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The strategy emphasizes preventative measures, like thinning and controlled burns, on lands that pose high risks.
The U.S. Forest Service has plans to drastically increase the amount of land getting treated with methods like thinning out vegetation and conducting controlled burns, as the federal government seeks to reduce the kinds of high-intensity wildfires that have torn through parts of the country in recent years.
As part of a strategy unveiled Tuesday, the Forest Service said it would aim to expand the amount of land where this type of work is carried out by up to 50 million acres over the next 10 years. The agency says that in recent years it has typically treated 2 million to 3 million acres to improve forest health and cut down on fire risks, or the equivalent of about 20 million to 30 million acres over a decade.
These new measures would target federal, state, tribal and private lands across the West. They would prioritize tracts of about 250,000 acres identified as high risk for wildfires that could pose dangers for communities and infrastructure. The Forest Service is calling these areas "firesheds." The agency says nearly $3 billion of funding in last year's $1.2 trillion infrastructure law will help support this work.
“The negative impacts of today’s largest wildfires far outpace the scale of efforts to protect homes, communities and natural resources,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. (The Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.)
The highest priority areas for treatment, based on risks to nearby communities, are in parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and other western states, the Forest Service says. The agency says it will work with other federal agencies, as well as states and localities, to carry out the plan.
Wildfire is a natural part of the environment. But a mix of factors have led to a situation where the blazes have grown more severe.
As a document released by the Forest Service about its new strategy explains, the federal government for decades moved to extinguish forest fires aggressively, an approach that allowed plants and trees to thicken beyond historic levels.
This buildup of vegetation, along with the effects of climate change—like drier weather, lower snowpack and trees killed by bark beetles—have created conditions allowing for worse fires. At the same time, real estate development has encroached deeper into places prone to fire—areas often referred to as the Wildland-Urban Interface.
Meanwhile, firefighting costs have eaten up limited dollars that agencies like the Forest Service have to devote to preventative measures, like the land treatments described in the new plan.
"It will take nothing less than a paradigm shift to protect the Nation’s western communities," the Forest Service strategy report says. "We need to thin western forests and return low-intensity fire to western landscapes in the form of both prescribed and natural fire, working to ensure that forest lands and communities are resilient in the face of the wildland fire that fire-adapted landscapes need."
Thinning and controlled burns can help reduce the risk of extreme fires by cutting the amount of "fuel" available for flames to consume. But carrying out the work costs money and requires people capable of doing it. Concerns about smoke and the possibility that prescribed fires could get out of control can pose added hurdles.
Wildfire experts though have increasingly highlighted expanded prescribed burns, and allowing low-risk fires that occur naturally to burn, as key tools the nation will need to embrace as it attempts to tamp down wildfire risks.
The Forest Service notes that in 2020, 2017 and 2015 more than 10 million acres a year burned nationwide, while the five-year average number of structures destroyed by wildfires annually climbed to 12,255 in 2020 from 2,873 in 2014.
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.