Wildland Fire Season 2002 may go into the history books as being one of the worst wildland fire seasons on record. The State of Arizona suffered its largest wildland and Wildland/Urban Interface (W/UI) fire in its recorded history.
The Rodeo and the Chediski fires joined together burning nearly one half of a million acres and destroying nearly 450 homes, businesses and other structures. Outside of Denver, Colorado a fire started by a USFS employee was described as Colorado's biggest fire in that state's recorded history.
These wildland and/or W/UI fires are initially fought by local firefighters until they become so immense, or are predicted to become too large for locals to control. Either Type-1 or Type-2 National Incident Management Teams then manages these fires.
These highly trained teams size-up the fires, assess what the needs are to contain, control and extinguish the fire that they are assigned to. Personnel, equipment, and all of the supplies required to support all firefighting resources are ordered through these teams. The suppression costs can become staggering as the fire(s) grow in size and complexity.
Past wildland fire seasons have been more destructive than the Wildland Fire Season-2002 in terms of either loss of lives or total acres and/or structures burned. At end of the Wildland Fire Season-2000, 122,827 fires were reported that burned 8,422,237 acres.
Fire suppression costs were $1.3 Billion. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), as of September 12, 2002, 64,858 fires were reported that burned 6,440,768 acres and hundreds of homes, businesses and other structures.
President George W. Bush On Forest Health
The Aspen Fire burned through the community of Summerhaven, Arizona atop Mount Lemmon during 2 weeks in July 2003 destroying 84,000 acres of pristine forest, 333 homes, cabins and businesses. The fire destroyed what was once a picturesque town and vacation area. The forest was choked with an overgrowth of small vegetation called "Biomass" and too many trees per acre.
On August 11 President Bush toured the devastation of what once was Summerhaven. He stated that, "Our forests remain unprotected, our communities vulnerable. We need to thin our forests in America." He is also a strong supporter of the "Healthy Forests Initiative" that can reduce the threat of wild and wildland/urban interface fires. The Initiative, which has been adopted by Congressional supporters as the basis for pending legislation, reduces federal planning requirements for thinning forests on 20 million acres of federal land and limits legal challenges to federal forest agencies.
However, at least 190 million acres of public land are thought to need fuel reduction due to drought, insect infestation and from years of fire suppression that has allowed the tremendous overgrowth of biomass to occur. Forest experts think that the price tag for forest thinning could reach $1 Billion per year or about what fire suppression costs have been running annually.
There are pros and cons to this Initiative and to the National Fire Plan. Opponents believe that this is a presidential program to help the logging industry revive itself into what it once was before staunch environmentalists used legal means to all but stop logging in the USA. Also, there is a concern by some that prescribed or controlled burning of biomass could create other problems such as air pollution, loss of wildlife habitat and loss of control of some prescribed fires that could lead to loss of structures and delicate watersheds. On the other hand, forest thinning, either by mechanical means or fire use, has been proven to be beneficial to people, wildlife and the forest environment. It is a matter of educating the public and the environmentalists to get them to fully understand that forest thinning is not only necessary it is a good thing.
The National Fire Plan is Born
However, going back only two years ago to Wildland Fire Season-2000, that year was considered as one of the worst fire seasons for decades past. It was this very active wildfire season that resulted in the creation of the National Fire Plan (NFP).
Robert Leaverton, USDA Forest Service, Washington, D.C. Office, is the National Fire Plan Coordinator: "The NFP was born out of Fire Season-2000. In August of 2000, the then President William Clinton went to the fires burning in Idaho and Montana, saw the effects of that fire season on our Nation's natural resources, losses to homeowners and businesses and courageous efforts of firefighters. After seeing the devastation, he asked the Secretaries of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to develop a plan to reverse the trend of what was happening. A document was developed by the Secretaries and this became the National Fire Plan."
Excerpts From The National Fire Plan-An Overview
In FY-2000 the Secretaries of the USDA and the DOI developed an Interagency approach to respond to severe wildland fires, reduce their impacts on rural communities, and to assure sufficient firefighting capacity in the future.
The NFP addresses 5 key points: Firefighting; Rehabilitation and Restoration of burned resources; Hazardous Fuel Reduction; Community Assistance; and, Accountability.
The NFP is a long-term investment that will protect communities and natural resources, and most importantly, the lives of firefighters and the public. It is a long-term commitment based on cooperation and communication among federal agencies, states, local governments, (native American) tribes and interested parties. The federal wildland management agencies worked closely with these partners to prepare a 10-year Comprehensive Strategy. Congress continues to demonstrate its support of the NFP by providing over $2.26 billion for funding. Allocations include $1,590, 712,000 for the USFS and $678,421,000 for the DOI.
