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The Healthy Forests Initiative and Healthy Forests Restoration Act
Interim Field Guide

Title I of the HFRA—Hazardous-Fuel Reduction on NFS and BLM Land

Title I of the HFRA focuses primarily on expedited hazardous-fuel treatment on some NFS and BLM lands at risk of wildland fire and insect or disease epidemics. These lands include areas where vegetation treatment will provide long-term benefits to threatened and endangered species. The act encourages Federal agencies to involve State and local governments and citizens when developing plans and projects for vegetation treatment on Federal and adjacent non-Federal lands. The HFRA is consistent with community-based wildland fire planning, watershed planning, and related ongoing efforts under the National Fire Plan (http://www.fireplan.gov) and A Collaborative Approach for Reducing Wildland Fire Risks to Communities and the Environment: 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan (May 2002, http://www.fireplan.gov/reports/11-23-en.pdf). The HFRA does not duplicate or replace these ongoing efforts.

Hazardous-fuel reduction projects on NFS and BLM lands in one or more of the following areas qualify for expedited NEPA review under the HFRA:

  • WUIs of at-risk communities

  • Municipal watersheds that are at risk from wildland fire

  • Areas where wind throw, blowdown, ice storm damage, or the existence or imminent risk of an insect or disease epidemic significantly threatens ecosystem components or resource values

  • Areas where wildland fire poses a threat to, and where the natural fire regimes are important for, threatened and endangered species or their habitat

The types of lands listed above define where the authorities of the HFRA can be used to expedite vegetation treatment, such as mechanical thinning or prescribed fire, on NFS and BLM lands.

The HFRA requires authorized projects to be planned and conducted consistent with resource management plans and other relevant administrative policies and decisions that apply to the Federal lands covered by the project (Section 102(b)). The HFRA also prohibits authorized projects in wilderness areas, formal wilderness study areas, and Federal lands where an act of Congress or Presidential proclamation prohibits or restricts removal of vegetation (Section 102(d)).

Wildland-Urban Interfaces Within or Adjacent to At-Risk Communities

The HFRA provides improved administrative procedures for hazardous-fuel-reduction projects on NFS and BLM lands in the WUIs of at-risk communities. The act encourages the development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans under which communities will designate their WUIs, where HFRA projects may take place. The HFRA will greatly accelerate the interest of listed at-risk communities (FR 66 160 Aug. 17, 2001; http://www.fireplan.gov/content/reports) in preparing wildland fire protection plans and designating their WUIs, as well as the interest of other communities in becoming listed as at-risk communities. Federal agencies and their State and local cooperators must be prepared to provide information and services to support these communities (figure 5).

Photograph of a forest fire near a community.
Figure 5—High-intensity wildland fire on the Pueblo de Taos Indian Reservation
near Taos, NM, shows the need for projects to reduce
the risk of wildland fire to at-risk communities.

This Field Guide includes information on planning and setting priorities for work in and around at-risk communities in the section on Setting Priorities and Collaborating.

At-Risk Municipal Watersheds

The HFRA authorizes projects that reduce the risk wildland fires pose to the quality of a municipal water supply or to its maintenance (figure 6). Specifically, in Sections 102(a)(2) and (3), the HFRA provides for expedited vegetation treatments on NFS and BLM lands in Condition Class 3 in all fire regimes and in Condition Class 2 in Fire Regimes I, II, or III that are:

"… in such proximity to a municipal water supply system or a stream feeding such a system within a municipal watershed that a significant risk exists that a fire disturbance event would have adverse effects on the water quality of the municipal water supply or the maintenance of the system, including a risk to water quality posed by erosion following such a fire disturbance event."

At-risk watersheds do not have to be directly associated with at-risk communities or their WUIs under Section 102(a)(1) of the act. However, when managers work with communities to assess the risk of wildland fire, they should include the risk of wildland fire to municipal watersheds in the Community Wildfire Protection Plans described in Section 101(3).

Determination of Significant Risk

The HFRA requires an evaluation that a significant risk exists be made after an assessment that a wildland fire would have adverse effects on the quality of the municipal water supply or on maintenance of the system. Many NFS and BLM units have completed watershed analyses that should be utilized to the maximum extent possible to assess the potential adverse effects of a wildland fire event on the quality of municipal water supplies and system maintenance. This determination of adverse effects is the responsibility of the land-management agency and should be based on an examination of the relevant information. However, resource managers must seek to collaborate with and actively involve community leaders and citizens in providing information relevant to such determinations.

Aerial photograph of a municipal watershed area.
Figure 6—Within 48 hours after the Myrtle Creek fire burned in the municipal
watershed for Bonners Ferry, ID, sediment from the watershed
was degrading water taste and clarity.

This determination of adverse effects of wildland fire should be made after an assessment that:

  • Identifies and maps the municipal watersheds

  • Identifies and maps the fire regimes and fire regime condition classes in and adjacent to the watershed

  • Assesses the likely effects on water quality, sediment delivery, and water supply system infrastructure if a wildland fire occurs in or adjacent to the watershed

Protocols for assessing fire regimes and fire regime condition classes have been developed by the USDA Forest Service and the DOI for field use. These assessments should be conducted at the appropriate scale for determining the risk that a wildland fire event may pose to the quality of the municipal water supply or to maintenance of the system. More information on identifying fire regimes or fire regime condition classes is available at: http://www.frcc.gov.

In most cases, the evaluation of the adverse effects of a wildland-fire event in, or adjacent to, a municipal watershed should be relatively straightforward. This evaluation should include:

  • Changes in peak streamflow frequency or magnitude

  • Sediment flows in municipal watersheds that could degrade water quality, reduce its quantity, and increase treatment costs

  • Other relevant effects, such as the release of heavy metals

The effects of wildland fire on municipal water supplies include: changes in erosion hazard and erosion rates, debris and mud­flow hazards, the ability of channels to handle sediment, and the formation of water-repellent soil layers. In some watersheds, wildland fire may also mobilize substances toxic to human health, such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other metals. These materials may have entered the watershed from natural sources, abandoned or active mines, or through atmospheric deposition. After a fire, these materials may be dissolved in water or adsorbed (attached) to inorganic and organic particles, making the materials more mobile than they were before the fire. In watersheds where mobilization of these toxic materials is a concern, they may be identified and the risk of their mobilization could be included in estimates of risk from wildland fires (figure 7).

Photograph of extreme soil erosion in a forested area.
Figure 7—Soil damaged by fire is susceptible to extreme erosion
if heavy rains occur shortly after the fire

The condition of the watershed and other factors that may place the water quality or quantity at risk, such as landslide-prone areas, excessive roading, or the effects of past wildland fires, may be included in the watershed risk assessment.

Risks to municipal water supply infrastructure also may be influenced by the capacity of the municipal water system and the proximity of the municipal watershed system infrastructure to flammable vegetation.

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