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Congressional Research Service Reports
Redistributed as a Service of the NLE*

RL30755 - Forest Fire Protection (pdf)

5-Dec-2000; Ross Gorte; 32 p.

Abstract: The 2000 fire season was, by most standards, one of the worst in the past half century. National attention began to focus on wildfires when a prescribed burn in May escaped control and burned 235 homes in Los Alamos, NM. In September, the Clinton Administration proposed an additional $1.6 billion for wildfire management, and Congress enacted much of this proposal in the FY2001 Interior Appropriations Act (P.L. 106-291). However, Congress still faces questions about forestry practices, continued funding, and the federal role in wildland fire protection. Many factors contribute to the threat of wildfire damages; two major factors are the decline in forest and rangeland health and the expansion of residential areas into wildlands the urban-wildland interface. Over the past century, aggressive wildfire suppression, as well as past grazing and logging practices, have altered many ecosystems, especially those where light, surface fires were frequent. Many areas now have unnaturally high fuel loads (e.g., dead trees and dense thickets) and an historically unnatural mix of plant species (e.g., exotic invaders). Fuel treatments have been proposed to reduce the wildfire threats. Prescribed burning setting fires under identified conditions can reduce the fine fuels that spread wildfires, but can escape and become catastrophic wildfires, especially if fuel ladders and wind spread the fire into the forest canopy. Commercial timber harvesting is often proposed, and can reduce heavy fuels and fuel ladders, but can increase the threat unless the slash (tree tops and limbs) is properly disposed of. Other mechanical treatments (e.g., precommercial thinning, pruning) can reduce fuel ladders, but also temporarily increase fuels on the ground. Treatments can often be more effective if combined (e.g., prescribed burning after thinning). However, some fuel treatments are very expensive, and the benefit of treatments for reducing wildfire threats depend on many factors. It should also be recognized that, as long as there is biomass, drought, and high winds, catastrophic wildfires will occur. Only about 1% of wildfires become conflagrations, but which fires will blow up into catastrophic wildfires is unpredictable. It seems likely that management practices and policies, including fuel treatments, affect the likelihood of such events. However, past experience with wildfires are of limited value for building predictive models, and research on fire behavior under various circumstances is difficult, at best. Thus, predictive tools for fire protection and control are often based on expert opinion and anecdotes, rather than on research evidence. Individuals who choose to build homes in the urban-wildland interface face some risk of loss from wildfires, but can take steps to protect their homes. Federal, state, and local governments can and do assist by protecting their own lands, by providing financial and technical assistance, and by providing relief after the fire. [read report]

* These CRS reports were produced by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress providing nonpartisan research reports to members of the House and Senate. The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) has made these reports available to the public at large, but the Congressional Research Service is not affiliated with the NCSE or the National Library for the Environment (NLE). This web site is not endorsed by or associated with the Congressional Research Service. The material contained in the CRS reports does not necessarily express the views of NCSE, its supporters, or sponsors. The information is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. NCSE disclaims all warranties, either express or implied, including the warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. In no event shall NCSE be liable for any damages.