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Four Threats - Key Messages

You are here: Four Threats > Key Messages > Fire and Fuels

Fire and Fuels

Decades of fuel buildup in many forest types have led to fires that burn out of control with uncharacteristic intensity, unprecedented damage to ecosystems and communities, and high suppression costs.

  • Where fire was once a frequent visitor and served to keep forests open, growing and uncrowded, decades of fire suppression have created conditions far denser than they ought to be, making them more vulnerable to catastrophic fire. Nearly 2/3 of National Forest System lands have missed one or more expected fire cycles, resulting in elevated fire risk and a forest health concern for millions of acres.
  • Vulnerable forest types are concentrated at lower elevations, where most Americans live, work, and play. A prime example is a dry, ponderosa pine forest.
  • Catastrophic fires can have severe social, economic, and ecological impacts:
    • Socially, catastrophic fires and related evacuations disrupt communities in the rural areas and the wildland-urban interface.
    • Economically, fires cost jobs and income from unrealized recreational activities on federal lands. Fire suppression costs often surpass $1 billion dollars per year.
    • Ecologically, sensitive species cannot find suitable habitat in overcrowded forests, and catastrophic fires often destroy the few remaining refuges available to wildlife.
  • Restoration treatments must focus on areas with the highest social, economic, and ecological risk. Treatment prescriptions (such as thinning or prescribed burning) depend on local conditions.
  • Priority for preventive maintenance treatments need to be in areas where risks are not yet elevated so that they do not move into the high-risk category.
  • Nonetheless, not every acre in high-priority treatment areas can or should be treated.
    • Restoration costs are high. The job is unlikely to be done with appropriated dollars alone. Finding a marketable use for the material that creates hazardous fuel conditions through biomass utilization or bioenergy is a way to supplement funding for costly restoration work.
    • Some areas are too steep or inaccessible for feasible treatment. The use of unplanned ignitions for resource benefits may be the best chance to treat hazardous fuel in inaccessible terrain once the protection targets nearby have a treated buffer for protection.

For updated information on how the Federal land management agencies are improving land conditions, please see http://www.healthyforests.gov/projects/healthy-forests-report-final.pdf

Last Update: 30 October 2006

US Forest Service
Last modified March 28, 2013

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