Forest Service Chief calls for treating two to four times more hazardous fuels acres

Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources June 17, 2021. (Still image from the Committee video.)

In what will be one of her last appearances in a Congressional hearing before she retires at the end of August, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen called repeatedly for a “paradigm shift” for treating hazardous fuels.

Today she testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to defend the President’s budget request for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2022 which begins October 1.

In addition to increasing the amount of timber harvested on Forest Service lands, the topic of reducing the number of devastating wildfires came up many times in the hour and a half hearing. A video is available on the Committee’s website.

Senator John Barrasso (WY) mentioned (at 27:49 in the video) that in an April hearing the chief said a paradigm shift was needed to reduce the hazard fuels in forests. He asked,  “Do we need to dramatically increase the number of [wildfire mitigation] acres treated annually?” Chief Christiansen said,”Yes… We can’t just do the same old thing we’ve always done, just treat whatever acres we can get to… We have a crisis. We have a crisis that needs to be addressed differently.”

The Chief said the agency treats about three million acres each year, but they need to treat two to four times that amount.

Senator Ron Wyden (OR) got the Chief to confirm that the agency’s latest estimate is that it would take $20 billion over a 10-year period  to “get in front of the hazardous fuel challenge” (at 39:25).

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group created a wildland fire glossary of terms, which includes their definition of “hazard fuels”:

A fuel complex defined by kind, arrangement, volume, condition, and location that presents a threat of ignition and resistance to control.

Senator Wyden addressed the possibility of a fire season this year that could be worse than average (at 36:40). He asked, “What is the plan for keeping people safe when there are fires in multiple communities in the West?”

Chief Christiansen said, in part, that in recent years there has been competition for firefighting resources when the number of fires have resulted in requests for firefighters and equipment that were unable to be filled, and later said, “Our system is at a breaking point.”

Senator Wyden asked the Chief to submit a “written statement on what the plans are if we are short on resources in the West.”

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (NV) asked if the President’s proposed budget includes sufficient funding for battling wildfires, post-fire recovery, prevention, reducing hazard fuels, and addressing invasive species.

“Senator, it’s a step in the right direction. A significant step in the right direction… It helps in modernizing our wildland fire workforce. It does not get us every step that we need to be.

“I’m very concerned about our workforce,” she continued. “They are tired, and fatigued. Their mental well-being and stress that we are concerned about. Many of these folks are temporary employees and they try to make a year’s living in six to nine months. There are still more things to address, but this budget is a very good first step.

Senator Masto asked about the recruitment and retention challenges that the agency is facing (1:05:30).

“It’s a calling to do this work,” the Chief said. “But anybody should be able to have a living wage to do this work. We do have concerns about a competitive wage… We are committed to work with the Department of the Interior and others to do a comprehensive look at our workforce needs.”

“Please share that,” said Senator Masto. “It’s the same thing I’m hearing in my state from our fire chiefs. It’s a challenge. And this is something we have to address.”

Senator Angus King (Maine) said timber sales on public lands fell from 13 billion board feet in 1988 to 3.2 billion last year, a factor of five, he said. (1:13:07) “What in the hell happened,” he asked. Later he said, “Coincidentally from 1991 to 2020 the number of acres burned has gone up by a factor of five. Is there a connection?”

“Yes sir, there is,” the Chief quickly replied. The Senator moved on to another topic and did not allow her to fully explain why she thought there is a connection.

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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.

13 thoughts on “Forest Service Chief calls for treating two to four times more hazardous fuels acres”

  1. We have been advocating for increased Rx fire acreage for years, but it requires more than a statement from the boss, or even congressional funding. Systematic change would be required. Retention and recruitment are definitely a part of that change, ie. better pay, and benefits. Another part would be using the Southeast region attitude and protections as a model and exporting that to the west. That would require other Fed agencies to buy in, states to recognize the need, and Line Officers to have a better understanding of the risks and benefits. I, frankly, got burnt out beating my head against the wall.

  2. So let me get this straight. On the way out the door her words & energy are all about INCREASING production and who the heck is gonna be tasked with that – the same troops who have been killing themselves and or staying in their positions while being eaten up inside to the point of serious mental breakdowns & family destruction! How about some energy & effort on helping the troops that will be tasked with carrying out the Chiefs directives? Only mention from her was “It’s a calling to do this work,” the Chief said. “But anybody should be able to have a living wage to do this work. We do have concerns about a competitive wage. We are committed to work with the Department of the Interior and others to do a comprehensive look at our workforce needs.” Are you serious – the chance you have to shine a light on the dark place that is the emotional, mental health & fitness of our agencies responders and you talk about money! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Enough with your looking at things with your partners – time for action has been here for a long time now and you failed. You are culpable and a failure for your lack of action – showing up at the national memorial to present flags to families of our fallen isnt enough. You could have & should have done more to leverage the change that you damn well know is overdue.

