, 3; ‘-1 13 United States General Accounting Office Report to the Chairman, Envircmnent, GAO Energy, and Natural Resources Subcommittee, Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives December 1990 FEDERAL FIRE MANAGEMENT Limited Progress in Restarting the Prescribed Fire Program GAO United States General Accounting Office Washington, D.C. 20548 Resources, Community, and Economic Development Division B-239642 December 6, 1990 The Honorable Mike Synar Chairman, Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Subcommittee Committee on Government Operations House of Representatives Dear Mr. Chairman: Because of the severtty of fires in 1988 on federal wildlands, you asked us to evaluate the federal government’s fire management program. During that season, severe wildland fires burned many parts of the western LJnited States. The most publicized of these fires occurred in and around Yellowstonc Sational Park, where fires started by lightning early in the fire season were allowed to burn, under a policy permitting “prescribed natural fires.” When several of the fires later became wild- fires. burning out of control, a public controversy ensued. This prompted the government to suspend the prescribed fire program and the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to establish the Fire Man- agement Policy Review Team to study federal policies on fire manage- ment in national parks and wildernesses. The Review Team made 16 recommendations that, were adopted by the Secretaries on .June 1, 1989, and formed the basis for a revamped prescribed fire program. This report provides our findings on the benefits of allowing some fires to burn in controlled situations, progress and constraints in imple- menting a revamped prescribed fire program, and the need to monitor the program’s implementation. The report builds on our May 24, 1990, testimony and video report before your subcommittee, which described the results of our work as of that date.’ The Review Team reaffirmed that fire is beneficial and even necessary Results in Brief to wildlands. The Rcvicw Team’s report stated that where fire has been a historic component of the environment it is essential to continue that influence, and that attempts to exchlde fire from such lands could result in unnatural ecologic,al c,hanges and increased risks created by accumu- lation of fuels on thcx forest floor. ‘SW Federal Fm Managen~mr F:vnluation of Changes Made After Yrllowstone (GAO/T-KCED-90-84 and GAO ‘KCED-HO-01 IT 1 Pagr 1 GAO /RCED-Yl-42 Prescribed Fire Progra,,, habitat, reducing the hazardous buildup of fuels: establishing fuel breaks in parks and wildernesses, and restoring and maintaining natural processes in these wildland ecosystems. Some fires started by lightning (prescribed natural fires) or set by fire specialists (management-ignited prescribed fires) were allowed to burn providing (1) their purpose was to meet resource management objectives, (2) they did not threaten human life or property, (3) they remained within prescribed boundaries, and (4) resources were available to control them. Before 1988: about :I,500 prescribed fires were allowed to burn in parks and wildernesses. Since the fires were usually small, they aroused no controversy or concc’rn. This situation changed in 1988, when a number of prescribed natural fires in Yellowstone National Park burned out of control, resulting in a controversy over what the media termed the gov- ernment’s “let burn” policy. IJltimately, the fires in Yellowstone (including some prc,scribed natural fires that went out of control and, consequently, were declared wildfires) burned about 700,000 acres of the park and cost the government more than $100 million in firefighting expenses. Because of the controversy over the Yellowstone fires, the government suspended t,he prescribed natural fire program. On September 28, 1988. the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture appointed a Fire Management Policy Review Team to identify problems in the program.:’ The Review Team assessed fire management policies, reviewed individual fire management plans, held public hearings, and reported its findings and recommendations to the Secretaries of the Inte- rior and Agriculture in a final report on May 5, 1989. (App. I shows the stat,us of the Rcvicw Team’s recommendations, as of August 31, 1990.) The Review Team’s report endorsed the practice of allowing fire to play The Benefits of Fire its natural role in wildland ecosystems. The report stated that in parks Have Been Reaffirmed and wildernesses \vhcrcn fire has been a historic component of the envi- ronment, the contimlation of its influence is critical. The report also stated that attempts to exclude fire from these lands could lead to major unnatural