 through 1986, after averaging
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 cited 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 cited as GAO, Cohesive
12 See CRS Report RL31679, Wildfire Protection: Legislation in the 107th Congress and Issues in the 108th Congress,
by Ross W. Gorte (archived; available from the author).
13 For information on recent regulatory and legislative developments on wildfire protection, see CRS Report RL33792,
Federal Lands Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service (FS): Issues for the 110th
Congress, by Ross W. Gorte et al.
14 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.
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 rose
substantially in the 1980s and 1990s, 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 at least six years—1987, 1988, 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2002. (Statistics on
acreage burned by federal agency of jurisdiction have not been available from the National
Interagency Fire Center since 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 6 million acres burned nine times 15
since 1960—1963, 1969, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. Nonetheless, even the
worst of these fire seasons (2006) saw only slightly more acres burned than the annual average in
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 16
1,000 acres, but these larger fires accounted for nearly 79% of the acreage burned. 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 Average annual Average annual
acres burned, acres burned, acres burned,
Decade FS Protected Lands Other Lands Total
1910-1919 1,243,572 acres not available not available
1920-1929 616,834 acres 25,387,733 acres 26,004,567 acres
1930-1939 343,013 acres 38,800,182 acres 39,243,195 acres
1940-1949 269,644 acres 22,650,254 acres 22,919,898 acres
1950-1959 261,264 acres 9,154,532 acres 9,415,796 acres
1960-1969 196,221 acres 4,375,034 acres 4,571,255 acres
1970-1979 242,962 acres 2,951,459 acres 3,194,421 acres
1980-1989 488,023 acres 2,494,812 acres 2,982,835 acres
15 Data for 1983-2002 have been revised, dropping 1988 (the year of the Yellowstone fires) off the list.
16 Leon F. Neuenschwander, 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.
Average annual Average annual Average annual
acres burned, acres burned, acres burned,
Decade FS Protected Lands Other Lands Total
1990-1999 554,577 acres 2,768,981 acres 3,323,558 acres
2000-2007 not available not available 7,261,537 acres
Sources: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service Historical Fire Statistics, unpublished table (Washington, DC);
and National Interagency Fire Center, Fire Information—Wildland Fire Statistics, at http://www.nifc.gov/fire_info/
fires_acres.htm, with FS acres burned deducted. (Pre-1960 data were at the NIFC site on Sept. 20, 2000, but are
no longer available.)
Wildfires stir a primeval fear and fascination in most of us. Many have long been concerned
about the loss of valuable timber to fire and about the effects of fire on soils, watersheds, water
quality, and wildlife. In addition, the loss of houses and other structures adds to wildfire damages.
Historically, wildfires were considered a major threat to people and houses primarily in the
brushy hillsides of southern California. However, people have increasingly been building their
houses and subdivisions in forests and other wildlands, and this expanding wildland-urban
interface has increased the wildfire threat to people and houses. Also, a century of using
wildlands and suppressing wildfires has apparently significantly increased fuel loads, at least in
some ecosystems, and led to historically unnatural combinations of vegetation and structures, 17
exacerbating wildfire threats.
The wildland-urban interface has been defined as the area “where combustible homes meet 18
combustible vegetation.” This interface includes a wide variety of situations, ranging from
individual houses and isolated structures to subdivisions and rural communities surrounded by
wildlands. While this situation has always existed to some extent, subdivisions in wildland
settings appear to have grown significantly over the past two decades. Standard definitions of the 19
interface have been developed by the federal agencies, but have not been used to assess the
One particular aspect is that the growth of the interface has also increased the roads into wildland
settings. Increased road access has both benefits and costs for protecting resources and people
from wildfires. Increased human access generally increases the frequency of wildfire ignitions—
While human-caused fires can be catastrophic, they are typically in accessible areas, and thus can
often be controlled more quickly; for example, only 48% of the acres burned from 1988-1997
17 For example, see R. Neil Sampson, David L. Adams, Stanley S. Hamilton, Stephen P. Mealey, Robert Steele, and
Dave Van De Graaff, “Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West: Overview,” Assessing Forest Ecosystem
Health in the Inland West, pp. 3-10.
18 Wildfire Strikes Home! The Report of the National Wildland/Urban Fire Protection Conference, sponsored by the
USDA, Forest Service; the National Fire Protection Association; and the FEMA, U.S. Fire Administration (Jan. 1987),
19 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and Dept. of the Interior, “Urban Wildland Interface Communities Within the Vicinity of
Federal Lands That Are at High Risk From Wildfire,” 66 Federal Register 751-754 (Jan. 4, 2001).
were in human-caused fires. If the roads are mapped and marked (so that fire crews can find their
way) and are sufficiently wide for fire-fighting equipment, increased access can allow for faster
control efforts, and probably reduces the risk of a structure being burned. However, poorly
marked or unmarked, narrow, twisting roads exist in some wildland subdivisions, in part because
homeowners want to minimize non-local traffic in and through the subdivision. In such situations,
the poor access may exacerbate the wildfire threat to homeowners.
Most observers agree that protecting homes and other structures in the interface is an appropriate
goal for safeguarding the highest values at risk from wildfire. However, there are differences of
opinion about how to best protect the WUI. FS research has indicated that the characteristics of
the structures and their immediate surroundings are the primary determinants of whether a
structure burns. In particular, non-flammable roofs and cleared vegetation for at least 10 meters
(33 feet) and up to 40 meters (130 feet) around the structure is highly likely to protect the 20
structure from wildfire, even when neighboring structures burn. Others propose reducing fuels
in a band surrounding communities in the WUI; many proposals for fuel reduction suggest
treatments within a half-mile (sometimes a quarter-mile) of WUI communities. Still others
suggest that reducing fuels on wildlands removed from the WUI can nonetheless protect 21
communities by reducing the danger of uncontrollable conflagrations.
