Opportunities to Improve the Wildland Fire System

Victoria Christiansen, Forest Service Interim Chief
Fire Continuum Conference
Missoula, MT
— May 21, 2018

It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here today. Thank you for inviting me.




I began my career 38 years ago in fire. I have worked as a forester and firefighter my entire career.

I have been with the Forest Service for seven years, but in reality I have been with the agency for much longer than that. I have been a partner for my entire career, implementing a shared mission: To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests to meet the needs of present and future generations.

So I have firsthand knowledge of the fire challenges facing the Forest Service, and I have extensive firsthand experience with the fire challenges here in the West. My personal passion is connecting people with their natural resources, whether it is around problems and issues like fire or, even better, how we make connections to share solutions!

The solutions come in the context of a wildland fire system that is increasingly complex and difficult, with growing challenges. To get to the solutions, we have to understand the wildland fire system we have today.

So I’m going to talk about the wildland fire system—the environment we are in and the gnarly challenges we face. Then I’m going to outline some of the areas of opportunity. Finally, I’m going to give a national perspective on the solutions. We are all in this together, so the solutions will take all of us working together … before, during, and after a wildfire, working across disciplines and through partnerships based on mutual goals. The good news is that we already have a framework for the solutions through the Cohesive Strategy.


Wildland Fire System

Historically, wildland fire fundamentally shaped the American landscape, and it continues to do so today in a highly modified environment. Forest, brush, and range fires were common in “pre-settlement” times, and the American Indians realized the important role fire played in revitalizing and reinvigorating landscapes. Native Americans used fire for purposes ranging from shaping habitats for desired species to reducing fuels to protect communities.

Sound familiar?

Today, our nation has over a billion “burnable” acres of vegetated landscapes, most of them naturally adapted to periodic wildland fire. And as our nation has changed, so has our ability to live with wildland fire.  

In the wildland fire system we have today, a full suite of environmental, social, political, financial, and cultural factors all drive outcomes in the wildland fire environment. With pieces connected to civil society, responders, communities, and landscapes, our wildland fire system is extremely complex. 

So is our operating environment. For one thing, forces are at play that we have little or no control over. For another thing, a broad set of stakeholders is involved, which presents both challenges and opportunities.



So what are the gnarly challenges we face? What are the things that are difficult and dangerous, that are beyond our control as land managers and fire managers?

One symptom is fire seasons that now span the whole year. We now talk about the fire year, not the fire season. Another symptom is wildfires that have grown in frequency, size, and severity. Forty years ago, a wildfire larger than 10,000 acres was relatively rare. Twenty years ago, a wildfire larger than 100,000 acres was relatively rare. Today, we talk of megafires, and we see them every year. Last year, we had 12 fires that burned more than 100,000 acres and an additional 39 fires that burned more than 40,000 acres.

Those megafires cost. The fires that escape initial attack are only 2 to 3 percent of all the fires we fight at the Forest Service, but they take up 30 percent of our suppression budget. Last year, the Thomas Fire near Ventura was the largest in California history. It burned for more than a month, covered more than 280,000 acres, and destroyed more than a thousand structures. Each year, U.S. taxpayers lose $20 to $100 billion in wildfire-related damages to infrastructure, public health, and natural resources.

Last year was one of the largest fire years in recent history. More than 10 million acres burned, the second most since 1960, and more than 12,000 structures were destroyed. At peak fire activity, our nation had 28,000 firefighters in the field, and it was the costliest fire year on record. The Forest Service alone spent more than $2.4 billion.

That was more than half of our entire agency budget. Year after year, fires have been taking up growing shares of our budget and growing numbers of our personnel. That has come at the expense of everything else we do … forest health, outdoor recreation, forest products, watershed restoration, and all the rest.

But the most tragic cost by far is in terms of lives lost to wildfire, and that is another symptom of the growing challenges in our wildland fire environment. Last year, 14 wildland firefighters lost their lives.

I want to take a moment to recognize their ultimate sacrifice as they paid the ultimate price … the unspeakable loss to their friends and families, the loss to us all. I want to recognize the great dedication of all the women and men supporting the fire effort and the outstanding job they do.

Tragically, the number of wildland firefighter fatalities has been rising. Since 1910, there have been more than 1,000 fatalities. About one-quarter of those fatalities, 255, occurred in the last 15 years. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, wildland firefighters are killed at a rate six times higher than structure firefighters.

