Forest Service announces 10-year initiative to increase fuel treatment

It will use $2.42 billion authorized by the infrastructure bill for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for fuels-related projects

Geronimo Hotshots
Geronimo Hotshots on the Big Windy Complex, Oregon, 2013. USFS photo by Lance Cheung.

On Tuesday the U.S. Forest Service announced a 10-year strategy to address what they call the wildfire crisis which poses immediate threats to communities. The initiative, called “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests,” combines the recent large investment funded by congress  with years of research and planning into a national effort that is intended to significantly increase the scale of forest health treatments over the next decade.

The Forest Service will work with other federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, and with Tribes, states, local communities, private landowners, and other partners to focus fuels and forest health treatments more strategically and at a larger scale.

Funding was approved in November

The Bipartisan Infrastructure bill signed by the President November 15, 2021 authorized about $2.42 billion for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 for fuels-related projects. (M = million)

  • $100M, Pre-fire planning, and training personnel for wildland firefighting and vegetation treatments
  • $20M, Data management for fuels projects and large fires
  • $100M, Planning & implementing projects under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program
  • $500M, Mechanical thinning, timber harvesting, pre-commercial thinning
  • $500M, Wildfire defense grants for at risk communities
  • $500M, Prescribed fires
  • $500M, Constructing fuelbreaks
  • $200M, Remove fuels, produce biochar and other innovative wood products

Previous testimony about fuel management before congressional committees

During testimony June 17, 2021  before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources former US Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said the agency treats fuels on about three million acres each year but said they need to treat two to four times that amount. She repeatedly called for a “paradigm shift” for treating hazardous fuels. Senator Ron Wyden (OR) got Ms. Christiansen 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”.

On September 29, 2021 in a hearing before the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, new USFS Chief Randy Moore said, “We will never hire enough firefighters, we will never buy enough engines or aircraft to fight these fires. We must actively treat forests. That’s what it takes to turn this situation around. We must shift from small scale treatments to strategic science-based treatments across boundaries. It must start with those places most critically at risk. We must treat 20 million acres over 10 years. Done right in the right places, treatments make a difference.”

On October 27, 2021 Jaelith Hall-Rivera, Deputy Forest Service Chief for State and Private Forestry told the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Natural Resources, “We need to treat an additional 20 million acres over the next decade and that could cost up to $20 billion or more.”

What is now planned

The plan released Tuesday by the Forest Service calls for:

  1. Treating up to an additional 20 million acres on the National Forest System lands in the West, over and above current treatment levels;
  2. Treating up to an additional 30 million acres on other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands in the West;

The current level of treatment in recent years has been 2-3 million acres per year for fuels and forest health, the new document stated.

The plan calls for an unprecedented “paradigm shift” in land management to increase fuels and forest health treatments across jurisdictions to match the actual scale of wildfire risk to people, communities, and natural resources, especially in the Western United States.

The Forest Service is developing staffing plans and will be increasing capacity in not only field personnel specializing in prescribed fire to complete the work but also key administrative positions like contracting officers, human resources professionals, collaboration and partnership coordinators, communications, and grants and agreements specialists who will assist in connecting with partners.

Marshall Fire, Louisville, Colorado, by WxChasing/Brandon Clement
Marshall Fire, Louisville, Colorado. Photo by WxChasing/Brandon Clement, Dec. 31, 2021.

In 2022 and 2023

During the first two years of the initiative, the agency will be looking for large landscape-scale projects that are ready to go, up until now lacking only the necessary funding.

They will be seeking projects that are:

  • Designed to reduce wildfire risk to communities, water supplies, or critical infrastructure (including utility lines, roads, and national security sites);
  • Critical ecological values (including watersheds, wildlife habitat, and old growth stands) and ecosystem services (including carbon storage);
  • Economic values (including outdoor recreation, timber, and grazing areas);
  • Areas of cultural and historic significance (including areas important to Tribes); and,
  • Areas of social importance to communities (including for access and subsistence use).


The new initiative also strives for increased rates of reforestation following forest fires.

“We currently address only 6 percent of post-wildfire replanting needs per year, resulting in a rapidly expanding list of reforestation needs,” the new plan states. “We have plans for the reforestation of more than 1.3 million acres of National Forest System land. However, these plans only address one-third of National Forest System reforestation needs, estimated to be 4 million acres and growing. As we work to recover from wildfire, we are emphasizing planting the right species, in the right place, under the right conditions, so forests will remain healthy and resilient over time.”

