Federal Fire Management: Evaluation of Changes Made After Yellowstone

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-05-24.

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

                   United   States Genzral   Accounting   Office

For Release         Federal Fire Management:    Evaluation
on Delivery         of Changes Made After  Yellowstone
Expected at
9:OO a.m. EDT
May 24, 1990

                    Statement    of
                    James Duffus III,        Director
                    Natural    Resources Management Issues
                    Resources,     Community, and Economic
                    Development     Division
                    Before the
                    Environment,    Energy, and
                    Natural   Resources Subcommittee
                    Committee on Government Operations
                    House of Representatives

GAO/T-RCED-90-84                                                   GAO Form 160 (12/87)
Mr.   Chairman    and Members of the         Subcommittee:

        We are pleased to appear before you today to discuss                         our
ongoing work on the federal                government's     fire  program for the
nation's     parks and wilderness             areas.    These hearings       are
particularly       timely     because the fire         season in the West is just
starting     and federal       fire    officials     are predicting       that this could
be another      record    fire     year.      Our work, which we are doing at your
reguest,     focuses on changes made to the government's                     fire    program
as a result       of the 1988 fires           in Yellowstone     National      Park.

        We are presenting          our observations   in a video prepared
especially       for this hearing.        We plan to follow    up with a written
report     containing     our specific      recommendations.     A transcript     of
the video is attached            to this statement.      While the use of a video
to present      testimony      is unique to GAO, we believe       that because of
the subject       matter,    it is an effective      way to communicate       the
results     of our work.

      The video,    which lasts   about 13 minutes,    describes     the
government's    prescribed   fire   program,  the Yellowstone    fires   of
1988, changes that the government         has made to the program since
then, and our evaluation       of the program as it stands today.         We
would now like to show you the video.

        Mr. Chairman,      as our video depicts,          the prescribed      fire
program has been reaffirmed             as a valuable       tool in the management of
the nation's     parks and wilderness           areas.      However, the program is
an inherently      high-risk     activity     that will       require  better
coordination,      adequate funding         and resources,        and changes in
attitudes     if it is to realize         its full     potential.

      Mr. Chairman,  this         concludes  my statement.  We will be pleased
to respond to questions           you or other members of the Subcommittee
may have.
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                                 FIRE VIDEO SCRIPT

        Yellowstone     National    Park.     Summer, 1988.      The nation's     oldest
park was on fire.          The nightly      news showed terrifying      scenes.
Stands of pines were ablaze.              Flames threatened      to overrun    Old
Faithful      Inn, as firefighters        fought desperately       to save it.     The
sky darkened with smoke as the fires              advanced.      Stark and blackened
landscapes       were left    in their    wake.   Such scenes drew public
outcry.       What had gone wrong?         Wasn't the government       supposed to
protect     the parks?

        About 20 years ago, the National              Park Service,     within    the
Department      of the Interior,        and the Forest Service,         within    the
Department      of Agriculture,        began to change the fire         program for
the nation's       parks and wildernesses.            Any fires    that threatened
life    or property--called        wildfires--were        to be suppressed,       as
before.      But some fires       started     by lightning--called       prescribed
natural    fires--   would be allowed         to burn so long as they posed no
immediate      danger.      Because of this program,          many charged,
Yellowstone's       scenic landscape        had been destroyed--the         government
had "let     it burn . II

      With no warning,       then, the events in Yellowstone         thrust     the
government's      prescribed    fire  program into the national        spotlight.
Questions     were raised    by the Congress,      the media, and the public.
Should the government        continue    the practice   of letting     natural
fires   burn?     What should be done to keep another          Yellowstone      from

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      To answer these questions,      a special  task force composed               of
the Department    of the Interior,    the Department   of Agriculture,              and
the National    Association   of State Foresters    was charged with
reexamining   the program.

