oversight

Federal Wildfire Activities: Current Strategy and Issues Needing Attention

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-08-13.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                  United States General Accounting Office

GAO               Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee
                  on Forests and Forest Health,
                  Committee on Resources, House of
                  Representatives

August 1999
                  FEDERAL WILDFIRE
                  ACTIVITIES
                  Current Strategy and
                  Issues Needing
                  Attention




GAO/RCED-99-233
                   United States
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20548

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division

                   B-283039

                   August 13, 1999

                   The Honorable Helen Chenoweth
                   Chairman, Subcommittee on Forests
                     and Forest Health
                   Committee on Resources
                   House of Representatives

                   Dear Madam Chairman:

                   Each year, wildfires on federal lands consume millions of acres of forests,
                   grasslands, and desert areas. Wildfires also threaten human lives and
                   property on state and private lands adjacent to federal lands. In 1998, more
                   than 81,000 fires consumed over 2.3 million acres of land. To manage fires
                   on federal lands, the Forest Service, within the Department of Agriculture,
                   and the Bureau of Land Management, within the Department of the
                   Interior, spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on preparing for
                   and controlling wildfires. These agencies rely, in part, on the National
                   Interagency Fire Center to carry out their fire management
                   responsibilities.

                   Concerned about the rising costs of preparing for and controlling
                   wildfires, you asked us to provide information on how the Forest Service
                   and the Bureau of Land Management manage their wildfire programs.
                   Specifically, this report provides information on (1) the process the Forest
                   Service and the Bureau of Land Management use to determine the amount
                   of funds needed to prepare for fighting fires; (2) the roles and
                   responsibilities of the National Interagency Fire Center in mobilizing
                   firefighting resources; and (3) the types of agreements reached among
                   federal, state, and local firefighting organizations. We also looked at
                   several issues that could affect the agencies’ ability to manage their
                   firefighting programs in the future.


                   The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management use the same
Results in Brief   process to develop their wildfire preparedness budgets. This includes the
                   use of a model that determines, on the basis of historical data such as fire
                   activity, weather, and suppression costs, the most efficient funding level
                   for a firefighting organization. The most efficient funding level is based on
                   a calculation that minimizes fire suppression costs and the loss of natural
                   resources on the lands. For fiscal years 1996 through 1999, the agencies




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             received about 85 percent of the wildfire preparedness funds they
             estimated they would need.

             While the National Interagency Fire Center does not play a role in
             determining where firefighting resources should be located before a fire
             season begins, it is the nation’s logistical support center for controlling
             and extinguishing wildfires. As such, it coordinates the mobilization of
             firefighting supplies, equipment, and personnel at the federal, regional, and
             local levels. As local and regional firefighting resources are depleted
             during a fire season, regional geographic coordination centers located
             throughout the United States obtain additional firefighting personnel and
             equipment through the National Interagency Coordination Center at the
             Fire Center.

             To provide mutual support in suppressing wildfires, the Forest Service and
             the Bureau of Land Management have entered into numerous agreements
             and other types of cooperative efforts with other federal, state, and local
             firefighting organizations. While no single type of agreement appears to be
             better than another, agency officials agreed that without these agreements
             and other types of cooperative efforts, it would be virtually impossible for
             any firefighting organization, including the Forest Service and the Bureau
             of Land Management, to manage its firefighting program.

             Several issues could affect the agencies’ ability to manage their firefighting
             programs in the future. First, the agencies’ firefighting workforce is
             shrinking because some workers are no longer willing to take on
             firefighting as a collateral duty while employees with expertise in fire
             management are nearing retirement age. Second, the Forest Service and
             Bureau of Land Management are implementing a new radio technology but
             are purchasing different radio systems that may not be able to
             communicate with each other or with the systems used by other
             firefighting organizations. Finally, the Forest Service is using an outdated
             test to measure the physical fitness of its firefighters. Although it plans to
             use the same up-to-date physical fitness test that the Bureau of Land
             Management uses, when it will do so is uncertain. We are making
             recommendations to address these issues.


             The Forest Service manages about 192 million acres of land in 155 national
Background   forests and grasslands, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
             manages about 264 million acres of land. While the national forests are
             located nationwide, BLM lands are generally located in the 11 contiguous



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                      western states and Alaska. Much of this federal acreage is susceptible to
                      potentially catastrophic wildfires, particularly where the natural
                      vegetation has been altered by past uses of the land and a century of fire
                      suppression. The Forest Service estimates that 39 million acres on national
                      forests in the western states are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire.

                      Planning for and suppressing fires involves determining how much funding
                      is needed to initiate prompt and effective actions to control fires. Wildfire
                      preparedness funds are used to place firefighting resources, before each
                      fire season begins, in locations where they can most effectively respond to
                      fires that may occur. Wildfire preparedness activities are actions, including
                      planning and purchasing, that are taken before the onset of a fire season.
                      Fire suppression activities include actions taken to control and extinguish
                      wildfires, including those involving the use of firefighting personnel and
                      equipment.

                      The federal land management agencies maintain and operate the National
                      Interagency Fire Center at Boise, Idaho.1 The Center provides firefighting
                      support by mobilizing and coordinating the movement of firefighting
                      resources for both wildfires and prescribed fires when local capabilities
                      are depleted and when local agencies request assistance.


                      The Forest Service and BLM use the same analytical process to determine
Location of           the level of wildfire preparedness funds they need before the start of a
Firefighting          wildfire season. Appropriations for wildfire preparedness have generally
Resources Depends     been lower than the amounts determined to be needed by the budget
                      planning process for each agency—by about 15 percent for fiscal years
on Budgets Received   1996 through 1999. Even though the Forest Service and BLM have received
                      less wildfire preparedness funding than needed according to their budget
                      planning processes, the agencies’ initial efforts to control fires have been
                      over 90 percent successful.2




                      1
                       The agencies that occupy the Fire Center include BLM, the Forest Service, the National Park Service,
                      the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Weather Service, the Office of
                      Aircraft Services, and BLM’s national law enforcement office.
                      2
                       A measure of the effectiveness of a firefighting program is whether the initial efforts to control a fire
                      succeed in putting it out. Generally, if a fire is not controlled within the first 24 hours, more extensive
                      firefighting efforts, in terms of personnel and equipment, may be needed.



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Forest Service and BLM    The Forest Service and BLM use the National Fire Management Analysis
Use the Same Process to   System, which includes a computer model, to develop their wildfire
Budget for Wildfire       preparedness budget requests.3 The model is designed to determine, on the
                          basis of historical data such as fire activity, weather, and suppression
Preparedness              costs, the most efficient funding level for a firefighting organization. The
                          most efficient funding level is based on a calculation that will minimize fire
                          suppression costs and the loss of natural resources on the lands.

                          Before determining the most efficient funding level, fire personnel who are
                          preparing the analyses calibrate the computer model to ensure that once
                          the data are entered and run in the model, the results will replicate actual
                          fire history within 5 percent. According to Forest Service and BLM officials
                          we spoke with, calibrating the model is a critical step in the National Fire
                          Management Analysis System process because it ensures that the data
                          going into the model are accurate and reliable.

                          To ensure the integrity of the analysis process, Forest Service regional and
                          BLM  national officials certify the national forests’ and BLM field offices’
                          National Fire Management Analysis System analyses. In certifying the
                          analyses, Forest Service and BLM officials verify that consistent and
                          reliable data are used in the model and that the data are consistent across
                          forest and regional office boundaries. Forest Service and BLM officials we
                          spoke with stated that the certification process is useful for ensuring that
                          the National Fire Management Analysis System process is being
                          implemented properly and that all units are on a level playing field through
                          having their data and process independently reviewed.