Our take

The testimony before congressional committees said that in order  to “get in front of the hazardous fuel challenge” and “turn this situation around” the Forest Service needs an additional $2 billion a year for the next 10 years, over and above what is currently being spent. What was appropriated for the next five years was about $0.48 billion per year, less than one-fourth of the additional funds the agency said was needed.

The growth of the climate crisis which has contributed to the “wildfire crisis” appears to be exceeding the estimates of scientists. Changes are occurring even more quickly than previously expected. So low-balling the funding for protecting our homeland will mean we will fall even further behind in treating fuels and attempting to keep fires from wiping out more communities.

The heads of the five federal land management agencies need to be honest with congress and continue to point out the scope of the fuels problem and the increasing risk of fiddling while the forests and subdivisions burn. Congress must accept the facts and pass legislation adequate to address the threats to our ecosystems and communities.

Forest Service video about fuel treatments and the Caldor Fire

The fire burned 221,000 acres near South Lake Tahoe, California

10:46 a.m. PDT Oct. 21, 2021

Fuel treatments Caldor Fire
Image from USFS video about fuel treatments and the Caldor Fire.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a four-minute video featuring the Forest Supervisors of the Eldorado National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit discussing fuel treatments that occurred in the years before the Caldor Fire burned nearly a quarter of a million acres southwest of South Lake Tahoe, California.

Yes, properly executed fuels treatments can modify a wildfire’s behavior and reduce intensity

Victoria Prescribed Fire, Black Hills National Forest
Victoria Prescribed Fire, Black Hills National Forest. South Dakota. USFS photo by Matt Daigle. March, 2021.

In recent weeks there have been discussions online about whether or not fuel reduction projects can aid firefighters by reducing the intensity of wildfires. These rumblings are heard from agenda driven advocacy groups including the John Muir Project.

There is no question that properly executed and followed up fuels treatments — mechanical, or prescribed fires — can modify subsequent fire behavior and reduce a wildfire’s intensity. Despite the attention getting efforts of these groups, this has been a settled issue for a very, very long time. Indigenous people no doubt knew this, and in recent decades wildland firefighters do as well.

From an Associated Press article by Don Thompson:

Scientists say climate change has made the American West much warmer and drier and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, accelerating the need for more large-scale forest treatments.

Critics say forest thinning operations are essentially logging projects in disguise.

Opening up the forest canopy and leaving more distance between trees reduces the natural humidity and cooling shade of dense forests and allows unimpeded winds to push fire faster, said Chad Hanson, forest and fire ecologist with the John Muir Project.

Such reasoning defies the laws of physics, said other experts: Less fuel means less severe fire. Fewer trees means it’s more difficult for fires to leap from treetop to treetop.

In a tweet that linked to the Associated Press article, British Columbia-based fire ecologist Robert W. Gray wrote:

Another case of false equivalency: weight of published, peer-reviewed fact vs one or two counter factuals published in a single journal known for pushing pseudoscience.

During extreme weather and fuel conditions, such as strong winds and very low fuel moisture, fires can spread very quickly with a great deal of resistance to control igniting spot fires a mile ahead, and in some cases may burn rapidly through or jump across fuel reduction sites, possibly igniting structures. This can illustrate the importance of homeowners making structures fire resistant and reducing flammable material in the Home Ignition Zone.

But in less than extreme conditions, a fire that spreads into a recently completed fuels project will slow, be less intense, and will offer less resistance to control. A recent example of this was when the Caldor Fire in Northern California began to reach the South Lake Tahoe area, allowing firefighters to attack the fire more directly. In a live briefing on September 3, 2021 East Side Incident Commander Rocky Opliger complimented the agencies for the fuel treatments that had been accomplished over the years. He said the 150-foot flame lengths dropped to about 15-feet when the fire entered the treated areas. This allowed hand crews and engines to take an aggressive approach to suppress the fire and prevent structure loss. The video of the briefing is on Facebook; Mr. Oplinger’s comments about the fuel treatments begin at 34:10.

“Science” funded by agenda driven advocacy groups that has not been peer-reviewed should always be suspect. Settled science that has been proven for decades or even centuries, should be respected.