        GAO was asked by the Chairman of the Environment,                  Energy,   and
Natural      Resources Subcommittee       of the House Committee on Government
Operations      to review the implementation            of the task force's
recommendations.         GAO's work to date has shown that in the summer
of 1988 both the fires          that raged in Yellowstone           and the
government's       fire  program were out of control.             While the task
force made several         recommendations       to tighten   the management of the
program,      GAO questions     whether the new controls          are as sound as
they appear,       and whether the program has the organizational
structure      required    to coordinate     firefighting      efforts    in times   of
national      emergencies.      Furthermore,       because resources      are
constrained,       an issue not addressed by the task force,                and because
some    fire   managers are resisting        the program,     GAO also questions
whether the revamped fire           program will       evolve from a program on
paper to one in practice.

       The story of fire management in the nation's               wildlands      begins
in the late 1800s.         The policy    of the federal      government      was to
fight    all fires.     It was a theme later        captured   by the Forest
Service's    mascot, Smokey Bear.         Fires destroyed      the scenic beauty
of the land,      its timber,     and its wildlife,      and fighting      fires   was
viewed as the moral        equivalent    of war.

       But in 1963, a federally   sponsored report             introduced   what was
then   a radical  idea.  By suppressing    all fires,            the government  had

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interfered       with nature.     For fire      can be beneficial--even
essential     --to wildlands.       It returns     valuable   nutrients        to the
soil.      It opens overgrown       areas to sunlight.        It allows new
vegetation        to thrive,  providing     food and habitat       for diverse       animal
species.        Fire also removes dead wood and other fuels                 from the
forest     floor    that can kindle     larger,    more dangerous       fires--as     in
fact happened at Yellowstone.

        By 1972, both the Park Service        and the Forest Service      allowed
prescribed     fires   to burn in certain     parks and wildernesses
providing:       the fires   did not threaten     human life  or property:     they
remained within      their   specified  boundaries:    and resources    were
available    to control    them.

      Over the next 16 years,  about 3,500 fires    were allowed    to
burn in these areas.   Since the fires   were usually   small,   they
aroused no controversy  or concern.

        This all changed in 1988, when events in Yellowstone                    severely
tested    the fire      program.     In June and July,      lightning     storms
ignited     fires,     as they had in previous       years.      But in 1988, weather
and fuel conditions           converged   to make the situation         more dangerous.
The forest       floor   was densely carpeted      with dead trees.          After
several     years of dry weather,         this downed timber was drier            than
wood from a lumber yard.             Counting   on the usual July rains,            the
Park Service        let 28 fires     burn without    attempting       to suppress      them.
But the expected         rains never came.

       Recognizing   the severity   of the situation,        the Park Service
declared    on July 21 that it would fight     0      fires.     By this time,
fires    had burned through   about 17,000 acres in Yellowstone--about
one-half    the acreage that had burned in all the previous             16 years.

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At about    the     same     time,   two wildfires   from   adjacent   forests   spread
into the    park.

        But in retrospect,       the Park Service     had waited too long.          All
available     resources    were brought      to bear,   but the fires      grew.    In
August and September,          gusts of up to 70 miles per hour fanned the
flames and created        dangerous    firestorms.      Firelines     ranged for
hundreds of miles,        with as many as 10,000 firefighters             battling    the
blazes.      Neighboring     towns had to be evacuated.           They were saved
although     some buildings      were lost or damaged.          By November, when
the snows finally        quenched the last flames,         the fires     had burned
about 700,000 acres,         one-third     of the park.      The total    cost to
fight    these fires:      more than $100 million.

        While public       attention     focused on Yellowstone,       other large
fires    were burning       throughout      the West.      As a consequence,   the
nation's      firefighting       resources      were stretched   to the limit,
forcing     the federal       government      to call on the military      and even on
Canadian crews for assistance.

         Because of the controversy          over Yellowstone,     the government
halted     the prescribed     fire   program,      and the Secretaries    of
Interior      and Agriculture      appointed     the interagency     task force to
determine      what had gone wrong.

