Joint Fire Science Program announces new funding for fuels treatment effectiveness

Funding for fuels research

Prescribed fire in Great Smoky Mountains NP
Prescribed fire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, March 9, 2021. NPS photo.

The Joint Fire Science Program is offering grants for research into topics that can lead to more effective treatment of fuels. Examples include:

  • Longevity of fuel treatment effectiveness under climate change;
  • Fuels treatment effectiveness across landscapes;
  • Pre-fire management actions for reducing post-fire hazards; and
  • Social and political factors that influence fire suppression and rehabilitation costs.

The funding amounts for each of the four projects is expected to range from $300,000 to $500,000.

The new grant opportunities stem from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to advance research into wildfire prevention and post-fire restoration on federal lands.

The Joint Fire Science Program is accepting applications for grants to research innovative fuels treatments and post-fire rehabilitation efforts through Dec. 20, 2022, for fiscal year 2023.

Funding opportunities for wildland fire research priorities are posted on the Joint Fire Science Program’s website.

“With increasing wildfire activity due to climate change, it is imperative we fund research to better understand how to manage fire prone landscapes now and into the future,” said Grant Beebe, Bureau of Land Management assistant director of fire and aviation, based at the National Interagency Fire Center. “The Joint Fire Science Program brings the science and management community together in a unique, collaborative manner so that research can be used to make sound decisions on the ground.”

This funding is in addition to $3.4 billion in wildfire suppression and mitigation included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

This includes investments such as:

• $600 million to increase federal firefighter salaries by up to $20,000/year and convert at least 1,000 seasonal firefighters to year-round positions.
• $500 million for hazardous fuels mitigation.
• $500 million for prescribed fires.
• $500 million for communities to implement their community wildfire defense plan, a collaborative plan to address local hazards and risks from wildfire.
• $500 million for developing control locations and installing fuel breaks.
• $100 million for preplanning fire response workshops and workforce training.
• $40 million for radio frequency interoperability and to create Reverse-911 systems.
• $20 million for NOAA to create a satellite that rapidly detects fires in areas the federal government has financial responsibility.
• $10 million to procure real-time wildfire detection and monitoring equipment in high-risk or post-burn areas.

Report: US Forest Service is sometimes overstating fuel management accomplishments

Forest thinning in the Umpqua National Forest
Forest thinning project in the Umpqua National Forest. Credit, Oregon State University.

NBC News conducted an investigation into some of the claims and statistics about vegetation management projects that are designed to improve forest health and/or and reduce the threat of wildfires. The emphasis of the very lengthy article about their findings was not so much to question the need or effectiveness of the hazardous fuel reduction projects, but to examine their claims of accomplishments, which are sometimes misleading.

Many fuel management projects on National Forests include multiple treatments of a single area. There can be some combination of thinning, pruning, piling, chipping, or prescribed burning, all considered independently and occurring at different times. In an extreme scenario, if the project was 100 acres and five different treatments occurred, each might be reported as accomplishing 100 acres of fuel treatment. They then tell Congress they treated 500 acres.

The NBC article gave an actual example of a project on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California near Big Bear Lake. The 173-acre project had multiple treatments. From the article:

They first [step] appeared in 2016, when the Forest Service assigned workers to cut trees to reduce the area’s density. The agency came back two years later, pruning the remaining trees and piling the cut wood across the full 173 acres, then chipping 52 acres of it. A few months later, workers burned 18 acres of the piles.

The pruning, piling, chipping and burning were entered as separate items in the database and the agency reported them as 416 acres of treated land in its 2019 fiscal year totals to Congress. In summer 2021, it burned the remaining 155 acres of piles, reporting them in that year’s totals.

The Forest Service’s efforts ultimately reduced fire risk on 173 acres of land, but they were reported to Congress as 744 acres over four fiscal years.

“These acres are reported six times because we must request funding to accomplish the full suite of activities on the same 173 acres,” said [Wade] Muehlhof, the service’s spokesperson. “Each of these activities needs to be planned and budgeted for annually.”

