New wildfire strategy targets ‘firesheds’ near towns

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Responding to a “wildfire crisis” in the West, the Biden administration will double or even triple its efforts to thin forests and prevent fires that would threaten communities, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Phoenix on Tuesday. The 10-year plan will focus on large, high-risk “firesheds” in places such as the Pacific Northwest, the Sierra Nevada in California, the Front Range of Colorado, and the Southwest.

The U.S. Forest Service, which spends around $240 million a year on fuel and forest health treatment, would spend an additional $650 million annually for five years, said Vilsack. The new funding, from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, “allows us now to really focus on the right place … the right size of projects and the right treatment to get the right result, which is beginning the process of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” he said.

In the end, an additional 20 million acres (31,000 square miles) of national forests and grasslands and up to 30 million acres (47,000 square miles) of other federal, state, tribal, and private land would be treated. The cost of treating the additional 50 million acres would be $50 billion, according to news reports that cite administration officials.

Forest Service chief Randy Moore said the agency usually treats about 2 million acres a year. For years, officials have said that fire prevention or forest restoration often takes a backseat to fighting wildfires.

An estimated 7.6 million acres (12,000 square miles) burned in wildfires last year, including the Dixie Fire, which consumed 960,000 acres in northern California and was the first fire known to cross the crest of the Sierra Nevada. The largest wildfire in state history was the August Complex fire of 2020, which burned 1.03 million acres. The deadliest was the Camp Fire of 2018, which killed at least 85 people.

In a 25-page document, “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis,” the Forest Service said, “We will focus on key ‘firesheds’— large forested landscapes and rangelands with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose homes, communities, and infrastructure to wildfire. Firesheds, typically about 250,000 acres (390 square miles) in size, are mapped to match the scale of community exposure to wildfire.”

For more than a century, grasses, shrubs, trees, and other flammable materials have been building up because of a national policy to extinguish wildfires as quickly as possible, said the Forest Service. “Climate change also drives the wildfire crisis by making the fuels problem worse” through warmer weather, which dries plants so they catch fire more easily.

“The science tells us that if we take preventive steps, if we do a little treatment, if we do prescribed burning, we can actually significantly reduce the risk of fire once it starts, but we’re not going to stop fires,” said Vilsack. “All we can do is begin the process of reducing the catastrophic nature of these fires.” Said Moore a few minutes later, “We’re talking about having that fire behave as it does its natural thing across the landscape.”

Fuel treatments are various techniques, such as thinning, pruning, and prescribed burning, to reduce the amount of fuel available for a fire.

The infrastructure bill also provided money to the Forest Service to increase base pay for firefighters and to convert more than 1,000 seasonal firefighting positions into permanent jobs.

Since 2017, an average of 8.2 million acres were burned by wildfires annually. More than 10 million acres were consumed in each of 2017 and 2020.

To read the 10-year strategy paper, click here.

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