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Speech

The Future of the Wildland-Urban Interface: Challenges Ahead

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Wildland-Urban Interface 2017
Reno, NV — March 30, 2017

Good afternoon! It’s a pleasure to be here today. The WUI is an issue of deep concern to all of us, especially in view of worsening fire seasons and the growing number of communities at risk.

In 2009, in view of these and other challenges, we began working with the entire wildland fire community to formulate a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Our strategy is based on three core goals. Each goal affects the future of the WUI.

First, ecological restoration. Vast areas of our nation’s forests and grasslands are in need of treatments to restore healthy, resilient fire-adapted ecosystems. More than 60 percent of the National Forest System is in need of treatments that include the use of fire.

Across many of these degraded landscapes, fuel buildups have created explosive conditions made worse by the effects of climate change, such as drought and insect epidemics. Fires are getting bigger than ever before, with more extreme fire behavior. Large, catastrophic fires account for 1 to 2 percent of total fires but result in 30 percent or more of fire expenditures.

These fires are not going away. To restore healthy, resilient fire-adapted ecosystems, we need to get more fire on the land, not less. If we don’t, then our fires are only going to get bigger, more explosive, and more dangerous to homes and communities.

And that brings me to a second major challenge: helping communities in the WUI live with fire. Today, the WUI contains about a third of the housing units in the United States. Fast-growing areas with moderate to high wildland fire potential range from parts of the South to large parts of the West.

As homes have spread into fire-prone areas, the number burned in wildfires has climbed. In response, our fire-related spending now accounts for more than half of our entire budget. That’s up from just 16 percent in 1995. At this rate, fire alone will account for 67 percent of our budget by 2025.

Our studies show that about 90 percent of our fuel treatments succeed in changing fire behavior and helping control wildfire. That helps our firefighters safely control fires before they burn through homes and communities. We treat about 3 million acres per year for hazardous fuels, including about 700,000 acres of mechanical fuels treatments.

We need to do more. We need to prioritize funding where the impacts are greatest. A realistic goal might be to double number of acres treated through timber sales and stewardship contracts, to double the area of hazardous fuels treated mechanically, and to double the area treated with fire. That includes using more natural fire in forest types adapted to stand replacement fire.

We can get there by working with partners to open new markets and infrastructure for forest products, especially the low-value woody materials we need to remove. We can also streamline regulations by defining high-priority fuel treatments as emergency actions, which would let us use emergency consultation procedures under the Endangered Species Act. We can broaden our use categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act, and we can streamline consultations with EPA for smoke management.

New executive actions might create incentives for domestic wood innovation in government contracts. From Congress, a fire funding fix would help us meet the growing challenge of wildland fire management without hemorrhaging our budgets. We also need new authorities for categorical exclusions.

Strategic partnerships and public outreach will also be critically important. We might double the $15 million allocated to States for hazardous fuels work. We are looking for ways to expand our use of the Good Neighbor Authority under the Farm Bill. And we are also looking for ways to partner through our Cohesive Strategy to help landowners and communities expand their own hazardous fuels treatment and increase the resilience of their own infrastructure.

And that brings me to my final point: making sound risk-based decisions about managing wildland fires. Despite safety improvements, wildland firefighter fatalities have continued to rise. From the 1970s to the 2000s, the number of wildland firefighter fatalities per decade more than doubled, rising from 90 to 193. To help reverse the trend, our goal at the Forest Service is to eliminate unnecessary exposure, thereby increasing the odds that everyone goes home safely.

Keeping people safe from wildfire is a central part of our job at the Forest Service. I can think of nothing more important. Our goal is to commit emergency responders only to operations where and when they can succeed in protecting important values actually at risk. Our goal is to succeed with the least exposure necessary while maintaining relationships with the people we serve.

But no home is worth a human life. It is not our job to defend empty homes on dead-end roads. That is the responsibility of homeowners and communities themselves, working before a fire arrives to make homes and properties firesafe. Our responsibility is to work with state and local partners before a fire arrives to help communities become Firewise.

That is why the Forest Service has adopted a Life First policy. Our policy, commensurate with our Cohesive Strategy, is to respond appropriately to wildland fires, making sound risk-based decisions that do not place the lives of firefighters at needless risk.

In closing, I will summarize some of the lessons we have learned from working with partners to put our Cohesive Strategy in place.

  • First, we need to work together at all levels to address the issues surrounding wildland fire management, including firesafe practices, before, during, and after an incident.
  • Second, we need to work together with state, local, and community partners across the landscape on an all-lands, all-hands basis. That’s the only way to reduce risk to homes and communities on a sustainable basis.
  • Third, we need the right messaging and storytelling. Only face-to-face communication based on a relationship of mutual trust can move people to accept the inevitability of wildland fire, to accept the associated smoke, and to start adopting firesafe practices.
  • And fourth, it’s time for the Forest Service to reevaluate our efforts to mitigate wildfires. We need to evaluate the return on investment; to avoid duplication; and to do more to help communities and local authorities take responsibility for building their own capacity to keep homes in the WUI safe.
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