The increasing extent of wildfires in the national forests in the past two decades has been widely
attributed to deteriorating forest and rangeland health, resulting at least in some cases directly
from federal forest and rangeland management practices. Ecological conditions in many areas,
particularly in the intermountain West (the Rocky Mountains through the Cascades and Sierra
Nevadas), have been altered by various activities. Beginning more than a century ago, livestock
grazing affected ecosystems by reducing the amount of grass and changing the plant species mix
in forests and on rangelands. This reduced the fine fuels that carried surface fires (allowed them
to spread), encouraged trees to invade traditionally open grasslands and meadows, and allowed
non-native species to become established, all of which, experts believe, induce less frequent but 22
more intense wildfires. In addition, first to support mining and railroad development and later to
support the wood products industry, logging of the large pines that characterized many areas has 23
led to regeneration of smaller, less fire-resistant trees in some areas. Roads that provide access 24
for logging, grazing, and recreation have also been implicated in spreading non-native species.
The nature, extent, and severity of these forest and rangeland health problems vary widely,
depending on the ecosystem and the history of the site. In rangelands, the problem is likely to be
20 Jack D. Cohen, “Preventing Disaster: Home Ignitability in the Wildland-Urban Interface,” Journal of Forestry, vol.
102, no. 3 (March 2000), pp. 15-21.
21 Personal communication, Harv Forsgren, Regional Forester (Region 3), USDA Forest Service in Washington, DC,
on Aug. 21, 2003.
22 W. W. Covington and M. M. Moore, “Postsettlement Changes in Natural Fire Regimes and Forest Structure:
Ecological Restoration of Old-Growth Ponderosa Pine Forests,” Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West,
23 Jay O’Laughlin, “Assessing Forest Health Conditions in Idaho with Forest Inventory Data,” Assessing Forest
Ecosystem Health in the Inland West, pp. 221-247.
24 Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds, Invasive Plants: Changing the
Landscape of America (Washington, DC: 1998), pp. 23-24.
invasion by non-native species (e.g., cheatgrass or spotted knapweed) or by shrubs and small
trees (e.g., salt cedar or juniper). In some areas (e.g., western hemlock or inland Douglas-fir
stands), the problem may be widespread dead trees due to drought or insect or disease
infestations. In others (e.g., southern pines and western mixed conifers), the problem may be
dense undergrowth of different plant species (e.g., palmetto in the south and firs in the west). In
still others (e.g., Ponderosa pine stands) the problem is more likely to be stand stagnation (e.g.,
too many little green trees, because intra-species competition rarely kills Ponderosa pines).
One FS research report has categorized these health problems, for wildfire protection, by 25
classifying ecosystems according to their historical fire regime. The report describes five
historical fire regimes:
I. ecosystems with low-severity, surface fires at least every 35 years (often called frequent
II. ecosystems with stand replacement fires (killing much of the standing vegetation) at least
every 35 years;
III. ecosystems with mixed severity fires (both surface and stand replacement fires) at 35-
100+ year intervals;
IV. ecosystems with stand replacement fires at 35-100+ year intervals; and
V. ecosystems with stand replacement fires at 200+ year intervals.
It is widely recognized that fire suppression has greatly exacerbated these ecological problems, at
least in frequent fire ecosystems (fire regimes I and II)—most grass and brush ecosystems and
many forest ecosystems (e.g., southern yellow pines and Ponderosa pine) that evolved with
frequent surface fires that burned grasses, needles, and other small fuels at least every 35 years,
depending on the site and plant species. Surface fires reduce fuel loads by mineralizing biomass
that may take decades to rot, and thus provide a flush of nutrients to stimulate new plant growth.
Historically, many surface fires were started by lightning, although Native Americans used fires
to clear grasslands of encroaching trees, stimulate seed production, and reduce undergrowth and
small trees that provide habitat for undesirable insects (e.g., ticks and chiggers) and inhibit 26
mobility and visibility when hunting.
Eliminating frequent surface fires through fire suppression and other activities has led to
unnaturally high fuel loads, by historic standards, in frequent fire ecosystems. These historically
unnatural fuel loads can lead to stand replacement fires in ecosystems adapted to frequent surface
fires. In particular, small trees and dense undergrowth can create fuel ladders that sometimes
cause surface fires to spread upward into the forest canopy. In these ecosystems, the frequent
surface fires had historically eliminated much of the understory before it got large enough to
create fuel ladders. Stand replacement fires in frequent-fire ecosystems might regenerate new
versions of the original surface-fire adapted ecosystems, but some observers are concerned that
25 Kirsten M. Schmidt, James P. Menakis, Colin C. Hardy, Wendel J. Hann, and David L. Bunnell, Development of
Coarse-Scale Spatial Data for Wildland Fire and Fuel Management, Gen. Tech. Rept. RMRS-87 (Ft. Collins, CO:
USDA Forest Service, Apr. 2002). Hereafter cited as the Schmidt, et al., Coarse-Scale Assessment.
26 James K. Agee, Fire Ecology of Pacific Northwest Forests (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993), pp. 54-57.
Hereafter cited as Agee, Fire Ecology of PNW Forests.
these ecosystems might be replaced with a different forest that doesn’t contain the big old
Ponderosa pines and other traditional species of these areas.
Stand replacement fires are not, however, an ecological catastrophe in other ecosystems.
Perennial grasses and some tree and brush species have evolved to regenerate following intense
fires that kill much of the surface vegetation (fire regimes II, IV, and V). Aspen and some other
hardwood tree and brush species, as well as most grasses, regrow from rootstocks that can survive
intense wildfires. Some trees, such as jack pine in the Lake States and Canada and lodgepole pine
in much of the west, have developed serotinous cones, that open and disperse seeds only after
exposure to intense heat. In such ecosystems, stand replacement fires are normal and natural,
although avoiding the incineration of structures located in those ecosystems is obviously
Some uncertainty exists over the extent of forest and rangeland health problems and how various
management practices can exacerbate or alleviate the problems. In 1995, the FS estimated that 39
million acres in the National Forest System (NFS) were at high risk of catastrophic wildfire, and 27
needed some form of fuel treatment. More recently, the Coarse-Scale Assessment reported that
51 million NFS acres were at high risk of significant ecological damage from wildfire, and
another 80 million acres were at moderate risk. (See Table 2.) The Coarse-Scale Assessment also
reported 23 million acres of Department of the Interior lands at high risk and 76 million acres at
moderate risk. All other lands (calculated as the total shown in the Coarse-Scale Assessment less
the NFS and DOI lands) included 107 million acres at high risk and 314 million acres at moderate
risk of ecological damage.
