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.
Vilsack said that the U.S. Forest Service, currently spending around $240m a year on fuel, and forest health treatment, would be spending an additional $650m annually over five years. 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.
An additional 20 million acres (31,000 sq mi) of national forests would be treated, along with up to 30,000,000 acres (47,000 sq mi) of federal, state and tribal land. The cost of treating the additional 50 million acres would be $50 billion, according to news reports that cite administration officials.
Randy Moore, chief of the Forest Service, said that the agency treats approximately 2 million acres annually. Officials have stated for years that fire prevention and forest restoration often take a backseat when 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 Camp Fire of 2018, which claimed at least 85 lives, was the most deadly.
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.”
According to the Forest Service, grasses and trees have been growing for over a century because of a national policy that aims to extinguish wildfires as quickly and efficiently as possible. “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 can be described as various techniques such as thinning or pruning, or prescribed burning to reduce the amount available for a flame.
The infrastructure bill also gave money to the Forest Service for increased base pay for firefighters, and to convert more that 1,000 seasonal firefighting positions to permanent jobs.
An average of 8.2 Million acres have been burned annually by wildfires since 2017. In 2017, 2020, and beyond, more than 10,000,000 acres were consumed.
To read the 10-year strategy paper, click here.
Source: Successful Farming