Forging a Science-Based National Forest Fire Policy: A Comprehensive Policy Should Consider All Aspects of Wildfire Management, Not Just Fuels and Fire Suppression

Article excerpt

Large, intense forest fires, along with their causes and their consequences, have become important political and social issues. In the United States, however, there is no comprehensive policy to deal with fire and fuels and few indications that such a policy is in development.

Fire is, of course, a natural element of many wildlands. Forests are accumulations of combustible organic matter that can be set ablaze by lightning, a lit cigarette or match, or even sunlight focused through a lens. First to ignite are fine fuels such as pine needles, leaves, and twigs, but as heat accumulates, the bigger fuels such as shrubs and trees start to burn. If fuels are sufficient and environmental conditions, especially wind, are suitable, the fire will torch, move into tall tree canopies, and spread from tree to tree, producing a crown fire. Many of the fires that raged in the western United States during the summer of 2003 and in previous summers have been of this most destructive type.

A substantial amount of scientific evidence indicates that, in many North American forests, accumulations of fuels have reached levels far exceeding those found under "natural" or pre-European settlement conditions. These fuel accumulations result from human activities, including fire suppression, grazing, logging, and tree planting. Uncharacteristically high fuel levels create me potential for fires that are uncharacteristically intense. Millions of acres in western North America harbor these unprecedented fuel stores, although the total is probably less than the 190 million acres identified in the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative.

A national forest fire policy should cover every aspect of fire control: Managing fuels within forests and landscapes; fire suppression; and, ultimately, salvage and restoration treatments after wildfire. Currently in the United States, individual land management agencies such as the Forest Service and National Park Service have established fire policies and modify them periodically. But these are largely within-agency policies that have not been subject to public debate and review. Fire suppression activities on the local and national levels are coordinated among government organizations through formal agreements. Because of the different missions of these agencies, interagency policies are largely procedural checklists of actions that collectively constitute agency-specific fire management policies and goals.

De facto 20th-century national fire policy focused primarily on fire suppression rather than on the full array of relevant management tactics. During the past 40 years, some deviations from these policies have emerged, chiefly the adoption of natural fire and prescribed burning programs, particularly in national parks and wilderness areas. But aggressive suppression policies have continued to dominate. Indeed, they have actually been reinforced as a result of large intense fires that have invaded places where people live. As a universal panacea, however, suppression has failed. So the policy focus has shifted to another "universal" solution: the reduction of forest fuels via physical removal or prescribed burning.

Current efforts to develop national policies on fuels and fire include the administration's initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (H.R. 1904), which the House of Representatives passed in the summer of 2003 to implement the administration's proposal. However, these efforts focus on the short-term treatment of forest fuels rather than on developing a comprehensive national policy on fuels and fire management and identifying the scientific and social elements of such a policy.

Most of the provisions of the administration initiative and H.R. 1904, for example, deal primarily with reducing requirements for environmental analyses of fuel treatment projects, limiting public appeals, and requiring prompt judicial response to legal challenges. …