The Forest Service tells Congress that it reduces wildfire risk on more than 2.5 million acres of its land every year. But this process of recounting the same acres any time more than one type of work is completed means that far less land is protected from damaging fire than is being reported.

NBC estimates that nationwide the FS has overstated accomplishments by 2.5 million acres, or 17 percent. In California the numbers are higher, 27 percent in the past five years, and by roughly 35 percent in the places near the most people, the state’s wildland urban interface areas.

The NBC article was written by Adiel Kaplan, with assistance from Monica Hersher and Joe Murphy.

Save communities by thinning forests or hardening structures?

Moose Fire August 2, 2022 in Montana
The result of aerial ignition on the Moose Fire August 2, 2022 in Idaho. By Mike McMillan for the USFS.

Bloomberg Law has an interesting article by Bobby Magill about efforts to reduce the wildfire threat to homes. It discusses and compares forest thinning vs. hardening structures. Here are excerpts, but read the entire article.

Congress is spending billions to save communities from Western megafires by thinning large swaths of forests even as scientists say climate change-driven drought and heat are too extreme for it to work.

The money would be better spent thinning woods closest to homes and shoring up houses against embers raining down from firestorms, according to academics, former agency officials, and others who study wildfires.

“If our goal is to keep homes and communities from burning, the experts are telling us to focus from the home outwards. First, harden the home so it is less likely to ignite,” said Beverly Law, an emeritus professor of forestry at Oregon State University.

Megafires are sustained by drought and heat, and “no amount of thinning treatment will prevent such fires from occurring,” she said.


No Scientific Consensus
As the federal government focuses on forest thinning, no scientific consensus exists that removing vegetation, especially at a landscape-scale, will save communities in the paths of firestorms amid the West’s historic 23-year drought.

The science is clear that “there isn’t a great connection between home loss and these fuel treatments,” though they sometimes help firefighters gain a foothold on some fires, Cheng said.

Randy Moore, the Forest Service chief, said the agency is confident that as homes are built deeper and deeper into the woods, its research shows that removing “overstocked” trees is the best way to protect them.

“We know where we do nothing, or where we do a little, we’re seeing the evidence out on the landscape,” Moore said, referring to recent megafires. “We feel compelled to do something.”

Legislation allows wildfire training and employment of Alaskans in rural areas

Can include fuel reduction projects

Native Alaska Firefighters – On The Fireline – Cooling Off – In Training in McGrath Photos by Mike McMillan/AK Division of Forestry

By Alaska Fire Public Information Officers

Alaska’s “emergency firefighter act” – House Bill 209 – signed into law June 20, 2022, by Governor Mike Dunleavy enables the Division of Forestry and Fire Protection to train and employ wildland firefighters and project crews in rural areas.

Native Alaskan wildfire crews have historically been a vital part of village life and culture in Alaska, offering temporary employment to several hundred emergency firefighters (EFFs) throughout the summer months. But in recent years, limited opportunities for village fire crews and rural firefighters has been discouraging.

Alaska EFF wildland firefighters
Emergency Firefighter (EFF) Candidates Celebrate the End of their first Training Week at McGrath DOF in 2022. Photo: Gene Boyd/Alaska Division of Forestry

The purpose of the recent legislation is to alleviate many of the economic and logistical barriers to retaining rural firefighting crews throughout wildfire season – running from April to August. House Bill 209 empowers the Division of Forestry to utilize firefighters in non-emergency capacities – namely fuel reduction projects. Tree cutting, brush clearing, debris removal and pile burning helps crews learn valuable firefighting skills, building cohesion while earning a steady income.

“We want to keep people working in their communities,” said Andres Orozco, Helitak Operations Foreman at McGrath Forestry. “Our goal is to create reliable employment by investing in and building our workforce with well-trained, hard-working firefighters.” Andres predicts McGrath Forestry will train 20-30 new firefighters by year’s end – a number he hopes will double in 2023.

