Academic journal article The Public Manager

Wildfires Need Regional Approach: Recent Studies for the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior Provide Multijurisdictional Case Illustrations in Colorado and Oregon. (Regional Governance)

Academic journal article The Public Manager

Wildfires Need Regional Approach: Recent Studies for the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior Provide Multijurisdictional Case Illustrations in Colorado and Oregon. (Regional Governance)

Article excerpt

When the Hayman wildfire roared across Colorado forests toward Denver early this summer to become the largest wildfire in the state's history, it burned properties in four counties, a national forest, and the Denver Water Board's main watershed. It also affected the whole region's air quality as it raced 19 miles in one day.

The 3.5 million people of this rapidly expanding metropolitan area were immediately affected as their air filled with smoke and their water supply was threatened. The fire burned 137,000 acres, and destroyed 133 homes, one commercial building, and 466 outbuildings. Thousands of people had to be evacuated. Fortunately, the fire was far enough south of the city to avert catastrophic damage. Even so, the cost of fighting this one fire totaled over $39.1 million--and rehabilitating the burned lands is likely to at least double that figure.

Numerous local fire departments responded to the fire, but news reports said that some never tied in properly to the unified command structure that later took over the main responsibility for containing the fire. In addition, they charged that federal and local emergency dispatch centers were not well coordinated. It was not surprising, therefore, that sorting out responsibilities for the costs afterward was messy and contentious.

State law in Colorado provides for emergency response coordination by county sheriffs, and a new law enacted in 2000 allows countywide coordination of fire plans for reducing vulnerability to wildfires across all lands in a county on a voluntary basis. However, individual jurisdictions and landowners are still pursuing wildfire preparedness and hazard mitigation efforts separately for the most part, and multi-county coordination is not provided.

Regional Dimensions of Wildfires

This Hayman fire experience is strikingly similar to the findings of a new report on the means of containing the rising costs of suppressing wildfires released on November 15, 2002 by a panel of the National Academy of Public Administration. In the report, the panel concluded that wildfire threats are rising rapidly, they affect all landowners in the areas where they rage, and collaborative efforts are needed to respond effectively and efficiently to the rising threat.

The Academy report, based on a close examination of six large fires that burned in the summer of 2001 and other research, found that such collaboration is rare. There are no clear incentives for taking this approach. In fact, the federal government's roles in fighting wildfires tend to work in the opposite direction. Federal dollars usually pay for most of the firefighting costs, and damages not covered by insurance are often picked up largely by federal disaster recovery funds. Furthermore, the federal land management agencies primarily responsible for fighting wildfires are most comfortable managing their own lands rather than worrying about other properties. That is what they were established for, and that is what they do best.

Individual Agency Missions

Each of these federal agencies has its own mission that generated different management approaches over many decades.

* The US Forest Service (FS) manages the nation's prime forests for multiple commercial, recreational, and environmental uses, and other benefits.

* The National Park Service preserves the nation's most spectacular natural sites and cultural heritage properties for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations.

* The US Fish and Wildlife Service protects and enhances essential habitats needed to support diverse species of plants and animals.

* The US Bureau of Indian Affairs manages Indian lands for the economic and other benefits of tribal members.

* The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers residual public domain lands and mineral rights (remaining under its control after deeding major sections to other federal agencies, state and local governments, and private parties) for multiple uses benefiting the nation. …

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