changes in vcbgetation and wildlife and contribute to uncon- trollable wildfires as the result of an accumulation of fuels. Wildfire control in \‘osemitc National Park, California, in 1990 illus- trates how the historical use of prescribed fires can reduce the intensity Page 3 GAO/RCED91-42 F’rescribed Fire Program R-239642 have their plans approved in 1992 or later. Park Service officials esti- mated that 11 additional parks would have approved plans by 1992 and that the plans for the other 12 parks would be completed in 1992 or later. However, since neither agency has firmly committed to these dates, additional delays could occur. At the regional level, eight interagency preparedness plans were to be developed, but, as of August 1990, only two had been approved. The status of these plans is particularly important to the Park Service, which requires that the interagency preparedness plan be approved before national parks within the region, including those with approved individual fire management plans, can restart their prescribed fire pro- grams. Forest Service guidance does not include such a requirement. A national interagency preparedness plan (contained in the 1990 National Interagency Mobilization Guided ) was approved in April 1990. Among other things, the plan describes the conditions under which the use of prescribed fires must be reduced or curtailed. Specifically, the plan defines five levels of preparedness based on the severity of fire conditions, the extent of fire activity, and the availability of resources. However, some regional preparedness plans describe only three or four preparedness levels. With different levels meaning different things to different people, confusion about the severity of fire conditions could prevail when the risk of wildfires is greatest. To be effective, implementation of approved fire management plans Resource Limitations requires both adequate resources and commitment. However, the imple- and Resistance Could mentation of prescribed fire programs at certain parks and wildernesses Constrain Program could be constrained by resource limitations and/or resistance to the program by fire managers and wilderness managers. Implementation Because wildfires can threaten human life and property, they must be given priority over prescribed fires for available resources. Prescribed fires can be allowed to burn only if sufficient firefighters and equipment remain to both manage the fires and keep them under control. Over the last 7 years, the Forest Service’s fire protection program has been funded at an average of about, 84 percent of the amount the Forest Ser- vice calculated to be the program’s maximum efficient level. In addition, over the last 10 years, the total number of firefighters has declined sub- stantially. For exampk. from 1978 to 1988 the number of seasonal Page 5 GAO/RCED91-42 Prescribed Fire Program B-239642 ensure that it will remain so during the ensuing 24 hours, given reason- ably foreseeable weather conditions and fire behavior. If this certifica- tion cannot be made. the fire is to be declared a wildfire and suppressed. While this new requircmcnt sounds reassuring, a prescribed fire might not be suppressed after it, was declared a wildfire if firefighting crews and equipment were committed to higher-priority fires. The high risks and potential benefits of prescribed fire programs make it Monitoring essential that they be closely monitored. During hearings before your Implementation of subcommittee on May 24, 1990, we discussed the need for federal agen- Prescribed Fire ties to monitor the implementation of the prescribed fire program. Spe- cifically. we discussed the need for a monitoring program to address the Programs Is Essential number of opportunities that arise during the fire season for prescribed fires, the number of fires that, are allowed to burn as prescribed fires, the number that must bc suppressed, and the factors that require the fires to be suppressed (such as weather, funding, and firefighter availa- bility). We stated that such information would be useful to the Park Ser- vice, the Forest Scrvicc. and the Congress in determining the resources needed for a prescribed I’irc program that is both safe and effective. In a June 15, 1990. memorandum to its field offices, Forest Service headquarters acknowledged the need to monitor. on an interagency basis, the implementation of the prcscribcd fire program as outlined above. However, as of August 1990, the Forest Service had not imple- mented a monitoring program nor had the Park Service gathered this kind of information After operating for almost 20 years, the prescribed fire program became Conclusions the subject of intense controversy during the Yellowstone fires in 1988, resulting in a reexamination