                          After determining the most efficient funding level, the national forests and
                          BLM  field offices develop operational plans to show how they plan to
                          allocate the amounts determined to be needed by the budget planning
                          process to such firefighting resources as personnel, supplies, and
                          equipment. Then, when the national forests and BLM field offices receive
                          their annual funding for wildfire preparedness, they revise their
                          operational plans for the year to reflect the funds actually received. With
                          these funds, the national forests and BLM field offices decide what
                          firefighting resources will be positioned before the start of the fire season
                          and where these resources will be located. From year to year, the physical
                          location of firefighting resources generally does not change. What does
                          change with the available funding are the numbers and types of firefighting


                          3
                           While we did not evaluate the computer model and how it works, the Forest Service has used it since
                          1980 and BLM since 1986. Agency officials believe that the process has resulted in a consistent
                          procedure for evaluating the probable effectiveness and efficiency of fire programs.



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                           personnel and equipment that are positioned at these locations and the
                           length of time they are stationed there.

                           Appendix I contains more detailed information on the National Fire
                           Management Analysis System and the wildfire preparedness budget
                           process.


Funding for Wildfire       Neither the Forest Service nor BLM received as much funding for wildfire
Preparedness Falls Short   preparedness activities as determined to be needed by the budget planning
of Identified Needs        process for fiscal years 1996 through 1999. As shown in figure 1, the
                           agencies consistently received, on average, about 15 percent less than the
                           amount of funds determined to be needed by the budget planning process
                           during these 4 fiscal years. The figure also shows that the differences
                           between the amounts determined to be needed by the budget planning
                           process and the amounts received by both agencies have generally
                           increased during the 4 fiscal years.




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Figure 1: Wildfire Preparedness Funds Determined to be Needed by the Budget Planning Process and Received by the
Forest Service and BLM, Fiscal Years 1996 Through 1999

450   Dollars in millions                                       100   Dollars in millions

400

                                                                 80
350

300
                                                                 60
250

200
                                                                 40
150

100
                                                                 20

 50

  0                                                               0

      1996       1997       1998        1999                           1996        1997       1998        1999

               Budget planning amount                                            Budget planning amount
               Budget received                                                   Budget received




                                               Source: GAO’s analysis of data from the Forest Service and BLM.




                                               Once the national forests and BLM field offices receive their appropriations
                                               for wildfire preparedness, they take measures to ensure that the funds
                                               received are used most effectively in support of their firefighting
                                               responsibilities. The operational plans, which the national forests and BLM
                                               field offices prepared using the results of their National Fire Management
                                               Analysis System analyses, are reviewed to determine what firefighting
                                               resources can be funded. Because the level of funding received has been
                                               less than the level of funds determined to be needed by the budget
                                               planning process, the national forests and BLM field offices have taken
                                               measures to compensate for the reduced funding. For example, they have
                                               (1) removed fire engines from service, (2) not fully staffed fire engines,
                                               (3) reduced the time that fire engines were on-call from 7 days per week to
                                               5 days per week, (4) not hired seasonal firefighters and/or hired seasonal



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    firefighters for less than the entire fire season, and (5) placed employees
    on involuntary unpaid leave or temporarily transferred them to other work
    locations. According to Forest Service and BLM officials, these examples
    show that the ability of the national forests and BLM field offices to fight
    fires is diminished when they do not receive as much funding for wildfire
    preparedness as determined to be needed by the budget planning process.

    Neither Forest Service nor BLM officials we spoke with could provide
    examples of fires that have burned out of control because the funding for
    wildfire preparedness was insufficient. However, Forest Service and BLM
    officials identified examples of equipment and items that were not
    purchased because of limited funds. For example, the Forest Service and
    BLM each contract for one large airplane for the fire season to transport
    firefighters and equipment throughout the country as needed. In 1998, BLM
    had to discontinue its contract because of rising costs and the Forest
    Service may have to do the same in 2000. BLM officials also cited instances
    in which a lack of funds has delayed the replacement of fire engines at the
    end of their useful life or the purchase of new engines identified as
    needed.

    The Forest Service and BLM have an additional tool at their disposal to
    improve their initial efforts to control fires—severity funding. The agencies
    receive two types of appropriations for wildfire activities—preparedness
    funds and suppression funds. Preparedness funds are used for activities
    undertaken before the onset of wildfires. Suppression funds are used for
    actions taken to control and extinguish wildfires, including those involving
    the use of firefighting personnel and equipment. When the Forest Service
    and BLM approve severity requests, funds from the suppression
    appropriation are used in an emergency mode to supplement preparedness
    resources. Typical uses of severity funds include

•   temporarily increasing firefighter staffing,
•   prepositioning firefighting resources in areas of abnormally high fire
    danger, and/or
•   increasing the availability of aircraft.

    In fiscal year 1998, the Forest Service used about $11.4 million in severity
    funding, primarily to help put out the fires that occurred in Florida. For the
    same period, BLM used about $1.8 million in severity funding.




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                                The ability to use resources from federal, state, and local firefighting
National Interagency            agencies is crucial to the success of any firefighting program. The National
Fire Center Has                 Interagency Fire Center (Fire Center) is the nation’s primary logistical
Multiple                        support center for mobilizing firefighting resources. Although not involved
                                in positioning firefighting resources before the start of a fire season, the
Responsibilities                Fire Center does–depending on the extent to which local and regional
                                firefighting organizations suppress fires–take an active role in
                                coordinating the mobilization of firefighting resources from anywhere in
                                the country to help control or extinguish fires. As part of its support
                                function, the Fire Center establishes standard firefighting and training
                                standards and conducts both pre-and post-fire-season evaluations of the
                                types and numbers of firefighting resources that were available and
                                actually mobilized. Appendix II shows the organization of the National
                                Interagency Fire Center.


National Interagency Fire       The Fire Center is the national headquarters for managing BLM’s
Center Supports Multiple        firefighting program. In addition, managers from each of the other four
Operations                      federal land management agencies, including the Forest Service, and
                                representatives from state fire management organizations are represented
                                at the Fire Center. To make the firefighting task more efficient and
                                cost-effective, agency managers at the Fire Center work together to
                                coordinate and support the mobilization of their firefighting supplies,
                                equipment, and personnel.

                                The Fire Center, which is located on BLM land, is jointly funded and
                                operated by the federal agencies that occupy space at the Fire Center. The
                                federal agencies, for fiscal years 1996 through 1999, will have paid BLM
                                more than $1.3 million, with the Forest Service paying about $442,600, or
                                almost 34 percent, of this amount.

                                To help with fire suppression efforts, the Fire Center maintains two types
                                of caches, or warehouses, of firefighting radios, equipment, and supplies:

                            •   The National Incident Radio Support Cache is jointly operated by the
                                departments of the Interior and Agriculture. This is the only totally
                                compatible national radio cache of its kind in a single location. The cache
                                contains 7,000 hand-held radios, as well as a variety of other
                                communications equipment, such as telephones and microwave radio
                                stations.
                            •   The equipment and supply cache, which is 1 of the 11 national caches, is
                                the largest federal cache of firefighting equipment and supplies. Operated



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                          by BLM, the cache sends equipment and supplies to the other caches,
                          operated by both BLM and the Forest Service, throughout the nation.

                          In addition, several other functions are housed at the Fire Center that play
                          an important role in fire management. For example, the Remote Automatic
                          Weather Stations provide up-to-date weather data from about 775 weather
                          stations. The Automatic Lightning Detection System aids agencies in
                          pinpointing the location of lightning strikes and thus identifying sites
                          where new fires may occur. Through the Fire Center, agencies can request
                          infrared mapping of burning areas to aid in firefighting and aerial mapping
                          to aid in natural resource management activities.


