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The U.S. Forest Service's New Strategy to Confront the Wildfire Crisis

Jack B Marschke


  • Looks at the USFS and the USDA report aiming to protect people and communities and improve forest health and resilience.
  • Discusses how the new USFS and USDA strategy seeks to address wildfire concerns and create a paradigm shift by focusing on fuels and forest health treatments.
  • Analyzes how, with proper funding, cooperation, and input across government and nongovernment organizations, the strategy can help address the wildfire crisis.
The U.S. Forest Service's New Strategy to Confront the Wildfire Crisis
Per Breiehagen via Getty Images

On January 18, 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) published a report called Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests. The authors state that the strategy responds to a “call for decisive action” to protect people and communities and improve forest health and resilience, as wildfires have been growing in size, duration, and severity over the past 20 years. The goals of the strategy are to work with partners to dramatically increase fuels and forest health treatments and create a much-needed paradigm shift in land management across jurisdictional boundaries to reduce the risk of wildfires and restore fire-adapted landscapes by following the best available science.

The USFS and USDA report that in 2020, 2017, and 2015, more than 10 million acres burned nationwide, and currently nearly a quarter of the United States is at moderate to very high risk from wildfire. Half of the area that is high risk from wildfires is in the western United States due to natural conditions, such as the dry climate. However, in recent years, an increase in a combination of natural and human-caused factors including accumulating fuels, a warming climate, and expanding development in the wildland-urban interface has resulted in a wildfire crisis.

The strategy reports that the recent increases in summer temperatures has caused an increase in fuel abundance, which comes from moisture being sucked out of live green trees, shrubs, dormant grasses, dead shrubs, dead standing trees, and fallen trees and branches. Climate change also drives the wildfire crisis by making the fuels problem worse: climate change has caused a reduction in snow and rainfall, along with an increase in frequency and scale of high winds and hot dry weather. This has reduced the ability of trees and other vegetation to take up moisture and has resulted in extreme flammability of forest fuels.

The dangers caused by fuel abundance and the warming climate has also increased due to the growing development of homes and communities in fire-prone areas. These areas are referred to in the strategy as the Wildlife-Urban Interface (WUI). USFS and USDA report that currently one in three homes in the United States are located in the WUI and 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfire. The five-year average annual number of structures destroyed by wildfires rose from 2,783 in 2014 to 12,255 in 2020.

The strategy states that USFS averaged more than $1.9 billion per year between 2016 and 2020 in fire suppression costs, which has raised the issue of the efficiency and efficacy of the USFS’s use of fire suppression over the past decade. In his 2015 article, Brad Plumer describes the problem as being caused by suppression of the vast majority of wildfires that causes forests to build up thickly with plant growth, so that when a large fire gets out of control it has more fuel to burn and becomes far more destructive. In another 2015 paper, Malcolm North et al. explain that the issue is further described as wildfire response prioritizing suppression because fires are easier and cheaper to contain when they are small: in the United States, 98 percent of wildfires are suppressed before reaching 120 hectares in size, but the 2 percent that are not contained are responsible for 97 percent of fire-fighting costs and total area burned.

The authors describe that the budget incentives at play in the USFS are part of problem. The Forest Service gets dedicated annual appropriations from Congress to suppress wildfires, and this budget gets supplemented by emergency funding, but programs to thin out forests or set smaller prescribed fires are part of a more limited prevention fund and this money often gets diverted during severe wildfires to pay for firefighting. This creates a vicious cycle where forest managers have limited resources for fire prevention, which in turn allows massive wildfires to rage, which takes funds from fire prevention. A 2021 paper by Sven Wunder et al. update this argument and describes how improved fire resilience implies reduced fire risk, material and ecological damage, and lower suppression costs. The authors describe the crucial need to move from focusing exclusively on traditional zero-fire tolerance and suppression-only strategies, to fire-resilient landscape strategies. 

The new USFS and USDA strategy seeks to address these concerns and create a paradigm shift by focusing on fuels and forest health treatments. USFS describes a healthy forest as one that is resilient and “capable of self-renewal following drought, wildfire, beetle outbreaks, and other forest stresses and disturbances.” The strategy also states that a sign of an unhealthy forest is a buildup of fuels, such as what is currently occurring. Fuels and forest health treatments include using prescribed fires and forest thinning together to restore forest health and reduce wildfire risk. Forest thinning is often needed first to reduce the number of trees to something approaching the historical level a century ago. Then a low-intensity surface fire can follow.

The strategy states that in recent decades many fuels treatments have worked, slowing or stopping wildfires and saving homes by moderating fire behavior, buying firefighters time to evacuate people and protect homes, communities, and infrastructure. By moderating fire behavior, treatments can also ensure that a wildfire benefits a forest ecologically rather than damaging soils, habitats, watersheds, and other elements of forest health.

The USFS and USDA strategy plans on targeting specific firesheds to efficiently reduce fire danger. Firesheds are defined as “large forested landscapes and rangelands with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose homes, communities, and infrastructure to wildfire.” To reduce wildfire risk to communities, the strategy suggests that fire-adapted conditions should be restored on 35 to 45 percent of a fireshed through a range of fuels and forest management activities, including mechanical thinning and prescribed fire, followed by maintenance treatments at intervals of 10 to 15 years. Scientists have identified the communities and firesheds that are the source of highest community exposure to wildfire. Targeting these specific areas and applying strategic fuels management projects can reduce wildfire impacts not only on homes and communities, but also on air quality, municipal watersheds, wildlife habitat, and other values at risk. The strategy hopes to treat up to 20 million acres on National Forest System lands, 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal, and private lands, and develop a plan for long-term maintenance beyond the 10 years.

The strategy states that investments in fuels and forest health treatments will create an estimated 300,000 to 575,000 jobs, protect property values and small businesses, and stimulate local economies. This could bring down the Forest Service’s annual wildfire suppression costs and devote the funds to further restoring forest health and reducing wildfire risk in fire-adapted forests nationwide. However, this will rely on building workforce capacity in federal and state agencies as well as in local, tribal, nongovernmental, and other organizations to coordinate and accomplish the work, and building a large multijurisdictional coalition, including broad public and community support for the work at the scale necessary to make a difference.

The partners that the USDA and USFS plans to work with are the U.S. Department of Interior agencies, such as the Bureau of India Affairs; the Bureau of Land Management; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and the National Park Service; as well as states, tribes, local communities, private landowners, and other stakeholders. USFS is also planning to work with community-based partners such as Firewise, local fire safe councils, the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, and the Ready, Set, Go! Program to write community wildfire protection plans and to help homeowners prepare for wildfires by reducing fuels on their properties and creating defensible space around their homes.

The wildfire crisis in the West is a crisis of forest health and protecting forest health is key to the Forest Service mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” With proper funding, cooperation, and input across government and nongovernment organizations, this strategy will hopefully be able to address this crisis and create a paradigm shift that will better wildfire management for the future.