of the program by the multiagency Review Team. The Review Team reaffirmed the benefits of fire as a land man- agement tool in national parks and wildcrncsses. However, the Park Ser- vice and Forest Service have made limited progress in converting this conceptual reaffirmation into the detailed follow-on actions needed to allow on-the-grountl implcmcntation of the program. Few of the individual fire management plans needed to restart the pro- gram have been complct,ed: only two of eight regional interagency preparedness plans, which arc essential to the prescribed fire program, have been approved: and firm dates for completing these plans do not exist. Furthermore. some regional preparedness plans have a different Page 7 GAO/RCED-91-42 Prescribed Fire Program R-239642 forests across the United States, including Yellowstone National Park. We did not review the agencies’fire programs in the state of Alaska. We interviewed fire program officials in the Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. We also interviewed offi- cials from the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory, the Greater Yel- lowstone Coordinating Committee, the National Fire Protection Association, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and three regional interagency fire coordination centers. We visited fire sites in Yellowstone and other areas. We reviewed relevant agency fire reports and legislative documents. As requested, we did not obtain official agency comments on a draft of this report from the Department of the Interior or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, we discussed the factual information in this report with Park Service and Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., and Bureau of Land Management officials at the Boise Interagency Fire Center. These officials generally agreed that the information was accurate. We performed our work in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. IJnless you publicly announce its contents earlier, we plan no further distribution of the report until 30 days from the date of this letter. At that time, we will send copies to the Secretaries of the Interior and Agri- culture and other interested parties and make copies available to others upon request. This report was prepared under the direction of James Duffus III, Director, Natural Resources Management Issues, who may be reached at (202) 2757756 if you or your staff have any questions. Other major contributors are listed in appendix IV. Sincerely yours, Assistant Comptroller General Page 9 GAO/RCED91-42 Prescribed Fire Program Page 11 GAO/RCED-9142 Prescribed Fire Program Appendix II SeasonalRegular Fire Personnelin the Forest Service, 1978 to 1988 Calendar year Number of personnela 1978 8 444 1979 6,606 1980 6.245 1981 6.414 1982 4.980 1983 5,155 1984 4,636 1985 5,158 1986 4,600 1987 5,112 1988 A RX4 Vote The Forest Service prorIdes 60 percent of the federal flreflghtmg reso”ices “Includes regular fire control personnel-crews. flreflghters. patrols, lookouts, etc Does not Include emergency f!reflghters and others iNho engage I” fire control work Source Personnel Employed :I” Vnldfire Presuppress~on and Suppression Actlv~t~es, U S Forest Service Page 13 GAO/RCED91-42 Prescribed Fire Prognm Appendix IV Major Contributors to This Report <JamesHunt, Assistant Director Resources, Charles Barchok, Assignment Manager Community, and Nancy Boardman, Staff Evaluator *June Foster, Staff Evaluator Economic Sharon Butler, Reports Analyst Development Division, Washington, D.C. Robin Reid, Evaluator-in-Charge Seattle Regional Office Brent Hutchison, Staff Evaluator (140725) Page 15 GAO/RCED-91.42 Prescribed Fire Program ,I.,_ ..,,.. ..” ,..,,_, ,,“,, ..I _ ,,., ..,. “, I, __, ,_-..., ,,, ., ,, ,,_, ..,,,.., . .,.- ..--. - . ., .., _ - - . v-m The firs t five copies of each GAO report are free. Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should he sent to the following address, accom- panied by a check or money order made out to the Superintendent of Documents, when necessary. Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a s ingle address are discounted 25 percent. U.S. General Accounting O ffice P.O . Box 0018 Gaithersburg, MD 20877 Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 275-6241. i Appendix III Comparison of Estimated Funds Needed With Funds Allocated for Park Service and Forest Service Prescribed Fire Programs, Fiscal Year 1990 Thousands of dollars Percentage of Funds Funds needed funds Agency needed allocated Shortfall allocated Park Service (all regions, excluding Alaska) $3,500 $2,400 $1.100 69 Forest Serme (all regions, excludmg Alaska) $34,700 $400 $34,300 1 Source Park Sewce and Forest Service regional lnformaton Page 14 GAO/RCED-9142 Prescribed Fire Program Appendix I Status of Forest Service and Park Service Implementation of Review Team Recommendations ~ -Status as of August 31,199O Recommendation U.S. Forest Service National Park Service 1 Reaffirm strengthen and clarify fire Completed Dlrectlve issued to Ilne officers Same as for Forest Service management policies that reaffirmed, strengthened, and clarlfled agency’s policies for prescribed fire 2 Reaffirm that fires are either prescribed or Completed Dlrectlve issued to line officers Same as for Forest Serv& wild 3 Review fire management plans for In process Regions directed to review fire In process Park Service has conducted an compliance with revised standards management plans initial review of all 26 fire management plans 4 Include speclflc crlterla to strengthen fire In process Eight of 75 v,lldernesses have In process Three of 26 parks have completed management plans completed this requirement this requirement 5 Cooperatively develop a natlonal and In process Natlonal plan approved in April Same as for Forest Service reglonal interagency contingency 1990 Two of 8 regIonal plans approved as (preparedness) plans of August 1990 6 Require dally certlflcatlon that prescribed Completed Added to agency’s pollcles Same as for Forest Service fire IS and WIII remain under control given reasonably foreseeable weather condltlons and fire behavior 7 Reevaluate management~lgnlted fires and In process A dlrectlve to accomplish this In process A dlrectlve to accomplish this other methods for reducing hazardous fuels task was Issued by the Deputy Chief. State task was Issued by the Acting Dlrector of the and Private Forestry Park Service 8 Establish properly staffed offices for fire No addItIonal fire management staff needed, Completed In fiscal years 1989 and 1990, 95 program according to the Dlrector of Fire and addItIonal full-time personnel were hlred Avlatlon Management 9 Increase interagency emphasis on In process Being done by a formal Same as for Forest Service Improving fire management programs coordinating group (called the Natlonal WIldfIre Coordinating Group) representing the five land management agencies and the Natlonal Assoclatlon of State Foresters 10 Require that fire management plans In process Being accornpllshed as part of Same as for Forest Service comply with the Natlonal EnvIronmental fire management plan revisions Policy Act 11 Improve public InformatIon about fire In process Agency mcreasing public In process Agency developing a public programs awareness through fire plans awareness program 12 Review departmental fire fundlnq Completed Fiscal year 1990 budget has a Same as for Forest Service methods new separate account lor the fire program 13 Conduct addItIonal fire management In process through Forest Service s Forest In process on a lImIted scale II- various research Fire and Atmospheric Sciences Research regions, lnd!vldual parks, and unlversltles Program FundIng con:,traints are llmltlng the program 14 In Alaska, comply with revised prescribed Completed A directive was Issued to line Completed A directive was issued to line fire poi~cy, but retain hIstorIcal wIldfIre officers by the Chief of the Forest Service officers by the Acting DIrector of the Park suppresslon termmology Service 15 Review and correct any policy misuse Completed Interagency report (Allegations Same as for Forest Service Revhew Task Force~Flnal Report) was Issued March24, lYt(Y Note The recammendat~~Ins are contaIned I” a report entItledFinal Report on Fore Management P&y May 5 1990 Page 12 GAO/RCED91-42 Prescribed Fire Program Contents Letter Appendix I Status of Forest Service and Park Service Implementation of Review Team Recommendations Appendix II Seasonal Regular Fire Personnel in the Forest Service, 1978 to 1988 Appendix III Comparison of Estimated Funds Needed With Funds Allocated for Park Service and Forest Service Prescribed Fire Programs, Fiscal Year 1990 Appendix IV Major Contributors to This Report Page 10 GAO/RCED-91-42 Prescribed Fire Program B-239642 number of preparedness levels than the national plan. Resource limita- tions and resistance to the prescribed fire policy also constrain the pro- gram’s implementation While there have been and will always be inherent risks in using fire as a land management tool, there are also benefits to its use. Consequently, we believe that firm dates are needed for completing those actions pre- requisite to implementing an effective prescribed fire program and that monitoring is essential to determine the degree to which resource limita- tions and other factors are constraining the program from reaching its full potential. The information gained from such monitoring would be useful, over the course of the next several years, to the Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Congress in determining risks, benefits, and resources needed to have a prescribed fire program that is both safe and effective in achieving its goals. We recommend that the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture do Recommendations to the following: the Secretaries of the Interior and l Establish firm dates for completion of fire management plans for all units where prescribed fire programs are to be reinstituted as well as for Agriculture completion of regional interagency preparedness plans. . Direct that the regional interagency preparedness plans include the same number of preparedness levels as the national plan. l Develop an interagtxncy program to monitor and periodically report to the Congress ( 1) the number of opportunities for prescribed natural fires that occur dining a fire season; (2) the number of fires that are allowed to burn and t hc number that are immediately declared wildfires, and the factors (such as weather. funding, and firefighter availability) that required the fires to be declared wild; and (3) the number of pre- scribed natural fires that are later declared wildfires (including the rea- sons for this declaration). * Identify and implement additional actions, such as increased training, that would mitigate the concerns raised by those fire and wilderness managers who arc’relmtant to use fire as a land management tool, We conducted our work from April 1989 through August 1990 at Forest Service and Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.; the Boise Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho; Forest Service regional offices in Montana, IJtah, (‘alifornia, and Oregon; Park Service regional offices in Washington, Colorado, and California; and various national parks and Page 8 GAO/RCED-9142 Prescribed Fire Program B-239642 firefighters in the Forest Service, which provides about 60 percent of the federal government’s firefighting resources, dropped from 8,444 to 4,859, or by about 40 percent. (See app. II for details.) These limits on the firefighting resources available to manage or control prescribed fires can necessitate the suppression of otherwise beneficial prescribed fires. To illustrate. during the first X months of 1990, three of seven prescribed fires in one Forest Service region had to be declared wildfires because resources to manage them as prescribed fires were scarce. The funds available to specifically operate a prescribed fire program have fallen short of the amount managers say they need. In fiscal year 1990: the Park Service allocated $2.4 million for prescribed fires in the nation’s parks, or 69 percent of the funds needed, and the Forest Service allocated only about 6400,000 for prescribed fires in wildernesses, or 1 percent of the funds needed, according to the agencies’regional staffs. (See app. III.) About 86 percent of the shortfall concerned funds needed in California for management-ignited fires. Fire experts in both the Park Service and the Forest Service told us that management-ignited fires are often needed in parks and wildernesses to ret,urn such fire-dependent ecosystems to their natural state and to protect private holdings and wilderness borders, thereby reducing the risk associated with future prescribed natural fires. Without adequate funds, fire and wilderness managers committ ~1 to the ecological benefits of fire often lack the resources required to effectively operate prescribed fire programs. Not all fire and wilderness field office managers. however, are con- vinced of the benefits of prescribed fires. Consequently, some still sub- scribe to the philosophy of suppressing all fires. For example, a Forest Service report on prescribed fire management states that risks with pre- scribed fire can b(\ grtaat1and failure is often publicly ridiculed. It noted that rewards appear to be personal and “success” often not appreciated internally or by the general public, and that this can provide an incen- tive to avoid the prescribed natural fire program and declare all such fires as wildfires. These concerns are not unfounded. One of the Review Team’s recom- mendations for providing stricter controls over prescribed fire programs requires line officers to certify daily that each prescribed natural fire is within prescribed limits and that adequate resources are available to Page 6 GAO/RCED-91-42 Prescribed Fire Program B-239642 and severity of subsequent wildfires. According to the park’s fire man- agement officer, previous prescribed fires were an important factor in helping the Park Service to bring the 1990 fires under control in 1 week with minimal damage to the park’s ecosystem. He said that one of the wildfires was suppressed quickly because Yosemite’s prescribed fire program had reduced