Fuel management is a collection of activities intended to reduce the threat of significant damages
by wildfires. The FS began its fuel management program in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, earlier
agency policies of aggressive suppression of all wildfires had been modified, in recognition of the
enormous cost of organizing to achieve this goal and of the ecological benefits that can result
from some fires. These understandings have in particular led to an expanded prescribed burning
The relatively recent recognition of historically unnatural fuel loads from dead trees, dense
understories of trees and other vegetation, and non-native species has spurred additional interest
in fuel management activities. The presumption is that lower fuel loads and a lack of fuel ladders
will reduce the extent of wildfires, the damages they cause, and the cost of controlling them.
Numerous on-the-ground examples support this belief. However, little empirical research has
documented this logical presumption. As noted in one research study, “scant information exists on 28
fuel treatment efficacy for reducing wildfire severity.” This study also found that “fuel
treatments moderate extreme fire behavior within treated areas, at least in” frequent fire
ecosystems. Others have found different results elsewhere; one study reported “no evidence that
27 Enoch Bell, David Cleaves, Harry Croft, Susan Husari, Ervin Schuster, and Dennis Truesdale, Fire Economics
Assessment Report, unpublished report submitted to Fire and Aviation Management, USDA Forest Service, on Sept. 1,
28 Philip N. Omi and Erik J. Martinson, Effects of Fuels Treatment on Wildfire Severity: Final Report, submitted to the
Joint Fire Science Program Governing Board (Ft. Collins, CO: Colorado State Univ., Western Forest Fire Research
Center, Mar. 25, 2002), p. i.
prescribed burning in these [southern California] brushlands provides any resource benefit ... in 29
this crown-fire ecosystem.” A recent summary of wildfire research reported that prescribed
burning generally reduced fire severity, that mechanical fuel reduction did not consistently reduce
fire severity, and that little research has examined the potential impacts of mechanical fuel 30
reduction with prescribed burning or of commercial logging.
Table 2. Lands at Risk of Ecological Change, by Historic Fire Regime
(in millions of acres)
Regime I Regime II Regime III Regime IV Regime V
0-35 years; 0-35 years; 35-100+; 35-100+; 200+ yrs;
surface fire crown fire mixed fire crown fire crown fire Total
National Forest System lands
Class 1: low 19.87 4.46 16.05 5.26 19.31 64.95
moderate 34.96 8.66 26.71 7.35 2.76 80.45
Class 3: high 28.83 0.36 11.17 10.49 0.27 51.12
Total 83.67 13.48 53.93 23.11 22.35 196.52
Department of the Interior lands
Class 1: low 18.70 19.47 62.05 23.98 4.23 128.42
moderate 23.83 22.87 25.82 2.93 0.38 75.83
Class 3: high 6.46 0.37 9.92 6.61 0.12 23.47
Total 49.00 42.70 97.80 33.51 4.72 227.72
Private, state, and other federal lands
Class 1: low 136.46 168.62 49.55 23.83 25.02 404.60
moderate 117.37 101.66 59.72 25.06 10.57 313.54
Class 3: high 42.20 9.62 32.92 17.93 4.51 107.18
Total 296.02 279.89 142.18 66.81 40.10 825.01
Source: Schmidt, et al., Coarse-Scale Assessment, pp. 13-15.
29 Jon E. Keeley, “Fire Management of California Shrubland Landscapes,” Environmental Management, vol. 29, no. 3
(2002), pp. 395-408.
30 Henry Carey and Martha Schumann, Modifying WildFire Behavior—The Effectiveness of Fuel Treatments: The
Status of Out Knowledge, Southwest Region Working Paper 2 (Santa Fe, NM: National Community Forestry Center,
Before examining fuel management tools, a brief description of fuels may be helpful.31 Wildfires 32
are typically spread by fine fuels—needles, leaves, grass, etc.—both on the surface and in the
tree crowns (in a stand-replacement crown fire); these are known as 1-hour time lag fuels,
because they dry out (lose two-thirds of their moisture content) in about an hour. Small fuels,
known as 10-hour time lag fuels, are woody twigs and branches, up to a quarter-inch in diameter;
these fuels also help spread wildfires because they ignite and burn quickly. Larger fuels—
particularly the 1000-hour time lag fuels (more than 3 inches in diameter)—may contribute to the
intensity and thus to the damage fires cause, but contribute little to the rate of spread, because
they are slow to ignite. One researcher noted that only 5% of large tree stems and 10% of tree
branches were consumed in high intensity fires, while 100% of the foliage and 75% of the 33
understory vegetation were consumed. Finally, ladders of fine and small fuels between the
surface and the tree crowns can spread surface fires into the canopy, thus turning a surface fire
into a stand-replacement fire.
Fire has been used as a tool for a long time.34 Native Americans lit fires for various purposes,
such as to reduce brush and stimulate grass growth. Settlers used fires to clear woody debris in
creating agricultural fields. In forestry, fire has been used to eliminate logging debris, by burning 35
brush piles and by prescribed burning harvested sites to prepare them for reforestation.
Prescribed burning has been used increasingly over the past 40 years to reduce fuel loads on
federal lands. FS prescribed burning has exceeded 1.2 million acres annually since FY1998,
except for FY2000, when the severe fire season limited prescribed burning to 772,000 acres.
BLM prescribed burning has exceeded 1.0 million acres annually since FY2000, except for
FY2001. These burning programs are a significant increase from historic levels; as recently as
FY1995, the acreage in prescribed burns was 541,300 FS acres and 57,000 BLM acres. However,
more than half of FS prescribed burning is in the FS Southern Region, and thus prescribed
burning in the intermountain west is still at relatively modest levels.
Typically, areas to be burned are identified in agency plans, and fire lines (essentially dirt paths)
are created around the perimeter. The fires are lit when the weather conditions permit (i.e., when
the burning prescription is fulfilled)—when the humidity is low enough to get the fuels to burn,
but not when the humidity is so low or wind speed so high that the burning cannot be contained.
(This, of course, presumes accurate knowledge of existing and expected weather and wind
31 See Arthur A. Brown and Kenneth P. Davis, “Chapter 4: Forest Fuels,” Forest Fire Control and Use (New York,
NY: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1973), pp. 79-110. Hereafter cited as Brown and Davis, Fire Control and Use.