Department of Interior releases 5-year plan to prepare for wildfire

Approximately 7.1 million acres of land administered by the Interior Department have been identified as having a very high or high likelihood of exposure to wildfires

Horse Pasture Fire
Fire activity on the Horse Pasture Fire April 8, 2021 as islands of unburned fuel within the perimeter continue to burn. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. NPS photo.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has released a five-year plan to address wildfire risk on DOI protected land. It will help to prepare communities and ecosystems against the threat of wildfire by making investments in forest restoration, hazardous fuels management, and post-wildfire restoration. Much of it will be funded by Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) which provides $1.5 billion for the DOI’s Wildland Fire Management Program

Today, the Department released a roadmap for achieving these objectives in coordination with federal, non-federal, and Tribal partners. The roadmap follows the release in January of the U.S. Forest Service 10-Year Wildfire Crisis Strategy. Taken together, these plans outline the monitoring, maintenance, and treatment strategy the agencies will use to address wildfire risk, better serve communities, and improve conditions on all types of lands where wildfires can occur.

“Wildland fire management simply isn’t possible without the interagency, all-hands approach made possible by multilevel partnerships across the country,” said Office of Wildland Fire Director Jeff Rupert.

The overall strategy identified by the Interior and Agriculture Departments builds on the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy’s vision of safely and effectively extinguishing fire, when needed; using fire where allowable; managing natural resources; and, as a nation, living with wildland fire.

Today Director Rupert and personnel from the Forest Service testified before the House Natural Resources Committee on their planned work to address wildland fire.

In the hearing today, Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico referred to the Forest Service’s 10-year strategy released in January.  “I am concerned that the recently announced 10-year strategy to combat the wildfire crisis will fall short because not only are the tools not in place to implement this strategy, but the Forest Service is also only relying on only 5 years of funding to execute a 10-year plan. This is especially concerning considering yesterday’s release of the Department of the Interior’s wildfire strategy which is only 5 years.”

Rep. Herrell asked why the 10-year strategy included no references to how it will be implemented. Jaelith Hall-Rivera, USFS Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, said that it was a timing issue, in that the strategy was being prepared while the legislation was being considered.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona asked in regards to the additional funding and new initiatives outlined in the Infrastructure legislation, “Does the Forest Service have adequate staff capacity to fill the new dollars they will be responsible with implementing, and how does the Forest Service intend to address staffing capacities with new hiring?”

After Ms. Hall-Rivera and Brian Ferebee, Chief Executive of Intergovernmental Relations for the Forest Service glanced at each other, Mr. Ferebee turned on his microphone and basically said they were looking at the issue.

The DOI’s 5-year plan has a page and a half, Section III Planning, devoted to changes that will help to enable the execution of the additional workload. Those include:

  • Creating a team to deal with NEPA and other statutory review compliance;
  • Exploring opportunities to leverage partnerships and to utilize existing authorities to facilitate hazardous fuel treatments, such as Good Neighbor Authority.
  • Increase contracting and administration capacity so that programs have the support needed to carry out critical wildland fire management work. This will support efforts to hire additional wildland firefighters that are needed for wildfire response and to increase the pace and scale of hazardous fuel treatment efforts, along with the contracting that is needed for other critical fuel and restoration activities.
  • BIL investments will also allow DOI to expand staffing for professional positions that support science-based management decisions.
  • Continuing efforts started in 2021 to convert seasonal wildland firefighters to permanent full-time status will facilitate DOI efforts to respond to wildfires year-round and undertake hazardous fuel projects during periods of low wildfire activity.
  • The BIL provides funding to expand opportunities for training for staff, non-Federal wildland firefighters, and Native village fire crews to increase the pace and scale of fuel management treatments.