  3. It’s sad we are all screaming like we have been for years. Same stuff. She called herself a wildland firefighter but where is the JOB CLASSIFICATION THE PAY INCREASE DESERVED. We retire with cancer that’s the buck with the job. The families left with nothing become OWCP problem which does a good job of making you grab your ankles and say give me more for my service to my country. Something needs to change in this career for everyone!!

  4. I have mixed emotions about Victoria but I will leave it at this: she did the best she could with the cards she had. Read Jack Ward Thomas’ memoir of his time as Chief to understand how little a Chief can actually accomplish. Rick Cables once observed that the higher he rose in the FS, the less he could get done. Good job, Vicki. Carry on.

  5. I have to respectfully disagree. She was not a good leader. She did not protect the men and women (especially women) at the FS. If she was harassed than she should have been more sympathetic to men and women who were harassed, assualted, and raped. Instead, she went out of her way to fire them through the HART program.

    Vicki was implicit! She was directly involved in getting rid of men and women who did the right thing by reporting sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. She fired pregnant women and women with cancer. She fired men and women who were bullied, harassed, sexually harassed, assaulted, sexually assaulted, and raped.

    I have watched hours and hours of her at congressional hearings about budgets and reports. On numerous occasions, I was disappointed, because she maked excuses of why certain reports were not turned in on time, which upsets me, because I was fired for poor performance and truly believed that if Vicki could not get those reports to Congress on time (or at all) then she should have been put on a PIP and fired.

    Why does she get to retire, when countless men and women were fired?

    Vicki, don’t let the door hit you on the way out!!!

  6. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    It’s nice to hear her speak as honestly as a DC ‘bot can speak on the subjects we’ve all been beating the drums about for decades. It says a lot that she didn’t do it until she was on her way out the door. Her poor stewardship of the Chief’s position will not be missed.

    It should also be recognized that the political class – embodied by Senator King here – don’t give a single flying (insert proper word here) about any of it. He did exactly what his special interest donors pay him to do: score political points while furthering their financial concerns. Dumbing down resource management to a binary equation isn’t the answer either.

  7. 20 Billion…. There has yet to be a single time in recent history that estimated budgets were actually spot on or over estimated. So what she really is sayimg is 40 billion. Except until all the studies are complete enough time will have passed even 40 wont do it so they will have to start all over.
    What is really being said by her and everyone else complaining about mental health, trying to make ends meet on a 6 month paycheck, low pay, crappy hrs, no promotions, over worked, no budget to work with etc… is the entire fire program at least on the federal level is NOT SUSTAINABLE at any level. Throwing 20 billion of everyone’s tax dollars to a solution that is neither long or short term sustainable is beyond comprehension. FFs (forestry techs) should realize its time to move onto a private sector job and get what they need and deserve. These jobs were not meant to be full time permanent for multiple reasons. All of those reasons are very clear now and are being written about daily. Until there is a full rework of how FS operations are run top to bottom having any job there is just a poor business decision

  8. I guess good ‘ole Angus doesn’t understand about the timber market in the US being flooded with cheap Canadian timber during those years which undercut US mills, and how the majority of US timber went to Japan and China as raw logs and pulp instead of meeting out own lumber needs here. Or the marginal market value of much of the stumpage in many western states that have the high fuels buildup. Or how Congress, which he is a part, has been eviscerating the agency’s budget for decades. Or how Congress refuses to approve revenue streams to fund forest health.

  9. Back in the 80s, when my Dad was running the vegetation management program in one part of California, he had to get timely approval for about 12 other agencies and stakeholders for even the smallest prescribed burn. Getting that done and still being inside the allowable burn window was a real trick. Fortunately, mother nature does not have to get all those approvals before burning off millions of acres.

  10. I would like you to explain this comment: “These jobs were not meant to be full time permanent for multiple reasons.” I started as a AD actually, then to a temp Forestry Technician, and retired as a Division Chief. I always thought of it as a career, not a ‘summer job’.

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