32 Robert E. Martin and Arthur P. Brackebusch, “Fire Hazard and Conflagration Prevention,” Environmental Effects of
Forest Residues Management in the Pacific Northwest: A State-of-Knowledge Compendium (Owen P. Cramer, ed.),
Gen. Tech. Rept. PNW-24 (Portland, OR: USDA Forest Service, 1974).
33 Agee, Fire Ecology of PNW Forests, p. 42. It is also important to recognize that the percentage of biomass in 1-hour,
10-hour, 100-hour, and 1000-hour fuels depends largely on tree diameter, with the percentage in large fuels increasing
as diameter increases.
34 Historical evidence indicates that current levels of burning through prescribed burns and wildfires represent levels
perhaps 10%-30% of pre-industrial burning levels from natural and Native-set fires. See Bill Leenhouts, “Assessment
of Biomass Burning in the Conterminous United States,” Conservation Ecology 2(1), 1998, available on Jan. 16, 2007,
at http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol2/iss1/art1/. Hereafter cited as Leenhouts, Assessment of Biomass Burning.
35 David M. Smith, The Practice of Silviculture, 7th ed. (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1962), pp. 317-321.
Hereafter cited as Smith, The Practice of Silviculture.
conditions, as well as sufficient fire control crews with adequate training on the site.) When the
fire reaches the perimeter limits, the crews “mop up” the burn area to assure that no hot embers
remain to start a wildfire after everyone is gone.
Prescribed burning is widely used for fuel management because it reduces biomass (the fuels) to
ashes (minerals). It is particularly effective at reducing the smaller fuels, especially in the arid
west where deterioration by decomposers (insects, fungi, etc.) is often very slow. In fact, it is the
only human treatment that directly reduces the fine and small fuels that are important in spreading
wildfires. However, prescribed fires are not particularly effective at reducing larger-diameter fuels 36
or thinning stands to desired densities and diameters.
There are several limitations in using prescribed fire. The most obvious is that prescribed fires
can be risky—fire is not a controlled tool; rather, it is a self-sustaining chemical reaction that, 37
once ignited, continues until the fuel supply is exhausted. Fire control (for both wildfires and
prescribed fires) thus focuses on removing the continuous fuel supply by creating a fire line dug
down to mineral soil. The line must be wide enough to prevent the spread of fire by radiation (i.e.,
the heat from the flames must decline sufficiently across the space that the biomass outside the o
fire line does not reach combustion temperature, about 550 F). Minor variations in wind and in
fuel loads adjacent to the fire line can lead to fires jumping the fire line, causing the fire to escape
from control. Winds can also lift burning embers across fire lines, causing spot fires outside the
fire line which can grow into major wildfires under certain conditions (such as occurred near Los
Alamos, NM, in May 2000). Even when general weather conditions—temperature, humidity, and
especially winds—are within the limits identified for prescribed fires, localized variations in the 38
site (e.g., slope, aspect, and fuel load) and in weather (e.g., humidity and wind) can be
problematic. Thus, prescribed fires inherently carry some degree of risk, especially in ecosystems
adapted to stand-replacement fires and in areas where the understory and undergrowth have
created fuel ladders.
Another concern is that prescribed fires generate substantial quantities of smoke—air pollution
with high concentrations of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and especially particulates that
degrade visibility. Some assert that prescribed fires merely shift the timing of air pollution from
wildfires. Others note that smoke from pre-industrial wildland fires was at least three times more 39
than from current levels from prescribed burning and wildfire. Others have observed that fire
prescriptions are typically cooler and more humid than wildfire burning conditions, and thus
prescribed fires may produce more pollution (because of less efficient burning) than wildfires
burning the same area. The Clean Air Act requires regulations to preserve air quality, and
regulations governing particulate emissions and regional haze have been of concern to land
managers who want to expand prescribed burning programs. Previous proposed legislation (e.g., th
H.R. 236, 106 Congress) would have exempted FS prescribed burning from air quality
regulations for 10 years, to demonstrate that an aggressive prescribed burning program will
reduce total particulate emissions from prescribed burning and wildfires. However, owners and
36 See Brown and Davis, Fire Control and Use, pp. 560-572.
37 Fire can also be halted by eliminating the supply of oxygen, as occurs when fire retardant (“slurry”) is spread on
forest fires from airplanes (“slurry bombers”). However, reducing oxygen supply usually can only occur in a limited
area, because of the cost to spread the fire retardant.
38 Aspect is the direction which the slope is facing; in the northern hemisphere, south-facing slopes (south aspects) get
more radiant energy from the sun than north aspects, and thus are inherently warmer and drier, and hence are at greater
risk of more intense wildfires.
39 Leenhouts, Assessment of Biomass Burning.
operators of other particulate emitters (e.g., diesel vehicles and fossil fuel power plants) generally
object to such exemptions, arguing that their emissions would likely be regulated more 40
stringently, even though wildland fires are one of the largest sources of particulates.
Another tool commonly proposed for fuel treatment is traditional timber harvesting, including
salvaging dead and dying trees before they rot or succumb to disease and commercially thinning
dense stands. In areas where the forest health problems include large numbers of dead and dying
trees, a shift toward an inappropriate or undesirable tree species mix, or a dense understory of
commercially usable trees, timber harvesting can be used to improve forest health and remove
woody biomass from the forest. Nonetheless, some interest groups object to using salvage and 41
other timber harvests to improve forest health.
Timber generally may only be removed from federal forests under timber sale contracts.
Stewardship contracts allow timber sales and forest management services, such as fuel reduction,
to be combined in one contract, essentially as a trade of goods (timber) for services (fuel
reduction); this form of contracting is discussed below, under “Other Fuel Management Tools.”
Because timber sale contracts have to be bought and goods-for-services contracts must generate
value to provide services, the contracts generally include the removal of merchantable trees.
Critics argue that the need for merchantable products compromises reducing fuel loads or
achieving desired forest conditions.
Timber harvests remove heavy fuels that contribute to fire intensity, and can break fuel ladders,
but the remaining limbs and tree tops (“slash”) substantially increase fuel loads on the ground and
get in the way of controlling future fires, at least in the short term, until the slash is removed or
disposed of through burning. “Slash is a fire hazard mainly because it represents an unusually
large volume of fuel distributed in such a way that it is a dangerous impediment in the 42
construction of fire lines” (i.e., in suppressing fires).
