Forest Service Chief Talks Need For New Fire Management, Fuel Treatments

Jul 30, 2018
Originally published on July 31, 2018 8:17 am

The West is in the midst of another intense fire season. Fires in California and Oregon have claimed lives and homes and burned up farmland.

As part of EarthFix's ongoing series on wildfire, reporter Tony Schick spoke with interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about what her agency is doing to reform fire management and reverse the fire problem.

Christiansen discussed her agency’s approach to wildfire management and what she’s doing to reduce the damage from wildfires in the future. Below are some of her responses on these issues, edited for length and clarity. 

As EarthFix reported, the Forest Service still suppresses nearly all fires, decades after recognizing the danger in that practice. Wildland fire agencies currently spend millions fighting relatively low-risk fires that could actually help protect communities if allowed to burn a bigger footprint. Researchers within the Forest Service are trying to push wildland fire management toward more data-driven decisions that consider the long-term tradeoffs of fire suppression. Asked what she’s doing to implement that throughout the agency, Christiansen said she was trying to build more acumen for risk management and reset the agency’s thinking.

Christiansen often talks about the agency’s 98 percent success rate at keeping fires small on initial attack. Researchers have pointed out that number, for many reasons, might not be the best measure of success for an agency with a stated goal of living with fire, not simply trying to extinguish it. Christiansen said the Forest Service would start to talk about metrics:

Christiansen said she pictures a system that better separates "wanted" and "unwanted" fire. Unwanted fire would still be measured by initial attack. But wanted fire would be measured based on how often it’s meeting certain objectives, like improving the environment, providing habitat and reducing risk to nearby communities.

The West is way behind where it needs to be for fuel treatments and many of the treatments being done do not follow what science has shown to be most effective, as EarthFix reported last week. Prescribed fire is a crucial aspect of fuels reduction and forest restoration, but its missing on a large number of projects. Asked what the agency was doing to make sure treatments keep pace, Christiansen said the West needs to adopt the culture of the Southeastern U.S., where burning is common practice:

This year Congress stabilized Forest Service funding by ending its need to borrow from other accounts to pay for wildfire suppression. In stopping firefighting from consuming more and more of the budget, that should free up more of the agency’s money for things that could prevent large, catastrophic fires – like thinning out forests to remove fuels and prescribed burning. But Christiansen said she did not have specific goals yet for how to increase that work:

She also said not to expect results any time soon:

Throughout the interview, Christiansen stressed that because of the intersection of land ownership throughout the West, the Forest Service, states, local agencies and private owners needed to keep moving past blaming each other for fire damage:

Copyright 2018 EarthFix. To see more, visit EarthFix.