       In its final  report,           the task force endorsed the practice         of
allowing    fire to play its           natural      role in wildlands.   But the task
force warned that stricter               controls      were imperative because fire
management is an inherently               high-risk      activity.

      The task       force       made 15 recommendations.       Among them:

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      --   Park and wilderness    managers were to tighten   guidelines                    in
           their fire  management plans to prevent    the inappropriate
           use of prescribed   fires.

      --   Line officers    were to certify   daily  that sufficient
           resources    were available   to keep such fires    under            control.

      --   Agencies were to cooperatively       develop regional  and
           national plans to curtail     prescribed    fires when fire              danger
           is high or resources  to deal with them are low.

       Although     implementing       these recommendations          is taking   longer
than anticipated,        both the Park Service              and the Forest Service
have revised      their   guidance       and are developing        the called-for
plans.     Both also now require            daily    certification      by line officers
for prescribed       natural    fires.        However, in GAO's view, the
management of the prescribed              fire    program may not be as well
controlled      as the interagency          task force envisioned         or the public
has been led to expect.

        While the new program is intended             to tighten   the conditions
under which a prescribed           fire    is allowed to burn, there are no
changes in how the fire          is to be fought if it is declared             wild.
Now, as in 1988, if the cost of extinguishing                  the fire.outweighs
its potential      damage, it can be allowed to burn under
surveillance.       Furthermore,        resources    may not even be available       to
fight    the fire   because crews and equipment may already                be committed
to higher-priority       fires.

      In such circumstances    --when fire   danger has escalated,                 and
crews and equipment    are scarce --the    Boise Interagency        Fire          Center
is responsible   for coordinating     the agencies'    firefighting

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efforts.  But its leadership   met   with resistance    in the field                       in
1988, when the Center attempted    to shift   resources   among the
hundreds of fires that raged that summer.

        Coordination       continues     to be a problem.           The task force
recommended that agencies              cooperatively       develop national          and
regional     preparedness        plans.     However, some regional            offices     have
not involved       other agencies        in developing         such plans.
Furthermore,       while the Center has developed                5 levels     of
preparedness --depending            on the severity        of burning       conditions,      the
extent    of fire     activity,      and the availability           of resources--some
regions    have established          plans with 3 or 4 levels             instead.       With
different      levels    meaning different          things     to different       people,
confusion      over the severity         of fire      conditions      could prevail       at
precisely      the time      when cool heads and clear             facts are needed most.

       While stricter       controls      are required,           several     factors   may
constrain    implementation         of the program.             First,     because wildfires
must receive      priority,     prescribed       fires      can be allowed          to burn only
if there are sufficient           firefighters         and equipment         available     to
keep them under control.              But over the last 10 years,                 these
resources    have declined        substantially.           Second, the money
specifically      allocated     to the prescribed             fire     program is less than
what many Park Service          and Forest Service              managers say they need.
And third,     regardless     of funding        availability,           some managers      still
subscribe    to the old philosophy             of suppressing           all fires.

        For these reasons,   officials               of some forests    with large
wilderness     areas as well as some               national    parks told GAO they are
unlikely    to adopt the prescribed                fire   program and will   instead
continue    suppressing   most fires.                Yet according   to the task force,

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excluding    the use of prescribed       fires     not only increases  the           risk
of having more catastrophic        fires       like those in Yellow&one,               but
also interferes    with nature's     cycle.

       Until     the revamped fire          program is tested,       no one will     know
whether the task force's              revisions     will    resolve  the problems that
occurred     in Yellowstone.            However, even with these revisions,            GAO
believes,      the government         may still     lack the organizational
structure      essential     to respond to national             fire emergencies.       In
addition,      increases      in funding       and firefighting      resources,     as well
as changes in attitudes,              are necessary       to realize    the program's
full   potential.        For in the long term, the program offers                 the
promise of restoring            wildlands      to their     natural  state and reducing
the severity        of future      wildfires.