If logging slash is treated, as has long been a standard practice following timber harvesting, the
increased fire danger from higher fuel loads that follow timber harvesting can be ameliorated.
Various slash treatments are used to reduce the fire hazard, including lop-and-scatter, pile-and-43
burn, and chipping. Lop-and-scatter consists of cutting the tops and limbs so that they lie close
to the ground, thereby hastening decomposition and possibly preparing the material for broadcast
burning (essentially, prescribed burning of the timber harvest site). Pile-and-burn is exactly that,
piling the slash (by hand or more typically by bulldozer) and burning the piles when conditions
40 See, for example, U.S. House, Committee on Resources, Hearing on the Use of Fire as a Management Tool and Its
Risks and Benefits for Forest Health and Air Quality, Sept. 30, 1997 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1997), Serial No. 105-45,
41 Timber harvesting has a variety of proponents and opponents for reasons beyond fuel management. Some interests
object to timber harvesting on a variety of grounds, including the poor financial performance of FS timber sales and the
degradation of water quality and certain wildlife habitats that follows some timber harvesting. Others defend timber
sales for the employment and income provided in isolated, resource-dependent communities as well as for increasing
water yields and available habitat for other wildlife species. The arguments supporting and opposing timber harvests
generally have often been raised in discussions about fire protection, but are not reproduced in this report. See CRS
Report 95-364, Salvage Timber Sales and Forest Health, by Ross W. Gorte (out-of-print; available from the author).
42 Smith, The Practice of Silviculture, p. 312.
43 Ibid., pp. 312-317.
are appropriate (dry enough, but not too dry, and with little or no wind). Chipping is feeding the
slash through a chipper, a machine that reduces the slash to particles about the size of a silver
dollar. and scattering the chips to allow them to decompose. Thorough slash disposal can
significantly reduce fuel loads, particularly on sites with large amounts of noncommercial
biomass (e.g., undergrowth and unusable tree species) and if combined with some type of
prescribed burning. However, data on the actual extent of various slash disposal methods and on
needed slash disposal appear to be available only for a few areas.
The other principal tool for fuel management is mechanical treatment of the fuels.44 One common
method is precommercial thinning—cutting down many of the small (less than 4½-inch diameter)
trees that have little or no current market value. Other treatments include pruning and mechanical
release of seedlings (principally by cutting down or mowing competing vegetation). Mechanical
treatments are often effective at eliminating fuel ladders, but as with timber cutting, do not reduce
the fine fuels on the sites without additional treatment (e.g., without prescribed burning).
Mechanical fuel treatments alone tend to increase fine fuels and sometimes larger fuels on the
ground in the short term, until the slash has been treated.
Some critics have suggested using traditionally unused biomass, such as slash and thinning
debris, in new industrial ways, such as using the wood for paper or particleboard or burning the 45
biomass to generate electricity. Research has indicated that harvesting small diameter timber 46
may be economically feasible, and one study reported net revenues of $624 per acre for
comprehensive fuel reduction treatments in Montana that included removal and sale of 47
merchantable wood. However, thus far, collecting and hauling chipped slash and other biomass
for products or energy have apparently not been seen as economically viable by timber 48
purchasers, given that such woody materials are currently left on the harvest sites.
Another possibility is to significantly change the traditional approach to timber sales. Stewardship 49
contracting, in various forms, has been tested in various national forests. Sometimes, the
stewardship contract (payment and performance) is based on the condition of the stand after the
treatment, rather than on the volume harvested; this is also known as end-results contracting. A
variation on this theme, which has been discussed sporadically for more than 30 years, is to
separate the forest treatment from the sale of the wood. The most common form is essentially to
44 Chemical treatments (herbicides) are also used in forestry, mostly on unwanted vegetation, but they are not included
here as a fuel treatment tool, because they are used primarily to kill live biomass rather than to reduce biomass levels
on a site. Biological treatments (e.g., using goats to eat the small diameter material) are feasible, but are rarely used.
45 Robert Nelson, University of Maryland, cited in: Rocky Barker, “Wildfires Creating Odd Bedfellows,” The Idaho
Statesman (Aug. 14, 2000), pp. 1A, 7A.
46 Henry Spelter, Ron Wang, and Peter Ince, Economic Feasibility of Products From Inland West Small Diameter
Timber, FPL-GTR-92 (Madison, WI: USDA Forest Service, May 1996), 17 p.
47 Carl E. Fieldler, Charles E. Keegan, Todd A. Morgan, and Christopher W. Woodall, “Fire Hazard and Potential
Treatment Effectiveness: A Statewide Assessment in Montana,” Journal of Forestry, vol. 101, no. 2 (March 2003), p.
48 Research documenting the economics of slash use (in contrast to small diameter trees) is lacking. However, this
seems a reasonable conclusion, given that the slash is left on the site by the timber purchaser (who could remove and
sell the material) and that the agencies and various interest groups have been trying to develop alternatives to the
traditional contracts (e.g., stewardship contracts) to remove thinning slash and other biomass fuels.
49 See CRS Report RS20985, Stewardship Contracting for Federal Forests, by Ross W. Gorte.
use commercial timber to pay for other treatments; that is, the contractor removes the specified
commercial timber and is required to perform other activities, such as precommercial thinning of
a specified area. Because of the implicit trade of timber for other activities, this is often called
goods-for-services stewardship contracting. FS and BLM goods-for-services stewardship
contracting was authorized through FY2013 in the FY2003 Continuing Appropriations
Resolution (P.L. 108-7). Some observers believe that such alternative approaches could lead to
development of an industry based on small diameter wood, and thus significantly reduce the cost
of fuel management. Others fear that this could create an industry that cannot be sustained after
the current excess biomass has been removed or that would need continuing subsidies.
Direct federal funding for prescribed burning and other fuel treatments (typically called
hazardous fuels or fuel management) is part of FS and BLM appropriations for Wildfire
Management. (See CRS Report RL33990, Wildfire Funding.) Appropriations for fuel reduction
have risen from less than $100 million in FY1999 to more than $400 million annually since
Funds appropriated for other purposes can also provide fuel treatment benefits. As noted above,
salvage and other commercial timber sales can be used to reduce fuels in some circumstances.