The USDA Forest Service’s 10-Year Wildfire Crisis Strategy focuses on treatment of up to 20 million acres of National Forest System lands, while Interior’s Five-Year Plan emphasizes fire-prone Interior and Tribal lands, including rangelands and other vegetative ecosystems that pose serious fire risks. Approximately 7.1 million acres of land administered by the Interior Department have been identified as having a very high or high likelihood of exposure to wildfires.

California agencies intend to ramp up prescribed burning

Whaley prescribed fire, Black Hills National Forest
Whaley prescribed fire, Black Hills National Forest, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A group of state and federal land management agencies in California has established a plan to promote the use of “beneficial fire”, and by 2025 expect to treat up to 400,000 acres a year.

That is well short of the agreement the same agencies reached in 2018 to treat one million acres per year by 2025. In August, 2020 they recommitted to that same one million-acre target. The plan released last week restates the one-million goal on page 17, but on the following page says, “By 2025, land managers will seek to deploy beneficial fire on 400,000 acres annually, based on the following targets and estimates:”

Targets, California prescribed fire and cultural burning
Targets, California prescribed fire and cultural burning. From the report on page. 18

The numbers above total 300,000 prescribed/cultural acres each year plus 120,000 to 200,000 acres of fire managed for resource benefit.

Beneficial fire, a term not widely used, is defined in the document as including prescribed fire, fire managed for resource benefit (less than full suppression of unplanned ignitions), and cultural burning by California Native American tribes.

Between 2017 and 2020, CAL FIRE and the US Forest Service completed or assisted with prescribed fire activities on approximately 80,000 acres annually, according to the plan released by the agencies last week. In the same period tribes, California State Parks, the National Park Service, local agencies, and private entities completed burns on tens of thousands of additional acres annually. The USFS and NPS also completed approximately 20,000 acres each year of fire managed for resource benefit. The amount of land thinned or converted into fuel breaks but not burned would add to that figure.

Doing some back of the envelope ciphering, let’s assume that during that four-year period about 120,000 acres were prescribed burned each year. Current estimates indicate that between 10 million and 30 million acres in California need some form of fuel reduction treatment. To use a middle ground number, if 20 million acres need to be treated on an average fire return interval of 20 years, for example, that works out to one million acres that need to be treated each year, about eight times the area treated every year recently. The actual average fire return interval should probably be less, especially considering that neglected areas will need both an initial entry burn and at least one subsequent burn before they can be restored to a sustainable fire regime and obtain maintenance status.

Norbeck prescribed fire
A member of the Alpine Hotshots ignites the Norbeck prescribed fire, October 20, 2014 in Custer State Park, SD. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The plan released last week by the Governor’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force indicates that the state of California will begin managing some fires for resource benefit, major change in their policy. They will evaluate areas on state land where modified fire suppression strategies can be implemented, such as land trusts, ranches, and timber owners. Where appropriate and authorized by the state Legislature, CAL FIRE will use plans and agreements with land managers and landowners in order to allow unintentional ignitions to burn under predetermined and prescribed conditions, to accomplish resource benefits similar to prescribed fire.

The key elements of the plan include:

  • Launching an online prescribed fire permitting system to streamline the review and approval of prescribed fire projects;
  • Establishing the state’s new Prescribed Fire Claims Fund to reduce liability for private burners;
  • Beginning a statewide program to enable tribes and cultural fire practitioners to revitalize cultural burning practices;
  • A prescribed fire training center to grow, train, and diversify the state’s prescribed fire workforce;
  • An interagency beneficial fire tracking system;
  • Pilot projects to undertake larger landscape-scale burns; and
  • A comprehensive review of the state’s smoke management programs to facilitate prescribed fire while protecting public health.

“This plan is vital to improve the health and resilience of the state’s forests, reduce wildfire risk of vulnerable communities, and increase stewardship by Native American fire practitioners,” said Task Force Co-Chair and U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien.

The plan, California’s Strategic Plan for Expanding the use of Beneficial Fire, March 2022, was developed by the Governor’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force. It can be downloaded here: (large 17 MB file).