Agencies Follow an        Fires are attacked using three levels of management responsibility—local,
Established Process for   regional, and national. Generally, efforts to control and extinguish a fire
Mobilizing Firefighting   are handled initially by the local agency responsible for protecting an area
                          from fire, whether that area is administered by a national forest, a BLM field
Resources                 office, or a state land management agency. Numerous federal, state, and
                          local firefighting resources, including engines, ground crews, and air
                          tankers carrying retardant, can be used to initially control and extinguish a
                          fire. Various local agencies may work together, sharing personnel and
                          equipment, to fight new fires as well as those that escape initial
                          suppression efforts. If a fire grows to the point where local firefighting
                          personnel and equipment are not sufficient to suppress the fire—usually
                          when 65 percent of all available firefighting resources have been
                          committed to ongoing fires—the local agency contacts its geographic area
                          coordination center. There are 11 such centers—9 of which are located
                          west of the Mississippi River—as shown in figure 2.




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Figure 2: Location of the 11 Geographic Area Coordination Centers




                                    Northwest
                                                           Northern Rockies
                                  Portland                 Missoula

           Western Great
           Basin
                                                Eastern
                        Redding                 Great Basin
                                                                                                Milwaukee

           California                 Reno                            Rocky Mountain
                                                   Salt                                                     Eastern
           North                                   Lake City
                                                                    Broomfield



           California
           South      Riverside                        Southwest

                                                               Albuquerque

                                                                                                 Southern
                                                                                                                Atlanta
                                    Fairbanks

                                  Alaska




                                                    Source: National Interagency Fire Center.




                                                    Each geographic area coordination center is responsible for locating
                                                    additional firefighters, equipment, and supplies within the geographic area
                                                    and dispatching the resources to the local fire protection agencies that
                                                    requested assistance. For example, in the Northwest Geographic Area
                                                    Coordination Center–consisting of the states of Oregon and
                                                    Washington—46 local firefighting resource centers are available to
                                                    dispatch firefighting resources to any of the other local resource centers in
                                                    the geographic area that request assistance. In addition, each geographic
                                                    area coordination center can contract with private suppliers for additional
                                                    firefighting resources if federally provided firefighting resources are not
                                                    available.




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                           During a busy fire season, wildfires may deplete the capacity of the local
                           and geographic area coordination center personnel to provide the
                           firefighting resources requested by the local firefighting agencies. When
                           this happens, the geographic area coordination center orders additional
                           resources through the National Interagency Coordination Center at the
                           Fire Center. The National Interagency Coordination Center locates the
                           closest available firefighting resources–no matter what agency they are
                           affiliated with or where they are located–and dispatches them to the local
                           agency requesting resources. Besides dispatching firefighting resources,
                           the National Interagency Coordination Center gathers, analyzes, and
                           reports information to all federal and state land management agencies
                           about specific wildfire incidents and the overall fire situation. (App. III
                           describes and illustrates the process for ordering wildland firefighting
                           supplies and resources.)

                           When the national fire situation becomes severe and the National
                           Interagency Coordination Center has trouble finding firefighting resources
                           available for mobilization, the Fire Center’s Multi-agency Coordination
                           Group is activated.4 The role of the this group is to identify—on the basis
                           of information provided by the National Interagency Coordination
                           Center—national or interagency issues related to the current fire situation.
                           In addition, when firefighting resources are scarce and there are
                           competing demands for the resources, the Multi-agency Coordination
                           Group sets priorities for the National Interagency Coordination Center’s
                           mobilization of firefighting resources.


National Wildfire          The National Wildfire Coordinating Group5 is responsible for ensuring that
Coordinating Group         consistent firefighting practices, standards, and training programs are
Establishes Firefighting   developed for all federal firefighting organizations. State and local
                           firefighting organizations follow their own firefighting practices,
Standards                  standards, and training programs, which have been accepted by both the
                           Forest Service and BLM. Before federal, state, and local firefighting
                           resources can be mobilized, they must comply with accepted firefighting
                           practices, standards, and training programs. Forest Service and BLM

                           4
                            The Multi-agency Coordination Group consists of the directors of the agencies housed at the Fire
                           Center. In addition, depending on the severity of the situation, a representative from the General
                           Services Administration, a military liaison, and a state forester will be added to the Multi-agency
                           Coordination Group.
                           5
                            The National Wildfire Coordinating Group was formed in Mar. 1976 as an umbrella organization to
                           facilitate the development of practices, standards, and training throughout the wildland fire
                           community. Representatives are drawn from the Forest Service, BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service,
                           the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Association of State Foresters,
                           and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s U.S. Fire Administration.



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                               officials told us that to respond efficiently, effectively, and safely to fires,
                               federal, state, and local firefighting resources must be usable
                               interchangeably. They said that without accepted firefighting practices,
                               standards, and training programs, attempts to use federal, state, and local
                               firefighters interchangeably would not only make it difficult to
                               successfully manage fires, but could also put firefighters at risk of being
                               injured or killed.


Efforts to Improve             The Forest Service and BLM conduct local, regional, and national
Mobilization of Firefighting   pre-fire-season readiness reviews to determine the preparedness levels of
Resources                      each national forest, including its ranger districts, and each BLM field
                               office. The readiness reviews evaluate such factors as the preparedness
                               levels of fire engines, dispatch centers, and fire crews. Readiness reviews
                               also determine whether firefighters have received the proper training and
                               have met physical fitness requirements.

                               The Forest Service and BLM also conduct post-fire-season reviews to
                               evaluate, among other things, how the firefighting resource mobilization
                               system provided by the Fire Center contributed to the agencies’ fire
                               suppression efforts and what improvements need to be made before the
                               next fire season. For example, at the conclusion of the 1998 fire season,
                               coordinators from the 11 geographic coordination centers and the
                               National Interagency Coordination Center reviewed the impact on the Fire
                               Center’s firefighting mobilization system once the southeastern states
                               activated their state compact6 firefighting mobilization system during the
                               1998 Florida wildfires.

                               On the basis of the results of their evaluation, the coordinators agreed that
                               the activation of the state compact firefighting mobilization system
                               resulted in the implementation of a second firefighting mobilization
                               system and the mobilization of duplicate firefighting resources. The
                               coordinators also agreed on a need to investigate the feasibility of
                               combining the state compact mobilization system with the Fire Center’s
                               wildfire mobilization system. Consequently, the coordinators are now
                               drafting an issue paper that outlines each of the state compacts, explains
                               how they can complement the Fire Center’s firefighting mobilization
                               system, and discusses how the Fire Center’s mobilization system can be
                               modified to incorporate the positive features of the state compact
                               firefighting mobilization system.

                               6
                                Before the Fire Center was established, states in the eastern portion of the nation entered into
                               “compacts” that allow for the movement of firefighting resources between states.



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                            To provide for mutual support in managing fires, the Forest Service and
Types of Coordination       BLM have entered into numerous and varied coordination agreements with
Agreements Vary but         other federal, state, and local firefighting organizations throughout the
Appear to be Working        nation. The coordination agreements start at the national level between
                            federal agencies and cascade down to state and local firefighting
Well                        organizations. The coordination agreements define the fire management
                            responsibilities of the signatories and provide that local firefighting
                            personnel and organizations will meet identified physical fitness and
                            equipment standards.

                            The Forest Service and BLM recognize that coordination agreements are
                            vital to implementing the objectives of their fire management programs
                            and ensuring that the duties and procedures of each federal, state, and
                            local firefighting organization are defined and understood. The Forest
                            Service and BLM were, at the time of our audit work, reviewing their
                            coordination agreements with the local firefighting organizations to ensure
                            that the agreements provided for the discussion of applicable fire
                            operations standards. The Forest Service and BLM were reviewing the local
                            coordination agreements after a wildfire in which two fatalities occurred.
                            Specifically, two firefighters from a rural fire district in Idaho were killed
                            in 1995 when a wildfire they were helping to extinguish on BLM lands
                            consumed their stalled fire engine. BLM did not have a coordination
                            agreement with the rural fire district. In a subsequent legal decision, BLM
                            was found to be partially—35 percent—responsible for the two deaths
                            because it had not fulfilled its responsibility to instruct the rural
                            firefighters about fire operations, such as the nature of the fire, fuel
                            conditions, and weather.