Various accounts, both annual appropriations and mandatory spending, provide funding for
reforestation, timber stand improvement, and other activities. Reforestation actually increases
fuels, but timber stand improvement includes precommercial thinning, pruning, and other
mechanical vegetative treatments included in “Other Fuel Management Tools” (see above), as
well as herbicide use and other treatments that do not reduce fuels.
The cost of federal fire management is high and has risen significantly from historic levels.
Wildfire appropriations for the FS and DOI totaled less than $1 billion annually prior to FY1997.
For FY2003-FY2005, funding was $3 billion annually. (See CRS Report RL33990, Wildfire
Funding, by Ross W. Gorte.) 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 50
federal firefighting funds, which he calls “fire boondoggles.” Another critic asserts that poorly
designed incentives are the principal cause of the current problems and that the current fire 51
management funding system will not resolve those problems.
Over the past five years, 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
50 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 cited as Nelson, A Burning Issue.
51 Randal O’Toole, Reforming the Fire Service: An Analysis of Federal Fire Budgets and Incentives (Bandon, OR:
Thoreau Institute, July 2002). Hereafter cited as O’Toole, Reforming the Fire Service.
managing agencies (BLM, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau
of Indian Affairs); the BLM retains about 60% of DOI funding for its wildfire activities.
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 52
protect property and natural resources from wildfires. 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
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 efforts.
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 on the extent
and efficacy of slash disposal are not available. Similarly, road construction into previously
unroaded areas can increase access, and thus facilitate fuel treatment and fire suppression; 53
conversely, roadless area protection and even road obliteration can impede fuel treatment, but
may reduce the likelihood of a wildfire ignition, 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 or fire retardant (“slurry”) from helicopters or 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). However, this strategy is 54
not particularly useful in large, extended fires. Setting backfires—lighting fires from a fire line
52 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Review.
53 Road obliteration is closing the road and returning the roadbed to near-natural conditions.
54 Federal Aerial Firefighting: Assessing Safety and Effectiveness, Blue Ribbon Panel Report to the Chief, USDA
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, or both).
Wildfires cause damages, killing some plants and occasionally animals.55 Firefighters have been
injured and killed, and structures can be damaged or destroyed. The loss of plants can heighten
the risk of significant erosion and landslides. Some observers have reported “soil glassification,”
where the silica in the soils has been melted and fused, forming an impermeable layer in the soil;
however, research has yet to document the extent, frequency, and duration of this condition, and
the soils and burning conditions under which it occurs. Others have noted that “even the most
intense forest fire will rarely have a direct heating effect on the soil at depths below 7 to 10 cm” 56
(centimeters), about 3 to 4 inches.
Damages are almost certainly greater from stand replacement fires than from surface fires. Stand
replacement fires burn more fuel, and thus burn hotter (more intensely) than surface fires. Stand
replacement fires kill many plants in the burned area, making natural recovery slower and
increasing the potential for erosion and landslides. Also, because they burn hotter, stand
replacement fires generally are more difficult to suppress, raising risks to firefighters and to
structures. Finally, stand replacement fires generate substantial quantities of smoke, which can
directly affect people’s health and well-being.
Wildfires, especially conflagrations, can also have significant local economic effects, both short-
term and long-term, with larger fires generally having greater and longer-term impacts. Wildfires,
and even extreme fire danger, may directly curtail recreation and tourism in and near the fires.
Extensive fire damage to trees can significantly alter the timber supply, both through a short-term
glut from timber salvage and a longer-term decline while the trees regrow. Water supplies can be
degraded by post-fire erosion and stream sedimentation, but the volume flowing from the burned
area may increase. If an area’s aesthetics are impaired, local property values can decline.
However, federal wildfire management includes substantial expenditures, and fire-fighting jobs 57
are considered financially desirable in many areas.
Ecological damages from fires are more difficult to determine, and may well be overstated, for
two reasons. First, burned areas look devastated immediately following the fire, even when
Forest Service and Director, USDI Bureau of Land Management, available at http://www.wildfirelessons.net/
55 For a thorough discussion of these effects, see L. Jack Lyon, Mark H. Huff, Robert G. Hooper, Edmund S. Telfer,
David Scott Schreiner, and Jane Kapler Smith, Wildland Fire in Ecosystems: Effects of Fire on Fauna, Gen. Tech.
Rept. RMRS-GTR-42-vol. 1 (Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service, Jan. 2000). Hereafter cited as Lyon, et al., Effects of
Fire on Fauna.
56 Craig Chandler, Phillip Cheney, Philip Thomas, Louis Traberd, and Dave Williams, Fire In Forestry. Volume I:
Forest Fire Behavior and Effects (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1983), p. 173.
57 Nelson, A Burning Issue, pp. 37-38.
recovery is likely; for example, conifers with as much as 60% of the crown scorched are likely to 58
survive. Second, even the most intense stand replacement fires do not burn 100% of the biomass
within the burn’s perimeter—fires are patchy. For example, in the 1988 fires in Yellowstone,
nearly 30% of the area within the fire perimeters was unburned, and another 15%-20% burned 59
lightly (a surface fire); 50%-55% of the area burned as a stand replacement fire.
Emergency rehabilitation is common following large fires. This is typically justified by the need
for controlling erosion and preventing landslides, and may be particularly important for fire lines
(dug to mineral soil) that go up steep slopes and could become gullies or ravines without
treatment. Sometimes, the rehabilitation includes salvaging dead and damaged trees, because the
wood’s quality and value deteriorate following the fire. Emergency rehabilitation often involves
seeding the sites with fast-growing grasses. While helpful for erosion control, such efforts might
inhibit natural restoration if the grasses are not native species or if they inhibit tree seed
germination or seedling survival.
Finally, as mentioned above, wildfires can also generate ecological benefits. Many plants regrow
quickly following wildfires, because fire converts organic matter to available mineral nutrients.