the accumulation of fuels and created mosaics of burned and unburned areas that significantly diminished the fire’s spread. size, and complexity. Conversely, because the Forest Service has not implemented prescribed fire programs in wildernesses in California, Oregon, Washington, and the Rocky Mountain areas of Colorado and Wyoming, the buildup of fuels has created some potentially dangerous situations, according to Forest Service officials. One Forest Service fire manager in California com- pared the situation to a time bomb that could explode into catastrophic fires. Similarly, a Rocky Mountain area Forest Service fire specialist told us that the buildup of fuels during decades of fire suppression practice has changed the character of the wildland ecosystem and is creating a dangerous threat to life and property in and around the wildernesses. Roth individuals predicted that future fires would be more intense, more dangerous, and more costly to suppress than they would be if the areas had active prescribed fire programs. The Review Team recommended that no prescribed natural fires be Planning Delays and allowed to burn in a park or wilderness until the unit’s fire management Inconsistencies Limit plan was approved. The Review Team also recommended that the fed- Program era1 fire management agencies cooperatively develop national as well as regional preparedness plans for curtailing prescribed fires within Implementation common boundaries when the danger is high and/or resources to sup- press fires are alrc,ady committed. However, both the Park Service and the Forest Service have been slow to develop the required plans. In late 1988, the Review Team established a goal of having improved individual park and wilderness fire management plans in effect by May 1989. However, as of August 1990, the Forest Service had approved fire management plans for only 8 of the 75 wildernesses, or 11 percent, where it plans prescribed fire programs. Similarly, the Park Service had approved fire management plans for only 3 of the 26 parks, or 12 per- cent. where it plans prescribed fire programs. On the basis of Forcsf Service estimates, another 36 wildernesses should have plans appro\,ed by 1992, and the remaining 31 wildernesses should Page 4 GAO/RCED-9142 Prescribed Fire Program Implementation of tht revamped prescribed fire program has been lim- ited because federal fire management agencies have been slow to approve fire management plans for individual parks and wildernesses, as well as regional interagency fire preparedness plans. These fire man- agement plans are a prerequisite for restarting the program. Moreover, some regional preparedness plans are inconsistent with the national interagency preparedness plan, which was approved in April 1990. Additionally. the prescribed fire program faces both resource limitations and resistance by some fire and wilderness managers. The funds avail- able to manage a prescribed fire program fall far short of the amount managers say they med. Also, some fire and wilderness field office managers still subscribe to the philosophy of suppressing all fires. Although the need to monitor resource requirements for fully imple- menting the revamped prescribed fire program has been recognized by fire managers, neither the Park Service nor the Forest Service has undertaken such an effort. For almost a century. the federal government’s general policy was to Background suppress all fires on federal lands.:! However, fire experts and research findings on the sub,jrct agree that fire is beneficial-even essential-to wildlands, and that, by suppressing all fires, the government had inter- fered with nature. Fire returns valuable nutrients to the soil, opens overgrown areas to sunlight, and allows new growth that provides food and habitat for variolrs animal species. Fire also removes dead wood and other debris-fuels that can kindle larger, more dangerous fires-from the forest floor. In addition. fire can create a mosaic of burned and unburned areas, resulting in natural breaks in the landscape that reduce the potential for c,atastrophic wildfires. From the 1950s to the early 197Os, National Park Service managers experimented with prescribed fire programs, which allow fire to play its natural role in parks and wildernesses so that its ecological benefits are realized. Hy 1972. both the National Park Service and the Forest Service had formally adopted the policy of using fire as a tool to achieve land management objcc,ti\ es. These objectives include improving wildlife rage 2 GAO/RCED91-42 Prescribed Fire Program
Federal Fire Management: Limited Progress in Restarting the Prescribed Fire Program
Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-12-05.
Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)