                            We found that each of the three geographic regions we visited during our
                            review had coordination agreements. However, each of the regions had
                            different types of agreements:

                        •   The Pacific Northwest has a Master Cooperative Fire Protection
                            Agreement between the five federal land management agencies and the
                            states of Washington and Oregon. While the agreement establishes
                            consistency in wildfire management policies and procedures, as well as
                            fiscal relationships and responsibilities, the Forest Service and BLM still
                            enter into separate cooperative agreements with local firefighting
                            organizations. For example, on the Central Oregon Fire Management
                            System, two national forests and one BLM field office entered into separate
                            agreements with 12 counties and 34 rural fire districts.




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                       •   In Arizona, the Forest Service, BLM, and the state have entered into the
                           Joint Powers Agreement. Under this agreement, Arizona enters into
                           separate agreements with each of the 200 rural fire districts in the state
                           and certifies that the rural fire districts comply with firefighting standards,
                           such as those for physical fitness and equipment maintenance. The Joint
                           Powers Agreement eliminates the need for the Forest Service and BLM to
                           enter into cooperative agreements with individual rural fire districts in
                           Arizona.
                       •   In the southeast, the Forest Service does not have either a master or an
                           umbrella cooperative agreement with the states.7 Each national forest
                           enters into cooperative agreements with state and local firefighting
                           organizations as needed. In addition, the states have entered into
                           “compacts” that provide for moving firefighters and equipment across
                           state lines when needed. For example, 10 southeastern states are party to
                           the Southeastern Interstate Forest Fire Protection Compact, which allows
                           for, among other things, mutual aid in fighting forest fires among the states
                           that are party to the compact, as well as with states that are party to other
                           regional compacts.

                           Our review of these different types of coordination agreements and
                           discussions with federal and state firefighting officials suggest that no one
                           single type of coordination agreement or coordination process is better
                           than another. Forest Service, BLM, and state officials told us that, except
                           for an occasional disagreement over the reimbursement of firefighting
                           costs, their coordination agreements and processes are working well and
                           they do not see a need for changes. The officials universally agreed that it
                           would be virtually impossible for them to manage their firefighting
                           programs without the coordination agreements.


                           We identified several issues that could affect the Forest Service’s and BLM’s
Several Issues Could       ability to manage their firefighting programs in the future. First, the federal
Affect the                 firefighting workforce is shrinking because some Forest Service and BLM
Management of the          employees no longer choose to become qualified to fight fires as a
                           collateral duty, as they did in the past. With fewer firefighters, not as many
Federal Wildfire           Forest Service and BLM fire crews will be available to fight fires. Second,
Fighting Program           the Forest Service and BLM are implementing new radio technology, but
                           each agency has taken a different approach to implementation. Forest
                           Service and BLM officials in the field are concerned that this could

                           7
                            Because BLM lands are generally located in the 11 contiguous western states, BLM does not play a
                           role in fire-related activities in the southeast. The Department of the Interior’s National Park Service
                           and Fish and Wildlife Service have lands in the southeast and interact with the Forest Service on
                           fire-related activities.



                           Page 14                                               GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
                            B-283039




                            compromise communications and firefighters’ safety. Third, the agencies
                            are currently using two different tests to determine whether firefighters
                            are physically fit to fight fires. While the Forest Service plans to begin
                            using the test that BLM uses, it has not determined when it will implement
                            the change.


Firefighting Workforce Is   The firefighting workforces of both the Forest Service and BLM are
Shrinking Because of        shrinking, leaving fewer firefighters to handle the workload. According to
Attrition and Competing     both Forest Service and BLM officials, the firefighter workforce is getting
                            smaller because many workers whose primary job responsibilities are not
Demands                     fire related are not interested in becoming qualified to fight fires as a
                            collateral duty. Also, according to both Forest Service and BLM officials,
                            the firefighting workforce is getting older and nearing retirement age. If
                            these firefighters are not replaced, the agencies may not have enough
                            qualified individuals to fill critical fire management positions. This
                            situation could have a direct impact on firefighters’ safety.

                            According to Forest Service and BLM officials, there are several reasons
                            why some employees no longer become qualified to fight fires as a
                            collateral duty. First, staff who do not fight fires as a primary duty—such
                            as resource specialists—are committed to carrying out their primary job
                            duties and do not want to spend time fighting fires. Second, many families
                            have dual careers, and the additional income they would earn from
                            fighting fires would not, in their view, offset the inconvenience and
                            expense involved in, for example, rearranging their schedules and
                            providing for additional child care. Third, family values have changed to
                            the extent that many employees today are unwilling to abandon family
                            commitments to fight fires. Finally, for many employees, the rate of
                            overtime pay while fighting fires is less than the regular base salary rate.

                            While not requiring staff to become qualified to fight fires, the Forest
                            Service does encourage all of its employees to do so. For example, in a
                            June 1998 memorandum, the Forest Service’s Deputy Chief for State and
                            Private Forestry said that all employees should be encouraged to become
                            active in the fire organization and should be offered training in firefighting
                            duties. While this memorandum does not require all Forest Service
                            employees to become qualified to fight fires, it does note that all
                            employees have roles and responsibilities during fire emergencies and that
                            firefighting is the most visible activity of the Forest Service. In a July 1998
                            memorandum, the Chief of the Forest Service reinforced the message that
                            all employees should become fire qualified. The Chief also stated that



                            Page 15                                 GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
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resource program targets are not a justifiable reason for keeping qualified
firefighters from fighting fires and that allowances must be made to meet
fire suppression requests.

Having fewer firefighters and other staff could be especially difficult for
national forests and BLM field offices that rely on agency personnel to fight
fires rather than hiring seasonal firefighters. For example, one Forest
Service region we visited relies entirely on its firefighters and other
fire-qualified staff to control fires; it does not hire seasonal firefighters.
Because of the decrease in firefighters and other staff, this region is now
contemplating hiring seasonal firefighters. Other locations told us that
they were using contract firefighting crews to make up for the shortfall in
firefighters on large fires. Using contract firefighting crews on large fires is
an option, but contractors must still be managed by agency personnel
because contractors cannot replace top-level Forest Service and BLM
managers on firefighting crews.

The firefighting workforce is also shrinking because many older
employees who are qualified to fight fires are unwilling to do so for several
reasons. Some older employees have difficulty keeping up with the
physical demands of firefighting, while other employees no longer derive
satisfaction from fighting fires. Additionally, the Fair Labor Standards Act
has created a pay equity issue for some older employees. Under this act,
when employees are assigned to a fire, they are classified as being in either
an exempt position (such as a supervisor) or a nonexempt position (such
as a truck driver). Under the act, personnel in nonexempt positions are
compensated for overtime work at 150 percent of their normal base pay.
But for personnel in exempt positions, compensation for overtime work is
capped at step 1 of the federal General Salary Level 10—about $16.50 per
hour. According to Forest Service and BLM officials, it is routine for
personnel with great responsibilities in exempt positions, such as incident
commanders, to be paid less than truck drivers. The disparity in overtime
compensation discourages the participation of more experienced
employees in firefighting activities.

Officials from the Forest Service and BLM told us that the aging federal
firefighting workforce is of increasing concern because fewer qualified
personnel are available from the two agencies, not only to function as
firefighters but also to fill critical fire management positions when
wildfires continue to burn for an extended period of time before being
controlled. According to agency officials, without a cadre of qualified
personnel with the expertise to fill fire management positions, the ability



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                          of the Forest Service and BLM to manage their firefighting programs could
                          be diminished.