Some selected actions for FY-2002 include:
Complete the 10-year Comprehensive Strategy; Plan and implement the fuels reduction treatments on 2.6 million acres of federal lands; Identify and implement rehabilitation and restoration projects in burned areas; Assist rural and volunteer fire departments; Continue the national recruitment effort to hire more firefighters and other personnel to support the NFP; Invest in technologies that promote economic opportunities in processing forest products removed through hazardous fuel (Biomass) reduction; Invest in new fire facilities, maintenance and construction to assure safe and adequate firefighting facilities.
Community Assistance Programs:
As the nation's demographics change, developed areas and individual home sites increasingly extend into wilderness areas (W/UI). Community involvement is a critical element in restoring damaged landscapes and reducing fire hazards near homes and communities. Community Assistance Programs focus on building state and community capacity to develop and implement citizen-driven solutions that will lessen local vulnerability to risks associated with wildland fires.
The DOI will use funds to provide technical assistance, training, supplies, equipment, and public education support to rural fire departments, thus enhancing firefighter safety and strengthening wildland fire protection capabilities.
The USDA Forest Service will provide technical and financial assistance to the states to enhance firefighting capacity at the state and local levels. They will also support fire hazard mitigation projects in the W/UI and will facilitate an expanded FIREWISE workshop program to reduce fire risk. The USDA Forest Service will also provide assistance, through the states, to volunteer fire departments to improve communications, increase wildland fire management training, purchase PPE and firefighting equipment.
State Fire Assistance:
An important element in the NFP is the State Fire Assistance Program that provides financial and technical support directly to the state forest fire protection organizations to enhance the firefighting capabilities of state, local, and rural organizations. The USFS has an allocation of over $81 million in the NFP funding for the State Fire Assistance Program. Some of the program's elements are preparedness, fuel hazard mitigation, and fire prevention activities including Smokey Bear and FIREWISE educational programs.
Hazardous Fuels Reduction:
The hazardous fuels program reduces the impact of unwanted wild land fires on communities, natural resources, and cultural resources. Past disruptions of natural fire cycles (fires caused by lightning) as well as by other management practices, have resulted in wildfires of increasing intensity and severity. Treatment (by prescribed fire or mechanical removal) of hazardous fuel will help to reduce the impacts of wildfires on communities and restore health to fire-adapted ecosystems.
Under the NFP, the hazardous fuels treatment program has expanded significantly, with a greater emphasis on communities in the W/UI. During FY-2001, 2.25 million acres of federal land were treated. In FY-2002, 2.5 million acres of federal land are planned for treatment. Millions of dollars have also been appropriated for applied research and technology development and for forest health management.
The NFP provides funding for agencies to meet their full firefighting capability. The USFS and the DOI estimate their following combined resources for FY-2002:
Rehabilitation and Restoration Programs:
Post-fire rehabilitation and restoration work is implemented over the course of several years on lands that are unlikely to recover naturally from fire damage. Activities include:
Reforestation, watershed restoration, road and trail rebuilding, fence replacement, fish and wildlife habit restoration, replanting and reseeding. Total funds for this program for FY-2002, as a part of the NFP, are-$102,668,000.
Bush Administration Creates New Interagency Wildland Fire Leadership Council
On April 10, 2002 the current Secretaries of the USDA and the DOI formerly created the new Interagency Wildland Fire Leadership Council to further implement the National Fire Plan. Said USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman, "The objective of this council is to provide a coordinated seamless management structure to all aspects of wildland fire policy. It continues our efforts to effectively cooperate with our partners at the federal, state and local levels. This agreement formalizes the efforts already underway at the
USDA and the DOI to coordinate our wildland fire management strategies and to ensure implementation of the National Fire Plan. The council will work with elected state and local officials, tribal officials and other federal official partners on wildland fire management policies. The NFP recognizes that effective fire management requires close coordination with state and local communities, particularly those communities that are in the Wildland/Urban Interface.
Robert Leaverton was asked the following questions:
Given the very active Wildland Fire Season-2002, are there any plans to rethink any aspects of the NFP?
Many of our forest and other wildlands have become choked with an overabundance of vegetation due to 50 years of fire prevention, fire suppression, not enough prescribed fire use and litigation by certain environmental factions.
What impact will the NFP have on hazardous forest and wildland fuel reduction? How will this be accomplished?