Wildland Fire Management:

Update on Federal Agency Efforts to Develop a Cohesive Strategy to Address Wildland Fire Threats

GAO-06-671R: Published: May 1, 2006. Publicly Released: May 1, 2006.

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The wildland fire problems facing our nation continue to grow. The number of acres burned by wildland fires annually from 2000 to 2005 was 70 percent greater than the average burned annually during the 1990s, while appropriations for the federal government's wildland fire management activities tripled from about $1 billion in fiscal year 1999 to nearly $3 billion in fiscal year 2005. Experts believe that catastrophic damage from wildland fire probably will continue to increase until an adequate long-term federal response, coordinated with others, is implemented and has had time to take effect. In the past 7 years, the federal government has made important progress in putting into place basic components of a framework for managing and responding to the nation's wildland fire problems. Many challenges lie ahead, however, if the federal agencies having primary responsibility for managing wildland fire issues--the Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS) within the Department of the Interior--are to address the problems in a timely and effective manner. Most notably, as we reported in January 2005, the agencies need to develop a cohesive strategy that identifies the available long-term options and related funding requirements for reducing excess vegetation that could fuel wildland fires and for responding to wildland fires when they occur. The agencies and the Congress need such a strategy in order to make informed decisions about an effective and affordable long-term approach for addressing problems that have been decades in the making and will take decades more to resolve. In our January 2005 report, recognizing that the development of a cohesive strategy that includes long-term options and funding was itself a long-term effort, we recommended that the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior provide the Congress with a joint tactical plan outlining the critical steps the agencies planned to take, together with related time frames, to complete such a cohesive strategy. In responding to that report, officials from Agriculture and Interior said they would produce an initial tactical plan by August 2005. Our prior work also identified several tasks, each with its own challenges, that the agencies must complete prior to implementing such a strategy, including finishing data systems needed to identify the extent, severity, and location of wildland fire threats to the nation's communities and ecosystems; updating local fire management plans to better specify the actions needed to effectively address these threats; and assessing the cost-effectiveness and affordability of options for reducing fuels. In this context, Congress asked us to provide information on (1) the progress that the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior have made over the past year in developing a tactical plan outlining the steps and time frames needed to complete a cohesive strategy for addressing wildland fire threats, as we recommended; and (2) the agencies' efforts to address the challenges GAO believes they are likely to face as they develop this cohesive strategy.

The agencies have not prepared a tactical plan outlining the critical steps and associated time frames for completing a cohesive wildland fire management strategy, as we recommended. And while the agencies completed a February 2006 interagency document entitled "Protecting People and Natural Resources: A Cohesive Fuels Treatment Strategy," this document does not identify long-term options and related funding needed for reducing fuels and responding to wildland fires when they occur, as we called for. Agency officials initially told us that they would not be able to produce such a strategy because the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) does not allow them to publish long-term cost estimates--thus rendering a tactical plan unnecessary. In responding to a draft of this report, the agencies commented that OMB does not believe that the agencies will be able to produce credible long-term funding estimates until two key data systems to help identify wildland fire threats and allocate fire management resources are more fully operational. OMB officials stated that they will allow the agencies to publish such estimates, but only when the agencies have sufficiently reliable data on which to base them. The agencies have made progress on the three primary tasks we identified as important to developing a wildland fire management strategy, although challenges remain. LANDFIRE, a geospatial data and modeling system, will assist the agencies in identifying the extent, severity, and location of wildland fire threats to the nation's communities and ecosystems. LANDFIRE data are nearly complete for most of the western United States, with data for the remainder of the country scheduled to be completed in 2009. The agencies will need to ensure that LANDFIRE data are kept current in order to reflect landscape-altering events such as large fires and hurricanes. About 95 percent of the agencies' individual land management units have completed fire management plans in accordance with agency requirements promulgated in 2001. However, the agencies do not require regular plan updates to ensure that new data (from LANDFIRE, for example) are incorporated into the plans. The Fire Program Analysis (FPA) system is a computer-based model designed to assist the agencies in cost-effectively allocating the resources necessary to address wildland fires. The first of FPA's two phases is nearly complete, with the second phase expected to be completed in 2008. However, gaps in the data collected for FPA may reduce its usefulness in allocating resources. Given the importance of a cohesive strategy for wildland fire management that includes long-term options and associated funding requirements, and the need to understand how and when the agencies will produce such a strategy, the Congress may want to consider requiring the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to develop a tactical plan outlining the key steps and time frames required to complete this cohesive strategy. Further, if the Congress believes it will need information on options and related funding before 2009--the scheduled completion date for LANDFIRE, which the agencies say they will need in order to produce credible funding estimates--it may wish to look to an independent source to provide interim information, perhaps by requiring the secretaries to contract with a third party to do so.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Given the importance of a cohesive strategy for wildland fire management that identifies long-term options and needed funding, as well as the need to understand how and when the agencies will develop such a strategy, the Congress may wish to consider requiring that the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior develop a tactical plan that lays out the specific steps and time frames needed to complete a cohesive strategy.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Title V of PL 111-88 (the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010) directs the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to develop a cohesive wildland fire management strategy consistent with the recommendations described in GAO reports. Thus, while the Congress did not direct the agencies to prepare the tactical plan we suggested, we believe its requirement that the agencies prepare the cohesive strategy we called for meets the overall intent of our recommendation. We therefore consider this recommendation closed.

    Matter: In the interim, while the agencies are developing a tactical plan and cohesive strategy, the Congress will continue to lack information regarding long-term options and needed funding for responding to wildland fire problems. If the Congress believes such information is necessary to make informed decisions in the near term, it may wish to consider seeking an independent source to provide interim information until the agencies are able to complete the cohesive strategy we previously recommended. This could be accomplished by, among other approaches, requiring the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to contract with a third party. Regardless of the approach chosen, given both the complexity and the urgency of the wildland fire issue, the Congress may wish to specify certain time frames and deliverables--including long-term options and needed funding based upon the best available information--in order to ensure that it is provided with timely and comprehensive information.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Title V of PL 111-88 (the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010) directs the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to develop a cohesive wildland fire management strategy consistent with the recommendations described in GAO reports. Thus, while the Congress did not seek an independent source to provide interim information, as we suggested, we believe its requirement that the agencies prepare the cohesive strategy we called for meets the overall intent of our recommendation. Additionally, the Act's requirement that the cohesive strategy be completed within 1 year of enactment, and that it contain certain specific elements of information, further meets our intent that the Congress specify timeframes and deliverables when requesting this information. We therefore consider this recommendation closed.

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