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CRS Report for Congress

Received through the CRS Web

maysammiar2007

Congressional Research Service . The Library of Congress

CRS Report for Congress

Forest Fire Protection

Natural Resource Economist and Senior Policy Analyst

Resources, Science, and Industry Division

Forest Fire Protection

The 2000 fire season was, by most standards, one of the worst in the past half

century. National attention began to focus on wildfires when a prescribed burn in

May escaped control and burned 235 homes in Los Alamos, NM. In September, the

Clinton Administration proposed an additional $1.6 billion for wildfire management,

and Congress enacted much of this proposal in the FY2001 Interior Appropriations

Act (P.L. 106-291). However, Congress still faces questions about forestry practices,

continued funding, and the federal role in wildland fire protection.

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 identified conditions — can reduce the fine fuels that

spread wildfires, but can escape and become catastrophic wildfires, especially if fuel

“ladders” and wind spread the fire into the forest canopy. Commercial timber

harvesting is often proposed, and can reduce heavy fuels and fuel ladders, but can

increase the threat unless 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 there is biomass, drought, and high

winds, catastrophic wildfires will occur. Only about 1% of wildfires become

conflagrations, but which fires will “blow up” into catastrophic wildfires is

unpredictable. It seems likely that management practices and policies, including fuel

treatments, affect the likelihood 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.


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