Some plant species, such as aspen and especially many native perennial grasses, also regrow from
root systems that are rarely damaged by wildfire. Other plant species, such as lodgepole pine and
jack pine, have evolved to depend on stand replacement fires for their regeneration; fire is
necessary to open their cones and spread their seeds. One author identified research reporting
various significant ecosystems threatened by fire exclusion—including aspen, whitebark pine, and
Ponderosa pine (western montane ecosystems), longleaf pine, pitch pine, and oak savannah 60
(southern and eastern ecosystems), and the tallgrass prairie. Other researchers found that, of the
146 rare, threatened, or endangered plants in the coterminous 48 states for which there is
conclusive information on fire effects, 135 species (92%) benefit from fire or are found in fire-61
Animals, as well as plants, can benefit from fire. Some individual animals may be killed,
especially by catastrophic fires, but populations and communities are rarely threatened. Many
species are attracted to burned areas following fires—some even during or immediately after the
fire. Species can be attracted by the newly available minerals or the reduced vegetation allowing
them to see and catch prey. Others are attracted in the weeks to months (even a few years)
following, to the new plant growth (including fresh and available seeds and berries), for insects
and other prey, or for habitat (e.g., snags for woodpeckers and other cavity nesters). A few may be
highly dependent on fire; the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, for example, only nests under young
jack pine that was regenerated by fire, because only fire-regenerated jack pine stands are dense
enough to protect the nestlings from predators.
In summary, many of the ecological benefits of wildfire that have become more widely
recognized over the past 30 years are generally associated with light surface fires in frequent-fire
ecosystems. This is clearly one of the justifications given for fuel treatments. Damage is likely to
58 See Ross W. Gorte, Fire Effects Appraisal: The Wisconsin DNR Example, Ph.D. dissertation (East Lansing, MI:
Michigan State Univ., June 1981).
59 See Lyon, et al., Effects of Fire on Fauna, p. 44.
60 Leenhouts, Assessment of Biomass Burning.
61 Amy Hessl and Susan Spackman, Effects of Fire on Threatened and Endangered Plants: An Annotated Bibliography,
Information and Technical Report 2 (Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Biological Service, n.d.).
be greater from stand replacement fires, especially in frequent-fire ecosystems, but even crown
fires produce benefits in some situations (e.g., for the jack pine regeneration needed for
successful Kirtland’s warbler nesting).
Individuals who choose to build or live in homes and other structures in the wildland-urban
interface face some risk of loss from wildfires. As noted above, catastrophic fires occur, despite
our best efforts, and can threaten houses and other buildings. To date, insurance companies (and
state insurance regulators) have done relatively little to ameliorate these risks, in part because of
federal disaster assistance paid whenever numerous homes are burned (such as in Los Alamos in
May 2000). However, landowners can take steps, individually and collectively, to reduce the
threat to their structures.
Research has documented that home ignitability—the likelihood of a house catching fire and
burning down—depends substantially on the characteristics of the structure and its immediate 62
surroundings. Flammable exteriors—wood siding and especially flammable roofs—increase the
chances that a structure will ignite by radiation (heat from the surrounding burning forest) or from
firebrands (burning materials carried aloft by wind or convection and falling ahead of the fire).
Alternate materials (e.g., brick or aluminum siding and slate or copper roofing) and protective
treatments can reduce the risk. In addition, the probability of a home igniting by radiation
depends on its distance from the flames. Researchers found that 85%-95% of structures with
nonflammable roofs survived two major California fires (in 1961 and 1990) when there were 63
clearances of 10 meters (33 feet) or more between the homes and surrounding vegetation. Thus,
building with fire resistant materials and clearing flammable materials—including vegetation,
firewood piles, and untreated wood decks—from around structures reduces their chances of
In addition, landowners can cooperate in protecting their homes in the wildland-urban interface.
Fuel reduction within and around such subdivisions can reduce the risk, and economies of scale
suggest that treatment costs for a subdivision might be lower than for an individual (especially if
volunteer labor is contributed). In addition, as noted above, narrow and unmarked roads can
hinder fire crews from reaching wildfires. Assuring adequate roads that are clearly marked and
mapped can help firefighters to protect subdivisions. Finally, communal water sources, such as
ponds and cisterns, may improve the protection of structures and subdivisions.
In general, the states are responsible for fire protection on nonfederal lands, although cooperative
agreements with the federal agencies may shift those responsibilities. Typically, local
62 See Jack D. Cohen, “Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes: Where and How Much?” Proceedings of the
Symposium on Fire Economics, Planning, and Policy: Bottom Lines (San Diego, CA: April 5-9, 1999), Gen. Tech.
Rept. PSW-GTR-173 (Berkeley, CA: USDA Forest Service, Dec. 1999), pp. 189-195. Hereafter cited as Cohen,
Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes.
governments are responsible for putting out structure fires. Maintaining some separation between
suppressing structural fires and wildfires may be appropriate, because the suppression techniques
and firefighter hazards and training differ substantially. Nonetheless, cooperation and some
overlapping responsibilities are also warranted, simply because of the locations of federal, state,
and local firefighting forces.
In addition, state and local governments have other responsibilities that affect wildfire threats to
homes. For example, zoning codes—what can be built where—and building codes—permissible
construction standards and materials—are typically regulated locally. These codes could (and
some undoubtedly do) include restrictions, standards, or guidelines for improving fire protection
in the wildland-urban interface.
The insurance industry, and home fire insurance requirements, are generally regulated by states.
State regulators could work with the industry to increase the consideration of wildfire protection
and home defensibility in homeowners’ insurance. Road construction and road maintenance are
often both state and local responsibilities, depending on the road; these roads are usually designed
and identified in ways that are useful for fire suppression crews. State and local governments
could further assist home protection from wildfires by supporting programs to inform residents,
especially those in the urban-wildland interface, of ways that they can protect their homes.
The federal government has several roles in protecting lands and resources from wildfire,
including protecting federal lands, assisting protection by states and local governments, and
assisting public and private landowners in the aftermath of a disaster. These programs and their
funding levels are described in CRS Report RL33990, Wildfire Funding, and CRS Report
RL31065, Forestry Assistance Programs, both by Ross W. Gorte.
The federal government clearly is responsible for fire protection on federal lands. Federal
responsibility to protect neighboring non-federal lands, resources, and structures, however, is less
clear. This issue was raised following several 1994 fires, where the federal officials observed that
firefighting resources were diverted to protecting nearby private residences and communities at a 64
cost to federal lands and resources. 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.)