So those are the effects of the challenges we face … rising firefighter fatalities, growing fire years, soaring suppression costs, rising fire size and severity, growing damage to homes, communities, watersheds, habitat, and timber.

The primary drivers are hazardous fuel buildups, drought, climate change, and increasing development in the wildland–urban interface … all of which are expected to continue. Climate models project warmer and drier conditions across large parts of the West and large increases in the area burned. This year alone, our predictive services expect above-normal significant wildland fire potential in about a dozen western states through August.

And that’s just it. “Above-normal” is becoming the new normal, something we can’t control. Nor can we control the challenge of increased development in the WUI. An estimated 120 million people in over 46 million homes are at varying levels of risk from wildfire, especially in the West. Less than 2 percent of the communities at risk are prepared as Firewise communities.


What We Can Do: Fire Response

So those are the gnarly challenges … drought, fuel buildups, growth in the WUI … a legacy of fire exclusion compounded by climate change and homes spreading into fire-prone landscapes. This is the wildland fire environment we are in, and it contributes to the growing complexity of the wildland fire system we face … those social, political, and cultural factors we must work within.

But there are things we can do. At the Forest Service, we are convinced that continual learning and adaptation are key to keeping pace with the rising complexity of the wildland fire system. We need to focus on the factors in the system that we can control, such as the quality of our relationships … understanding that state, local, and tribal governments have different objectives and missions in response to fire. This is a part of the complexity of the wildland fire system, and in this system the Cohesive Strategy has become our foundational doctrine.

Since 2009, the broader fire community has stepped forward to strengthen relationships and coordination through the National Cohesive Strategy for Wildland Fire Management. Those of us involved in the process were tired of the finger pointing that often went on, with one side assigning blame for a fire to the other side. Fire is not a zero-sum game. Fire should unite us across the landscape through our common goals for the watersheds we share.

The wildland fire system required a new approach. All stakeholders came together to develop a national strategy that was truly shared. We created an all-lands national blueprint for further dialogue between local communities and national policymakers based on three national goals:

  1. First, restoring and maintaining healthy fire-adapted landscapes. This might look different based on different land management objectives in different parts of the landscape.
  2. Second, creating fire-adapted communities—not fire-proof but adapted to living with fire.
  3. Third, an effective, safe, and risk-based wildfire response. (Notice that I did not say wildfire suppression). Again, this would look different based on different land management objectives in different landscapes—conceivably even on the same fire. But it always means safe and effective wildfire response based on risk analysis for all ownerships.

All three goals need to work together across broad landscapes, inclusive of communities. They need to create synergies, where we work with partners ranging from national to local. Guiding principles and shared core values include improved risk management and active management to make the landscape more resilient.

At the Forest Service, we are very committed to doing our part … 

  • … our part to accelerate the treatment of the landscapes we manage to create greater resilience ...
  • … our part to help communities become fire-adapted …
  • … and our part to work with our partners to develop a shared risk-based response to wildfire. 

All of this needs to be done BEFORE a fire comes!


Risk-Based Response to Wildfire

Let me take a moment to talk about a risk-based response to wildfire. For some, a narrative has formed that Forest Service firefighting is not aggressive enough.

To frame this up, I will talk about three different decision points and outcomes when there is an unplanned wildfire start:

  1. First, fire is an important land treatment tool to reduce fuel loads and achieve other beneficial natural resource outcomes. In many landscapes in the South and West, fire is the major land treatment tool! Planned prescribed fire is one way to get fire on the landscape under conditions we choose. Additionally, unplanned wildfire, especially on federal lands where we are the land manager and the fire manager, is also an important land treatment tool when executed under the right conditions and when we comanage the risk with our neighboring partners, accepting short-term risks for longer term reductions in risk. Such fires each year are few.
  2. Second, when a fire seems likely to threaten lives, homes, or neighboring property, we suppress it as fast as we can and prioritize our resources accordingly. We make that decision while the fire is still small, and our rate of suppression success is nearly 98 percent. These are the overwhelming majority of the fires on national forest land, about 7,000 fires annually.
  3. Third, 2 to 3 percent of the fires we fight escape our control. These few fires typically become very large, often due to extreme conditions in fuels, weather, and topography.

Our Leader Intent for fire response has been consistently clear: even on wildfires close to homes and communities, safety is our highest priority. No home is worth a human life. We will commit firefighters only under conditions where they can actually have a chance of succeeding in protecting important values at risk.

We have always expected firefighters to be aggressive in taking necessary action using tactics that have a high probability of success. We are a can-do organization, and that hasn’t changed.

But we also expect our responders to accept the situation when all we can do is point protection until the fuels or weather changes—using burnouts and other tactics to steer fire around homes, infrastructure, and other values. We neither expect nor allow firefighters to risk their lives attempting the improbable. Any other policy would be unconscionable and irresponsible to the wildland fire community and to the people we serve.

We are assisting line officers and incident commanders with decision-making tools, enhanced analytics, and alignment needed for making risk-informed choices when responding to wildfires, allowing managers to better examine alternative strategies to consider the inherent tradeoffs between exposure, risk, and highly valued assets and opportunities for fire benefits. 

We are working with our partners to increase our focus on prefire work to develop strategies to ensure common understanding before fires occur.   


Fire Funding Fix

Another thing in our fire environment that we can control is the way we work to create more resilient landscapes. Congress recently gave us a big push to treat more lands and improve forest conditions.   

The omnibus spending bill for 2018 will help us finally stabilize our budgets for firefighting after decades of spiraling out of control. Last year, firefighting claimed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget—up from just 16 percent in 1995. At the rate we were going, fire would have taken up two-thirds of our budget by 2021. And as firefighting funds have run out, the Forest Service has had to cover the shortfall by taking funds from nonfire programs.

Through the omnibus bill, Congress has resolved the dilemma beginning in 2020. First, our regular firefighting appropriation is frozen at the 2015 requested level so it no longer grows at the expense of everything else we do. Second, Congress has created a separate fund to cover firefighting costs during severe fire years so that we no longer have to raid our nonfire programs.

Of course, none of this kicks in until 2020. But the omnibus gives us an additional $500 million in emergency suppression funds for 2018, for a total of about $1.5 billion for suppression this year. For next year, Congress has indicated that it will do the same.

The omnibus also represents new investments by Congress in the health of the federal lands. It gives us an additional $40 million for hazardous fuels reduction, for a total of $430 million this year, and it fully funds the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program at $40 million.

Together, our Hazardous Fuels program and the CFLRP are already reducing the risk of severe wildfires, especially in the West. In fiscal year 2017, we treated 3.2 million acres across the National Forest System to reduce fuels and improve ecological conditions.

Through the omnibus bill, Congress has also given us several new tools to help us reduce wildfire risk by improving forest conditions.

  • One tool is amending the Good Neighbor Authority to help us work more efficiently with states to maintain the health of forests by allowing road maintenance and reconstruction in the good neighbor agreements.  
  • Another tool is our expanded ability to use stewardship contracts by extending their maximum duration from 10 years to 20 years. This will allow industry to create additional markets for wood products in areas where mills are scarce.  
  • The omnibus also authorizes the use of new categorical exclusions for wildfire resilience projects on federal lands. With this new tool, projects for hazardous fuels reduction can be started and completed more quickly.

By giving us new tools and more funds, along with a fire funding fix, the omnibus will help us stabilize our programs. It will also extend our ability to work with neighbors and partners under the Cohesive Strategy to meet our shared goals … to help us learn to live with wildland fire.


With Trust Comes Accountability

Now it is up to us, working together, to make good on that promise. The fire funding fix goes for eight years, from 2020 to 2028, but it comes with a caveat: no blank check. If we want a permanent fix, then we need to be accountable for our spending. Congress will be watching.

So the Forest Service has taken a close look at our fire spending systems, and we are introducing reforms to improve our accountability. Central to our success will be a system of key performance indicators to help us evaluate the cost-effectiveness of our asset use.

In all of this, we ask for your help and support. The omnibus spending bill has created opportunities that have been years in the making by giving us a fire funding fix and new authorities. But with new opportunities comes the challenge of living up to the expectations of the people we serve.

Now we have more opportunities to pursue our goals under our Cohesive Strategy: healthy, resilient fire-adapted landscapes … communities that are adapted to living with fire … safe, effective, risk-based wildfire response. Our success in delivering all these things will vindicate the trust that Congress has placed in us, on behalf of the people we serve.

I want to close with a couple of quotes. To paraphrase Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, it is up to all of us, working together, to create an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect.

And the Father of Conservation and founder of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, had this to say: “The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.”