                          Forest Service and BLM employees whose primary job responsibility is
                          firefighting are eligible to retire at the age of 50 and are required to retire
                          at the age of 55. Many employees in fire management positions are either
                          at or near retirement age. For example, the Forest Service has 53 “hot
                          shot” crews throughout the nation. Hot shot crews consist of 20 specially
                          trained firefighters and are used to attack fires when they first start and to
                          suppress large fires in the most critical and highest-risk areas. On average,
                          the superintendents of these hot shot crews are almost 43 years old, and
                          they range in age from 29 to 54 years. Similarly, the BLM employees
                          qualified to be commanders of either a Type I or Type II incident
                          management team are, on average, 53 and 51 years old, respectively. These
                          teams are dispatched, at the national level, to fires that have escaped
                          initial efforts to control them when local agencies need additional help.
                          The teams consist of 9 to 27 members, including the incident commander,
                          who is responsible for the day-to-day management of a fire, a fire behavior
                          specialist, and a comptroller. A Type I team differs from a Type II team in
                          that it has more experience in managing large fires. Given the average age
                          of the Forest Service’s hot shot superintendents and BLM’s incident
                          commanders, employees are either eligible to retire now or will be eligible
                          to retire in 7 years.

                          Developing a cadre of qualified fire management personnel could take
                          many years, since an individual must receive approximately 600 hours of
                          training to become a Type II incident commander and approximately 100
                          more hours, or 700 hours of training, to become a Type I incident
                          commander. To gain the training and experience required to function
                          successfully at the Type II level takes from 17 to 22 years and at the Type I
                          level from 20 to 25 years. We were told that, because qualified personnel
                          are lacking, Forest Service and BLM locations must request that the
                          geographic area coordination centers provide qualified personnel to
                          perform critical fire management functions sooner and more often than in
                          the past.


Lack of Standardized      By January 2005, all federal land management agencies are required by the
Radio Technologies Is a   National Telecommunications and Information Administration to change
Safety Issue              their radio systems from wideband to narrowband.8 The Department of the

                          8
                           These agencies primarily use very high frequency radio transmissions for wildland fire operations,
                          incident command operations, and aviation operations. Radio narrowbanding is the subdividing of
                          existing radio channels into smaller segments in order to create more radio frequencies.



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Interior decided that its agencies, including BLM, would purchase
narrowband digital radios because, according to BLM officials, narrowband
digital radios have capabilities over and above those of narrowband analog
radios. For example, the digital radios can receive and transmit data while
the analog radios cannot. The Forest Service, however, decided that it
would purchase narrowband analog radios while it studies the merits of
narrowband digital radios. The agency made this decision because
narrowband digital radios are about twice as expensive as narrowband
analog radios and narrowband digital technology is still being developed.

According to national forest and BLM field officials we spoke with,
changing from wideband to narrowband radios could compromise
firefighters’ safety in several ways. First, these officials said, narrowband
analog radios are not completely compatible with narrowband digital
radios, meaning that after the conversion, Forest Service and BLM
firefighters may find it difficult to communicate with each other. Second,
state and rural firefighters may still be using wideband radios. The officials
we spoke with believe that narrowband radios cannot communicate with
wideband radios, meaning that federal firefighters may not be able to
communicate with state and rural firefighters unless they use two
independent radio systems. According to the Forest Service and BLM field
officials we spoke with, if the agencies do not use standardized radios,
firefighters’ safety will be compromised. They said that the issue is critical
for state and local firefighters, who may not be able to convert their radio
systems to narrowband technology for several years because of the costs
involved.

Forest Service and BLM headquarters officials we spoke with disagreed that
narrowband analog and narrowband digital radios will not be compatible.
According to these officials, simply changing the frequency setting on
narrowband digital radios will make them compatible with narrowband
analog radios.

Forest Service headquarters officials told us that “Project-25”—a short
name for a series of standards supported by the telecommunications
industry and federal agencies with a public safety mission, such as the
Forest Service and BLM—is one of several digital modes of radio
operations that will work in narrowband and wideband radio frequencies.
According to the Forest Service officials, Project-25 equipment will ensure
that after the conversion to narrowband technology, all parties—federal,
state, and local—will be able to communicate with each other. However,
manufacturers are just beginning to finalize the development of Project-25



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                           B-283039




                           equipment, whose production is expected to start in the summer or fall of
                           1999. This equipment is expected to cost two to three times as much as
                           similar analog equipment. Also, the hardware needed to connect remotely
                           located base radio stations to other broadcast sites has not yet been
                           designed.

                           According to Forest Service and BLM officials, the National Interagency
                           Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, has purchased narrowband radios and plans to
                           test their use at fires this summer to verify the accuracy of the information
                           provided by the manufacturers on the radios’ capabilities. The results of
                           this testing will be made available to all wildland firefighting agencies.

                           Forest Service and BLM headquarters officials made several other points
                           about the radio issue. First, they said that state and local firefighters may
                           continue to use wideband radios for many years. As is currently the case,
                           state and local firefighting offices will need to ensure that communication
                           plans identify what radio frequencies will be used for fires managed by the
                           Forest Service and BLM. The plans should not only specify the frequencies
                           to be used but also indicate whether wideband or narrowband radios will
                           be used. Second, Forest Service and BLM officials stated that they have
                           been discussing how best to manage the shortage of qualified
                           telecommunications specialists because each agency must have qualified
                           personnel to design, develop, and maintain the increasingly complex radio
                           systems.

                           Forest Service and BLM field and headquarters officials differ in their
                           opinions about the compatibility of narrowband digital and narrowband
                           analog radios. They also differ as to whether narrowband radios can
                           communicate with the wideband radios most commonly used by state and
                           local firefighting organizations. If the radio systems cannot communicate
                           with one another, firefighters’ safety could be compromised. Forest
                           Service and BLM officials have begun discussing an agreement, to be
                           effective in 2003, under which both agencies would purchase only
                           narrowband digital radios. Such an agreement would resolve the issue of
                           compatibility between the Forest Service and BLM but still would not
                           address the ability of narrowband radios to communicate with the
                           wideband radios used by state and local firefighting organizations.


Similar Physical Fitness   Wildland firefighters require a high level of physical fitness to safely
Tests Need to be Used      perform physically demanding work in difficult conditions. All wildland
                           firefighters must meet the minimum fitness standards for the type of



                           Page 19                                GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
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firefighting duty assigned to them. Tests of the physical fitness standards
are designed to simulate the physical demands that a firefighter
encounters while fighting a fire and to determine whether the firefighter is
physically capable of handling these demands.

Currently, the Forest Service and BLM have the same physical standards
but use different methods for determining the physical fitness of their
firefighters. BLM requires that its firefighters pass the “work capacity
test.” This test is used to qualify individuals for three levels of wildland
firefighting duty—arduous, moderate, and light. The work capacity test
measures aerobic capacity, muscular strength, and muscular endurance.
Testing wildland firefighters for work capacity is important for personal
safety and health, coworkers’ safety, and efficient operations. For each of
the three levels of wildland firefighting duties, the testing is different. For
example, to qualify for arduous duty, each firefighter must walk a 3-mile
course in 45 minutes or less while carrying a 45-pound pack.

The Forest Service formerly used the work capacity test to measure
physical fitness but stopped doing so after an employee died while taking
the test in January 1999. Since that time, the Forest Service has used the
“step test” to determine the physical fitness of its firefighters. After a
5-minute step test, the firefighter’s pulse is measured and should not
exceed a specified rate based on the firefighter’s age. The step test is not
as demanding or representative as the work capacity test, and, according
to Forest Service officials, the results of the step test can be affected by
outside factors, such as the use of products containing caffeine or
nicotine.

The work capacity test more typically simulates the actual physical
demands placed on firefighters because it requires the firefighters to walk
specific distances within specific times while carrying varying amounts of
weight to simulate carrying firefighting tools. Before taking the work
capacity test, BLM employees must complete a physical screening
questionnaire designed to identify risk factors such as age, a history of
heart problems, and high blood pressure. Depending on their responses to
the questionnaire, employees may be required to take a physical exam,
including an electrocardiogram, before taking the work capacity test.
According to a BLM official, this screening for the work capacity test will
save lives. For example, the screening has already identified one firefighter
with a potentially significant medical problem.