Funding for fire protection of federal lands accounts for about 95% of all federal wildfire
management appropriations. As noted above, fire appropriations have risen dramatically over the
The federal government also provides assistance for fire protection. Most federal wildfire
protection assistance has been through the FS, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency
64 See footnote 10.
(FEMA) in the Department of Homeland Security also has a program to assist in protecting
communities from disasters (including wildfire).
FS efforts are operated through a cooperative fire protection program within the State and Private
Forestry (S&PF) branch. This fire program includes financial and technical assistance to states
and to volunteer fire departments. The funding provides a nationwide fire prevention program and
equipment acquisition and transfer (the Federal Excess Personal Property program) as well as
training and other help for state and local fire organizations. The 2002 Farm Bill (P.L. 107-171)
created a new community fire protection program under which the FS can assist communities in
fuel reduction and other activities on private lands in the wildland-urban interface. One particular
program, FIREWISE, is supported through an agreement with and grant to the National Fire
Protection Association, in conjunction with the National Association of State Foresters, to help
private landowners learn how to protect their property from catastrophic wildfire.
Funding for cooperative fire assistance rose substantially in FY2001, from less than $30 million
to nearly $150 million. Funding has declined since, but remains substantially higher than the $15-
$20 million annually in the 1990s.
FEMA has programs to assist fire protection efforts.65 One FEMA program is fire suppression
grants under the Stafford Act (the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C.
§5187). These are grants to states to assist in suppressing wildfires that threaten to become major
disasters. Also, the U.S. Fire Administration is a FEMA entity charged with reducing deaths,
injuries, and property losses from fires; agency programs include data collection, public 66
education, training, and technology development.
The federal government has one other program that supports federal and state wildfire protection
efforts—the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The center was established by the BLM
and the FS in Boise, ID, in 1965 to coordinate fire protection efforts (especially aviation support)
in the intermountain west. The early successes led to the inclusion of the National Weather
Service (in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of
Commerce) and of the other DOI agencies with fire suppression responsibilities (the National
Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Office of Aircraft
Services). (FEMA is not included in the NIFC.) NIFC also coordinates with the National
Association of State Foresters to assist in the efficient use of federal, state, and local firefighting
resources in areas where wildfires are burning.
The federal government also provides relief following many disasters, to assist recovery by state
and local governments and especially the private sector (including the insurance industry). The
federal land management agencies generally do not provide disaster relief, although there has
been some economic assistance for communities affected by wildfires upon occasion, as
described above. Wildfire operations funding includes money for emergency rehabilitation, to
reduce the possibility of significant erosion, stream sedimentation, and mass soil movement
65 The annual funding for these programs is not distinguished in the agency’s annual budget justification, and thus is
not included in this report. See CRS Report RL34004, Homeland Security Department: FY2008 Appropriations,
coordinated by Jennifer E. Lake.
66 See CRS Report RS20071, United States Fire Administration: An Overview, by Lennard G. Kruger.
(landslides) from burned areas of federal lands. While not direct relief for affected communities,
such efforts may prevent flooding and debris flows that can exacerbate local economic and social
problems caused by catastrophic fires. One authorized program FS Emergency Reforestation
Assistance, can aid private landowners whose lands were damaged by wildfire, but the program 67
has not been funded since FY1993.
FEMA is the principal federal agency that provides relief following declared disasters, although
local, state, and other federal agencies (e.g., the Farm Service Agency and the Small Business 68
Administration) also have emergency assistance programs. The Stafford Act established a
process for Governors to request the President to declare a disaster, and public and individual
assistance programs for disaster victims.
If the risk of catastrophic fires destroying homes and communities continues to escalate, as some
have suggested, requests for wildfire disaster relief would also likely rise. This might lead some
to argue that a federal insurance mechanism might be a more efficient and equitable system for
sharing the risk. Federal crop insurance and national flood insurance have existed for many years,
while federal insurance for other catastrophic risks (e.g., hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, 69
volcanoes) has also been debated. An analysis of these alternative systems is beyond the scope
of this report, but these might provide alternative approaches that could be adapted for federal
wildfire insurance, if such insurance were seen as appropriate. Some observers, however, object 70
to compensating landowners for building in what critics identify as unsafe areas.
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 broad 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 71
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 72
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 73
cannot be determined from available data. Some critics suggest that historic mismanagement—
67 See CRS Report RL31065, Forestry Assistance Programs, by Ross W. Gorte, p. 10.
68 See CRS Report RL31734, Federal Disaster Recovery Programs: Brief Summaries, by Mary B. Jordan.
69 See CRS Report RS21212, Agricultural Disaster Assistance, by Ralph M. Chite, and CRS Report RL33689, Flood
Insurance Reform: Analysis and Comparison of 109th Congress Bills (H.R. 4973 and S. 3589), by Rawle O. King.
70 Personal communication with Tim Hermach, Founder and President, Native Forest Council, Eugene, OR, on Oct. 18,
71 Personal communication with Tim Hermach, Founder and President, Native Forest Council, Eugene, OR, on Sept.
72 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.
73 See CRS Congressional Distribution Memorandum, Forest Fires and Forest Management, by Ross W. Gorte, Sept.
excessive fire suppression and past logging and grazing practices—by the FS warrants wholesale 74
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
constrained, because the a priori situation (e.g., fuel loads and distribution) and burning
conditions (e.g., wind and moisture levels, patterns, and variations) are often unknown.
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 75
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 more than a decade; a major conference on forest ecosystem health was held in Idaho in 76
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 77
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 risks to
homes and other structures from prescribed burning and because of possible damage to aesthetics
from mechanical treatments.
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 has estimated 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
74 Nelson, A Burning Issue; O’Toole, Reforming the Fire Service.
75 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.
76 Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West: November 14th-20th, 1993. See footnote 7.
77 U.S. General Accounting Office, Western National Forests: A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic
Wildfire Threats, GAO/RCED-99-65 (Washington, DC: Apr. 1999).
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 FY2008 was $494.3 million ($291.5 million for the FS and $202.8 million for
the BLM), a little more than 10% of what some implicitly propose. This raises questions about
whether a comprehensive fuel reduction program is feasible and how to prioritize treatment
There is a final 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.
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Ross W. Gorte
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy