Released: National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy

National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy

After years of effort the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy has been released. The 93-page document helps managers make decisions about short and long-range planning and how their choices fit into the broader goals of the Cohesive Strategy, which revolve around:

  • Vegetation and fuels
  • Homes, communities, and values at risk
  • Human-caused Ignitions
  • Effective and efficient wildfire response

The document calls for increased emphasis in all four of the above categories. One of the surprises was how often managing “fires for resource objectives” (we don’t call them “let burn” fires any more) was suggested as one of the tools for reducing fuels. The phrase was mentioned 15 times, not including the table of contents. It usually included a caveat of a possible increased risk due to putting fire on the ground, and that it is not suitable in all areas. Prescribed fire was another tool that was often recommended.

The elephant in the room

While the topic of “effective and efficient wildfire response” was listed several times in headings, little in the way of specifics of how to improve the response was mentioned. Here is an example from page 51:

Management efforts to simultaneously emphasize structure protection in combination with efforts to reduce fire size through either increased response capacity or pre-fire fuels management seem warranted.

And on page 57 it looked at first like they were taking a strong stand to improve fire response, but then the writers minimized the value of it to a certain extent:

General guidance regarding response includes:

  • Enhance wildfire response preparedness in areas more likely to experience large, long-duration wildfires that are unwanted or threaten communities and homes.
  • Enhance wildfire response preparedness in areas experiencing high rates of structure loss per area burned.
  • At the community level, emphasize both structure protection and wildfire prevention to enhance the effectiveness of initial response.

It would be shortsighted to assume that a safe and effective response to fire is the only priority. Indeed, one could argue that the suppression challenges today are symptomatic of more fundamental underlying issues. The current trajectory of increasing risk cannot be headed off by simply adding more preparedness and suppression resources.

As we have often said on Wildfire Today, the prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

Most of the people that contributed to the report are government employees. Expecting them to say that their bosses have failed to provide them with the resources they need to do the job effectively and safely is not realistic. So we get timid statements like “increased response capacity or pre-fire fuels management seem warranted”, and, “It would be shortsighted to assume that a safe and effective response to fire is the only priority.”

The only way that “increased response capacity” is going to occur is if a leader or group of leaders take a bold stand and talk openly about the elephant in the room — the current inadequate funding for an effective and safe fire response. Some will say it costs money so it’s impossible. No, it is not impossible. Leaders could garner support for firefighting. We have a window of opportunity now, less than a year after a 19-person hotshot crew was killed while fighting fire, and a recent emphasis on climate change which frequently mentions more and larger wildfires.

Spending money up front to prevent small fires from turning into fires that can kill people and cost tens of millions of dollars to suppress, is an extremely good investment and can reduce overall expenditures.

And yes, more effort should also be directed at managing vegetation, convincing homeowners to be responsible for making their property fire-safe, and reducing human-caused ignitions. Those three along with an effective fire response comprise four essential elements of the land manager’s toolbox.

Action Plans

A year ago three regional “Action Plans” were released that provide more details of how the national goals will be implemented:

We checked the Western plan and it said very little about improving the response to wildfires.

A “National Action Plan” is referenced several times in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy document. We are attempting to locate a copy. When we are successful, it will be included here.

If you are interested in which states are included in the three regions, it is not a quick and easy process to figure it out. Only one of the plans has a map, the Northeast region:

Northeast region

(Unfortunately most of the graphics in the reports are very low resolution.)

The Western Region includes the 11 western-most states, plus Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. It follows that the Southeast Region includes the states not listed above or on the Northeast map.

More graphics

To wrap things up, there were quite a few interesting graphics in the report. A couple of them are below. (Click on them to see larger versions.)

Fire regimes Map of large long-duration wildfires

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

16 thoughts on “Released: National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy”

  1. Rapid IA works in all areas where the combination of naturally ignited wildfires overlap with human caused ignitions.

    I’ve been glad to see the recent trend of mapping condition class in BOTH the positive and negative departure from documented historic fire regimes.

    By doing so, it helps keep “science” fact based and allows people to see that rapid IA isn’t only needed in SoCal or the Colorado Front.

  2. Unfortunately the LMA’s do not have an unlimited budget. It sure seems that way on some fires, but there just are not enough resources to attack every fire with overwhelming force. We have to prioritize. That may, god forbid, mean some fires in remote areas don’t get 15 loads of retardant. There has to be some sanity when it comes to suppression costs. Alaska already does this and it makes sense, because here is another reality. We cannot even come close to keeping up with treating and maintaining all the acres that need to be done with fuels treatments.
    Overwhelming force makes sense in SoCal and the Colorado front range, but there are many places in the west where it does not. Risk vs. reward. As a fun exercise check out all the small fires suppressed by jumpers in the cascade range in Oregon and look at that range now. Almost all those fires that we parachuted folks into have been swallowed up by large fires. Why did those fires get large? A huge buildup of fuels from years of suppression.
    Suppression: the only management action allowed in the wilderness.

  3. I fully support rapid and effective IA, Suppression will always need to be a key part of any Wildland fire program. But the best way to keep small fires from becoming megafires is to act before ignition,
    with well-funded and staffed forest and rangeland restoration and hazard mitigation efforts.

  4. Cheatgrass does deserve mention by name, among others. I’m a chukar hunter and so like the stuff on that level, but it is invasive and all the rest.

    Why do people feel the need to plant a burn to reforest? Some of the hardest hit areas for the Rim fire were replanted areas, which therefore had stands of same age class waiting for another burn. Most of the rhetoric about devastating temperatures, “nuked” earth and the like is just that, rhetoric. Let the forest reforest at its own pace. Reforestation happens after stand replacement fires just as after little ones.