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              A Board of Review is looking into the events surrounding the death of the
              Forest Service employee while taking the work capacity test and plans to
              issue its findings in the next few months. According to a Forest Service
              headquarters official, when the board issues its findings, it will specify
              what measures the Forest Service must take to reinstate the use of the
              work capacity test. This official stated that the measures would include
              the type of screening procedure the Forest Service must use before
              administering the work capacity test.


              Ensuring the success of future firefighting efforts will be difficult for the
Conclusions   Forest Service and BLM unless they take steps to rebuild their firefighting
              ranks. Employees, for various reasons, no longer consider firefighting a
              collateral duty, which has thinned the firefighting ranks. Regardless of the
              reasons for the thinning, actions are needed to ensure that a sufficient
              number of qualified staff will be available to fill fire management positions.
              The federal firefighting workforce is also getting older, leaving fewer
              qualified personnel available to control fires when they first start and to
              contain those that burn out of control for a long time. Efforts to rebuild
              the firefighting workforce need to begin immediately because it takes
              many years for staff to gain the experience necessary to function as
              high-level fire managers, such as incident commanders.

              Communications among firefighters and between dispatch centers and
              firefighters are critical to firefighters’ safety. As new radio systems are
              deployed, they must be capable of communicating with federal, state, and
              local firefighting organizations. The Forest Service and BLM maintain that
              through Project-25, communications in the future will not be a problem.
              However, Project-25 equipment will not go into production until the
              summer or fall of 1999; some equipment, such as the hardware needed for
              base radio stations, has not yet been developed; and Project-25 equipment
              is expensive. Given the cost and uncertainty of the Project-25 equipment
              and the concerns of the national forest and BLM field officials we spoke
              with, steps need to be taken to resolve the issues surrounding the
              conversion to new radio technologies so that firefighters do not lose the
              ability to communicate with one another.

              Forest Service and BLM officials agree that the work capacity test is the
              best testing method to ensure that firefighters are physically capable of
              handling the demands of firefighting. While the Forest Service plans to
              resume using the work capacity test, it is unclear when it will do so. To
              ensure that firefighters are physically fit, the Forest Service should issue



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                     B-283039




                     policy guidance on how it will implement the work capacity test as soon as
                     the Board of Review publishes its results. This policy guidance should
                     include a screening process similar to that used by BLM.


                     To ensure that firefighting resources are adequate to protect federal lands
Recommendations      and the public from the catastrophic effects of fires, we recommend that
                     the Chief of the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior work
                     together to develop a combined strategy to rebuild their firefighting
                     workforce. In developing this strategy, they should consider ways to
                     increase their firefighting resources, from using contract firefighting crews
                     to requiring that all employees become qualified, in some manner, to
                     contribute to fighting fires.

                     Given the uncertainties surrounding the conversion to narrowband radio
                     technology, we recommend that the Chief of the Forest Service and the
                     Secretary of the Interior develop a strategy for converting to narrowband
                     radio technology that ensures radio communications between firefighters
                     will not be affected by the conversion. This strategy should be
                     communicated to all firefighters. If Project-25 equipment will solve the
                     communication problems between narrowband radio technologies and
                     between narrowband and wideband radio technologies, we further
                     recommend that the Chief and the Secretary delay the purchase of
                     Project-25 equipment until the equipment has been fully developed and
                     tested.

                     To ensure that firefighters’ safety is not compromised by inadequate
                     physical fitness tests, we recommend that the Chief of the Forest Service
                     issue policy direction on how the work capacity test will be administered
                     as soon as he receives the results of the Board of Review’s investigation
                     into a firefighter’s death last January. In developing the agency’s policy on
                     how to administer the work capacity test, the Chief of the Forest Service
                     should consider using BLM’s screening process.


                     We provided the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management with
Agency Comments      a draft of this report for review and comment. The Forest Service
and Our Evaluation   commented that it generally concurred with the findings and
                     recommendations and provided us certain technical clarifications that we
                     incorporated in this report. The Bureau of Land Management had no
                     comments other than certain technical clarifications that we also
                     incorporated in this report.



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We are sending copies of this report to appropriate congressional
committees; the Honorable Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture; the
Honorable Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior; the Honorable Mike
Dombeck, Chief, Forest Service; the Honorable Tom Fry, Acting Director,
Bureau of Land Management; and the Honorable Jacob Lew, Director,
Office of Management and Budget. We will make copies available to others
upon request.

We conducted our work from January 1999 through July 1999 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
Appendix IV provides details on our scope and methodology.

If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please call me on
(206) 287-4810. Key contributors to this report were Robert Arthur, June
Foster, Linda Harmon, and John Kalmar, Jr.

Sincerely yours,




James K. Meissner
Associate Director, Energy,
  Resources, and Science Issues




Page 23                                GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
Contents



Letter                                                                                               1


Appendix I                                                                                          26
                        National Fire Management Analysis System Process                            26
National Fire           Wildfire Preparedness Budget Allocation Process                             28
Management Analysis
System and Wildfire
Preparedness Budget
Process
Appendix II                                                                                         30

Organization of the
Wildland Firefighting
Community
Appendix III                                                                                        32

Process for Ordering
Wildland Firefighting
Supplies and
Resources
Appendix IV                                                                                         33

Objectives, Scope,
and Methodology
Figures                 Figure 1: Wildfire Preparedness Funds Determined to be Needed                6
                          by the Budget Planning Process and Received by the Forest
                          Service and BLM, Fiscal Years 1996 through 1999
                        Figure 2: Location of the 11 Geographic Area Coordination                   10
                          Centers
                        Figure III.1: Flow of Firefighting Supplies and Resources                   32



                        Abbreviations

                        BLM       Bureau of Land Management
                        NFMAS     National Fire Management Analysis System


                        Page 24                             GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
Page 25   GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
Appendix I

National Fire Management Analysis System
and Wildfire Preparedness Budget Process

                      The National Fire Management Analysis System (NFMAS) was originally
                      developed in response to a 1978 congressional directive that the Forest
                      Service conduct an economic benefit-cost analysis of its fire program and
                      use that process to support future national fire budget requests. The
                      Forest Service implemented NFMAS in 1980, and the Bureau of Land
                      Management (BLM) adopted it in 1986 as its basis for fire planning.

                      NFMAS  includes a computerized model that uses scenarios of how fires
                      would initially be controlled and historical information—including data on
                      fire severity, weather, and firefighting costs—to identify the most efficient
                      level of funding for a firefighting organization. This level of funding is the
                      one at which the costs to control and extinguish fires and the loss of
                      natural resources are minimized. Wildfire preparedness budgets developed
                      by national forests and BLM field offices using NFMAS are aggregated with
                      Forest Service regional preparedness budgets and BLM state office budgets
                      and submitted to the their respective national offices for inclusion in the
                      Forest Service’s and the Department of the Interior’s annual budget
                      requests. Once the Congress appropriates funds for wildfire preparedness,
                      the appropriations received are allocated from the national offices through
                      the Forest Service regional offices and BLM state offices to the national
                      forests and BLM field offices.


                      Each national forest and BLM field office conducts a NFMAS analysis. A new
National Fire         NFMAS analysis is required every 5 years, although an analysis can be
Management Analysis   updated in various instances, such as when national forests are combined.
System Process        In the years when the NFMAS analysis is not performed, wildfire
                      preparedness budget requests are developed by applying an inflation
                      factor to the prior year’s budget request. In preparing the NFMAS analysis,
                      each of the units develops fire management zones or areas of like natural
                      resources and fire history. The fire management zones are also based on
                      management objectives for the land contained in the units’ resource
                      management plans. The fire management zones are further divided into
                      representative locations that have similar management objectives, similar
                      fire histories, and similar methods of fire attack. Within the fire
                      management zones, natural, cultural, and other resources are valued by
                      resource specialists for inclusion in the NFMAS model.

                      Once the fire management zones are defined, historical data are compiled
                      on fire history, acres burned, and past methods of controlling fires. From
                      these data, a representative location is defined where a fire could occur
                      and the resources are identified that would be available to fight the fire.



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Appendix I
National Fire Management Analysis System
and Wildfire Preparedness Budget Process




Then the NFMAS model is run. This initial analysis is then calibrated to
ensure that once the data are entered and run in the model, they will
replicate fire history within 5 percent of actual occurrences. The BLM and
Forest Service officials we spoke with said that calibrating the model is a
critical step in the NFMAS process because it ensures that the data going
into the model are accurate and reliable.

Once the model is calibrated, it is run with current firefighting resources at
current budget levels. After this initial run, the model is run at
incrementally higher firefighting resource and budget levels to see
whether efficiencies would be gained at higher levels. Similarly, the model
is run at incrementally lower firefighting resource and budget levels to see
how efficiencies would be affected.

In each of these analyses, the most efficient level is determined. The NFMAS
analysis produces a U-shaped curve on a graph where the vertical axis is
the net value change in resources while the horizontal axis is the
preparedness budget request. The most efficient level is basically at the
bottom of the curve. If the bottom of the curve meets the management
objectives of the national forest or the BLM field office, then that becomes
the most efficient level. The most efficient level may be to the right or left
of the bottom of the curve, especially when the curves are relatively flat
rather than U-shaped.

To ensure the integrity of the NFMAS analysis process, Forest Service
regional and BLM national fire management staff certify the national
forests’ and BLM field offices’ NFMAS analyses. In certifying the analyses,
agency officials verify that consistent and reliable data were used in the
model and that the data are consistent across forest and field office
boundaries. In 1998, all BLM field and state offices performed new NFMAS
analyses. The BLM field office NFMAS submissions, in support of the fiscal
year 2000 preparedness budget request, were certified by the BLM state
offices. Officials from the Boise BLM office certified the NFMAS process at
the state offices. Similarly, all national forests we visited had their NFMAS
process certified. These certifications for the forests we visited took place
at various times, from 6 years ago at three of the forests to 1999 for the
Coronado National Forest. Both Forest Service and BLM officials we spoke
with said that the certification process is useful for ensuring that the NFMAS
process is being implemented properly and that all units are on a level
playing field through having their data and process independently
reviewed.




Page 27                                    GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
                        Appendix I
                        National Fire Management Analysis System
                        and Wildfire Preparedness Budget Process




                        The NFMAS analyses form the basis of the national forests’ and BLM field
                        offices’ annual operational plans. These operational plans are based on the
                        most efficient level of funding and describe how the funds are to be
                        distributed at the national forests or BLM field offices. They describe what
                        firefighting resources (personnel and equipment) will be funded, where
                        they will be located, and how long they will be positioned at these
                        locations.

                        The most efficient funding levels for individual national forests and BLM
                        field offices are aggregated and become part of the Forest Service’s and
                        BLM’s annual budget requests. For the Forest Service, each of the regions
                        aggregates the most efficient level of funding for each of its forests, adds
                        its own preparedness budget request, and submits the total to Forest
                        Service headquarters. Forest Service headquarters then adds its budget
                        request, and this becomes the annual wildfire preparedness budget request
                        that is included in the Forest Service’s annual budget request.

                        For BLM, each state office aggregates the budget requests of all the field
                        offices in the state, adds the most efficient level of funding for the state
                        office, and submits the total to the BLM fire staff in Boise. The BLM Boise
                        staff aggregate the state office submissions, add the Boise office’s budget
                        request for preparedness, and submit the data to headquarters for
                        inclusion in the Department of the Interior’s annual budget request.1


                        The wildfire preparedness funds appropriated by the Congress have been
Wildfire Preparedness   historically about 15 percent less than those identified as needed by the
Budget Allocation       Forest Service and BLM through the budget planning process. According to
Process                 Forest Service and BLM officials, the Congress appropriates smaller
                        amounts than those determined to be needed through the budget planning
                        process because it is willing to accept the risk that some wildfires will be
                        less severe than indicated through the budget planning process.

                        Wildfire preparedness funds appropriated by the Congress are allocated to
                        the Forest Service and BLM for distribution to the national forests and BLM
                        field offices. When the wildfire preparedness allocations are received,
                        Forest Service headquarters and BLM national staff remove the funding for
                        their operations as well as the funding for nationally shared firefighting

                        1
                         The other Department of the Interior land management agencies—the National Park Service, the
                        Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Fish and Wildlife Service—each develop wildfire preparedness and
                        suppression requests. Their requests, along with BLM’s, are consolidated and submitted to the
                        Department of the Interior by BLM. Funds are appropriated to BLM and are made available to the
                        other three Department of the Interior agencies.



                        Page 28                                            GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
Appendix I
National Fire Management Analysis System
and Wildfire Preparedness Budget Process




resources, such as aircraft, smokejumpers, and hot shot crews. These
shared resources are typically included in the budget for one of the
agencies but are available for the use of all federal firefighting agencies
when suppressing wildfires. For example, BLM funds the equipment cache
in Boise, but equipment and supplies from the cache are available to all
federal firefighting agencies. Similarly, the Forest Service funds the
contracts for catering and shower facilities at wildfires, but these services
are available to all federal wildfire fighting agencies when needed.

Forest Service and BLM officials allocate the remaining funds to their
regional and state offices, respectively. The Forest Service uses a
benefit-cost model to allocate the remaining wildfire preparedness funds
to its regions. BLM, in allocating the remaining wildfire preparedness funds
to the state offices, generally reduces each state’s request for funds by the
overall percentage reduction in the most efficient level received from the
Congress.

From the wildfire preparedness allocations they receive, Forest Service
regional and BLM state officials take out funds to pay for their respective
operations, including any amounts they need for national shared
resources. The remaining wildfire preparedness funds are then allocated
to the national forests and BLM field offices. According to Forest Service
regional and BLM state officials we spoke with, allocations to the national
forests and BLM field offices are made on the basis of their NFMAS analyses,
and all see their requests for funding reduced by the same percentage.
Exceptions are made, however, when the funds available to a national
forest or BLM field office are so limited that wildfire preparedness
operations would be severely restricted. In this case, a small unit may
receive close to the most efficient level of funding it requested while a
larger unit may have its funds reduced because, given its size, it can
withstand a budget cut. When allocating wildfire preparedness funds to
the national forests and BLM field offices, Forest Service regional and BLM
state officials recommend to the units how they should allocate their
funds. According to national forest and BLM field officials, these
recommendations are generally followed.

Once the national forests and BLM field offices receive their wildfire
preparedness funding, they adjust their annual operational plans to reflect
the funds actually received. These plans are monitored by Forest Service
regional and BLM state officials to ensure that the funds received are spent
as planned.




Page 29                                    GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
Appendix II

Organization of the Wildland Firefighting
Community



                                               National Interagency
                                                    Fire Center




 National Interagency    National Wildfire        Multi-agency          National Incident         Equipment and
 Coordination Center    Coordination Group     Coordination Group     Radio Support Cache         Supply Cache




  11 Geographic Area
 Coordination Centers




                                     The National Interagency Fire Center is a 55-acre site located in Boise,
                                     Idaho. It has a firefighting training base and facilities that house the fire
                                     management personnel of the five federal land management agencies and
                                     of the National Weather Service, as well as representatives from the
                                     National Association of State Foresters. The National Interagency Fire
                                     Center also houses the National Incident Radio Support and the
                                     Equipment and Supply caches.