    Regarding Yarnell, both Rod Wrench and Cookie have valid points. You had an area that hadn’t burned in some time, that was going to burn. And lax standards which meant huge overhanging WUI issues were present. But, certainly an overwhelming IA could have pushed the problem out a few years until an even worse outcome was realized.

    My personal opinion is that the insanity present is allowing the moral hazard of lax WUI requirements to grow larger. Force developers and homeowners to bear the cost in terms of fire risk of the decision to live in beautiful WUI locations. Places in CA with relatively strict requirements are no less beautiful or livable because of those standards, so it is doable. Until more of the country gets there, certainly there is a place for aggressive IA, too, even if long-term it does compound risk.

  5. It is important to note that some areas in the United States are outside of the normal fire regime / condition class….. but not because of the reasons often stated of “effective fire suppression”.

    Some areas of the country suffer from TOO FREQUENT fire return intervals resulting in timbered areas being converted into brushlands…. and chaparral being converted into shrublands and non-native grasslands.

    1. Excellent points made by both Dave & Ken! Even here in South Lake Tahoe, the fuel reduction program, mainly in timber not chaparral, is allowing the chaparral species & sage to invade the ground level under growth. Yea, it looks nice and park like for the first 3 years or so but beyond that they have created a greater hazard then they started with. Now for the wonderful ideology of the let burn gang and reducing the fuel buildup with wildfire, just come and take a look at the 2007, fairly small, 3,100 acre Angora Fire that did $160+ million dollars of damage and turned the southwestern slope of the Basin below Echo & Angora Peak into a southern Cal dense field of chaparral. The F.S. claims, with their sign, they have planted the burn to reforest it but that’s a joke. I walked the burn area acre after acre trying to locate planted trees and found less then 6 trees 12″ high, and they will be choked out soon by the chaparral. This scene has been played out year after year in every western state for the last 20/25 years. What’s the answer? A quick, aggressive & proper initial attack on all wild fires, an aggressive, PROPER fuel modification & reduction programs that are funded long range and with follow up maintenance, bring back herbicides (OMG!), keep the over educated ideological elite out of the process, common sense, reasonable folks only!!!

  6. I’m all for not having mega-fires but hasn’t 100 years of

    “Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.”

    Got us into this mess in the first place. Smokey was wrong, we need more fire on the landscape. Until fuel reduction and restoration budgets equal suppression costs we are no where close to things changing around.

    1. Cookie, I see your point about the buildup of fuels over the last 100 years, but allowing fires to escape initial attack is not the answer. The federal land management agencies migrated away from the “rapid initial attack with overwhelming force” concept in the 1980s and early 1990’s. What we are doing now is not working, so continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results, well you know what it is — it’s the definition of insanity.

    2. The problem is that the USFS budget has been a zero sum game. Suppression vs. mitigation.

      The very reason the suppression budget is out of control and it eats up all the mitigation funding is that the fires being fought are extremely large fires. If the fires were controlled early when they were small by rapid IA, there would be money available for mitigation and remediation.

      Overwhelming IA is cheap when compared to fighting big fires for days or weeks. The federal land management agencies have not been in the IA business, they have been involved in the extended attack business where their limited assets are committed once the fires are large and out of control and very expensive to fight. They presently do not have sufficient assets to conduct IA.

      If you want a substantial mitigation budget in a zero sum budget environment, invest in IA to keep suppression costs down and give mitigation a chance to catch up.

    3. The current state of wildfire in N. America is a very complicated issue that, I believe, none of us can totally get our heads around. I would like to mention just three things:

      After years of dreaming, planning, stumbling and testing the feds began to make steps toward rapid initial attack only after the end of WWII at the earlest- most state and local agencies much later. That is considerably less than 100 years.

      The role of vegetation changes- principly the introduction and spread of invasive species is a factor often overlooked in my opinion. Much more a factor than any real or imagined “climate change” for instance.

      Never-the less, those interested in this topic are best served by an understanding of large fire history in N. America- especially that history that predates organized fire suppression. An interesting starting point is here:

      Anyone that is willing to review this and dive into the links will learn that destructive, stand replacement and killer mega-fires predated organized fire suppression in N. America.

      Keep in mind the above listing is for documented fires only. I wonder how many mega-fires went undocumented back in that day?

  7. Like the Effective 2012 USFS Aviation Strategy

    Just information rehash that aviation professionals already knew and not much in the way of strategy and how to fund a National program that needed and needs to be paid attention to……

    Strategy is planning turned to ACTION……..not just 12 page. nd 93 page documents

  8. A strategy is a plan of action to achieve goals with limited resources … this document has no plans, it commits no resources, it does not obligate any agency to act, and it assigns no responsibility. It is not a strategy.

    It outlines 3 goals and suggests options. Waiting for a strategy …

  9. A quick, aggressive & proper initial attack day or night is a no brainer! All resources, dispatchers, air & ground, must work aggressively together to take advantage of early lower rates of spread, favorable weather conditions, and having the offensive upper hand on control. Initial attack offers less risk based on duration of exposure to the hazard. The longer the fire burns and the larger it gets the risk of injury and damage increases with every shift for all. And of course suppression & rehab costs escalate out of sight. This was the very first contributing factor in the Yarnell tragedy, a non existent initial attack. This suppression tactic has been lacking and ignored in increasing numbers during the last 20 years. Just put it out!!

  10. It may cost more to support remote or out of town fire facilities and require more logistics, but it saves in the long run to initial attack fires with quicker response times.
    I wonder if the Wallow fire which consumed 500,000 acres could have been suppressed if the heliport at Hannigan meadow was operational. Hannigan was a 5 minute flight from the fire, but was moved to Springerville 60 miles away.


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