                                     The National Interagency Coordination Center is called upon when
                                     any of the 11 geographic area coordination centers cannot fill orders for
                                     equipment and supplies within its area. The National Interagency
                                     Coordination Center dispatches crews, overhead personnel, aircraft,
                                     supplies, and services across the nation, regardless of an agency’s
                                     affiliation, using the “closest forces” and “total mobility” concepts.
                                     Because the National Interagency Coordination Center is an “all-risk”
                                     coordination center, it also provides support in response to other
                                     emergencies, such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

                                     The National Wildfire Coordination Group is an umbrella organization
                                     that includes representatives from the five federal land management
                                     agencies and the National Association of State Foresters. The National
                                     Wildfire Coordination Group is responsible for ensuring that consistent




                                     Page 30                                GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
Appendix II
Organization of the Wildland Firefighting
Community




firefighting practices, standards, and training programs are developed for
federal firefighting organizations.

The Multi-agency Coordination Group includes the five federal land
management fire directors and, when needed, a representative from the
General Services Administration, a military liaison, and a state forester.
The Multi-agency Coordination Group identifies national or interagency
fire situation issues and sets priorities for allocating scarce firefighting
resources.

The National Incident Radio Support Cache is the only totally
compatible national radio cache of its kind in a single location. The cache
contains about 7,000 hand-held radios, as well as a variety of other
communications equipment, such as telephones, satellites, repeaters, and
microwave stations.

The Equipment and Supply Cache is the largest federal warehouse of
firefighting equipment and supplies in the United States. The warehouse
serves as a primary source of supply for all wildland firefighting agencies
in Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho, and western Wyoming.

The 11 geographic area coordination centers are located primarily
west of the Missippi River. If a wildland fire grows too big for local
personnel and equipment to fight it, the responsible agency contacts the
nearest geographic area coordination center for help. The nearest center
will locate and dispatch additional firefighting personnel, equipment, and
supplies throughout the geographic area.




Page 31                                     GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
Appendix III

Process for Ordering Wildland Firefighting
Supplies and Resources

                                             The process for ordering wildland firefighting supplies and resources
                                             begins at the incident. Orders from incidents are placed with the local
                                             dispatch office. Orders it cannot fill are placed with the nearest geographic
                                             area coordination center, which will mobilize resources from within its
                                             boundaries. As these resources are depleted, requests are passed on to the
                                             National Interagency Coordination Center. For the most part, the National
                                             Interagency Coordination Center coordinates the movement of all
                                             resources across the boundaries of geographic areas. Figure III.1
                                             demonstrates the flow of orders for resources and supplies to an incident.



Figure III.1: Flow of Firefighting Supplies and Resources



                                                       National Interagency
                                                       Coordination Center




                                        Geographic Area                 Geographic Area
                                       Coordination Center             Coordination Center




                          Local Dispatch                                                Local Dispatch
                         Requests Supplies                                             Requests Supplies
                          and Resources                                                 and Resources




      Initial Incident                                                                                   Initial Incident

  National       BLM Field                                                                           National       BLM Field
   Forest         Office                                                                              Forest         Office




                                             Page 32                                  GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
Appendix IV

Objectives, Scope, and Methodology


              In response to a request from the Chairman, Subcommittee on Forests and
              Forest Health, House Committee on Resources, we examined (1) the
              process the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the
              Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) use to
              determine the amount of funds needed to prepare for fighting fires; (2) the
              roles and responsibilities of the National Interagency Fire Center in
              mobilizing firefighting resources; and (3) the types of agreements reached
              among federal, state, and local firefighting organizations. We also looked
              at several issues that could affect the agencies’ ability to manage their
              firefighting programs in the future.

              To examine the process the Forest Service and BLM use to determine the
              funds needed to prepare for fighting fires, we reviewed the steps each
              agency takes to develop requests for wildfire preparedness funding. Our
              review was limited to the process used; we did not review the operation of
              the computerized model used to develop wildfire preparedness funding
              requests or the validity of the model. We interviewed and obtained wildfire
              preparedness funding documentation from Forest Service and BLM
              headquarters officials in Washington, D.C., and Boise, Idaho. In addition,
              we interviewed, and obtained documentation on wildfire preparedness
              funding from Forest Service officials at two regional offices and six
              national forests and BLM officials at one state office and five field offices.
              We also obtained similar data from officials at the consolidated fire
              management office in the Pacific Northwest. This office has combined the
              Forest Service regional and BLM state office functions for fire management
              in the Pacific Northwest.

              Our selection of Forest Service regional offices and BLM state offices was
              based on several factors. We selected the Pacific Northwest because the
              fire operations of the Forest Service and BLM are combined and the
              agencies are operating under a new master cooperative agreement. In
              addition, the Pacific Northwest has large fire budgets and active fire
              seasons. We selected the Southwestern Region because it also has large
              fire budgets and active fire seasons. The Southern Region of the Forest
              Service was selected to extend the geographic coverage of our work. We
              selected national forests and BLM field offices that were physically close to
              one another to facilitate data gathering.

              Because we visited a limited number of Forest Service and BLM sites and
              these sites were not scientifically selected, the wildfire preparedness
              funding information we obtained may not always be representative of
              other units in the two agencies. The two Forest Service regional offices



              Page 33                                GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
Appendix IV
Objectives, Scope, and Methodology




from which we obtained wildfire preparedness funding information are
located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Atlanta, Georgia. We visited six
national forests—the Coronado and Tonto in Arizona; the Fremont,
Ochoco, and Malheur in Oregon; and the Chattahoochee/Oconee in
Georgia. We visited the BLM state office in Phoenix, Arizona. We also
visited five BLM field offices—the Phoenix and Safford offices in Arizona
and the Lakeview, Burns, and Prineville offices in Oregon.

We also visited the consolidated Forest Service and BLM fire management
office in Portland, Oregon. The consolidated fire management office,
which contains the fire management staffs for both the Forest Service’s
Pacific Northwest Region and BLM’s Oregon State Office, has responsibility
for managing fires in the Pacific Northwest.

To determine the roles and responsibilities of the National Interagency
Fire Center in mobilizing firefighting resources during a fire season, we
interviewed and obtained mobilization documentation from Forest Service
and BLM officials during our visit to the National Interagency Fire Center,
which is located in Boise, Idaho. In addition, to obtain a better
understanding of how the National Interagency Fire Center coordinates
with the 11 regional geographic area coordination centers located
throughout the country for mobilizing firefighting resources, we
interviewed Forest Service and BLM officials from the National Interagency
Fire Center’s National Interagency Coordination Center and Multi-agency
Coordination Group. We also visited two of the geographic area
coordination centers—the Northwest Area Coordination Center in
Portland, Oregon, and the Southern Area Coordination Center in
Chamblee, Georgia—to interview agency officials.

To determine the types of coordination agreements reached among
federal, state, and local firefighting organizations for providing mutual fire
suppression assistance, we obtained from the Forest Service, BLM, and
state officials copies of the various coordination agreements in use at each
of the locations we visited. Specifically, we obtained and reviewed the
Master Cooperative Fire Protection Agreement for the Pacific Northwest,
the Joint Powers Agreement for Arizona, and the local individual
agreements for the Forest Service and BLM locations visited in Oregon. We
also obtained a copy of the Southeastern Interstate Forest Fire Protection
Compact, which is an agreement among 10 southeastern states to provide
mutual support during forest fires. We interviewed Forest Service and BLM
officials at each location visited to learn about the characteristics of the
various agreements. We discussed with the officials the attributes of the



Page 34                                GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
           Appendix IV
           Objectives, Scope, and Methodology




           various coordination agreements to determine the reasons for the
           agreements, how well the agreements were working, and what was being
           done to improve the agreements. We also talked about how well the
           agreements are working with Georgia and Arizona state fire officials and
           the representative of the Association of State Foresters at the National
           Interagency Fire Center.

           Our review was conducted from January 1999 through July 1999 in
           accordance with generally accepted government accounting standards.




(141271)   Page 35                              GAO/RCED-99-233 Federal Wildfire Activities
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