Examining how fuel treatments affected suppression of the Caldor Fire in California

Backfire illustration
Illustration of ignition of a backfire, from the US Forest Service video below.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a video — the second in the Forest News: California National Forests series. In this episode the agency examines how fuel treatment areas on National Forest System lands changed the intensity of the Caldor Fire and provided opportunities for community defense. The blaze burned more than 221,000 acres near South Lake Tahoe in August and September.

The video was written, directed, and narrated by Joe Flannery, the Acting Regional Fire Communications Team Lead in the Forest Service’s California region.

Will the fuels reduction completed near South Lake Tahoe help protect homes from the Caldor Fire?

The Home Ignition Zone is the key

3:13 p.m. Sept. 1, 2021

Fuel treatments, Lake Tahoe Caldor Fire
Fuel treatments, Lake Tahoe area, and perimeter of the Caldor Fire Sept. 1, 2021.

For decades land managers and some residents in the Lake Tahoe area have been anticipating the Caldor Fire that has been burning since August 14. The blaze has blackened more than 204,000 acres as it rages to the northeast. It passed through the south edge of Meyers six miles south of the lakeshore and the head of the fire Wednesday morning was four miles from the lake.

Under the concept of reducing the fire threat to structures in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the US Forest Service and other organizations have been conducting hazardous fuel treatments. Since 1997, over 2,000 acres of landscape underburns and over 8,000 acres of prescribed pile burning has been completed on the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU), a division of the USFS that manages much of the land near the lake. In these areas, surface fuels have been reduced and smaller live trees thinned. The USFS says this “creates a zone where a damaging crown fire is less likely, which provides a safer environment for firefighters.”

The map above shows the fire on the morning of September 1 and completed hazardous fuel treatments. The green areas represent mechanical methods, such as thinning by hand or by using machines such as dozers or feller bunchers which can rapidly gather and cut a tree before felling it. Then the cut vegetation is piled. The purple areas represent locations where piles were burned. Some of the projects shown were completed in the last few years and others are older. This map shows very few areas (in yellow) that were treated with prescribed broadcast fire.

The USFS web page for the LTBMU politely says that budget restraints limit the number of acres that can be treated: “Increasing the annual number of acres treated with prescribed fire will challenge our future capacity.”

USFS engine crews on the initial attack of the Caldor Fire
USFS engine crews on the initial attack of the Caldor Fire, August 14, 2021. USFS photo.

The hope is that reducing the flammable vegetation will reduce the chances of structures being destroyed when a fire like the Caldor Fire burns into the area. Thinning trees and removing brush will not stop a fire, but in a best case scenario under benign weather and fuel conditions it might reduce the intensity of the fire and the number of firebrands landing on and near structures. If a fire does dramatically slow down when entering a treated area, it may make it possible for firefighters on the ground, perhaps aided by firefighters in the air, to stop the spread. That is, unless the wind is too strong and the vegetation moisture is historically low like we have seen this summer in California. As we wrote on August 22, under these conditions, “There is no possibility of stopping the forward spread of the fire. There is no number of 747 air tankers or firefighters on the ground that could be effective against the flaming front of this raging inferno.” This will continue to be true until something changes — some combination of cooler more humid weather, less wind, and vegetation with higher moisture content — or until it runs out of fuel at high elevations or spreads into agricultural land.

The Caldor has been lofting burning embers into the air that have landed a mile ahead of the flaming front, starting new fires, called spot fires by firefighters. When that is occurring fuel reduction projects a half mile wide around a community will not necessarily keep structures from burning. We could pave the forest paradise and put up a parking lot but if a fire a mile away can ignite residences we need other solutions.

The Home Ignition Zone (HIZ) is what home owners need to concentrate on. If it is welcoming to an ember storm, then the structure could burn no matter how much forest management is done. The HIZ must be maintained so that burning embers will not start a fire on the structure or ignite nearby vegetation which creates a fire that spreads to and ignites the building.

This is called Living With Fire. We can’t stop fires from burning, but we can stop homes from igniting when the inevitable fire occurs.

The best way to prevent homes from being destroyed in a wildfire is not clear cutting or prescribed burning a forest, it is the homeowner reducing flammable material in the HIZ. This includes spacing the crowns of trees at least 18 feet apart. The envelope of the structure itself must be fire resistant, including the roof, vents, siding, doors, windows, foundation, fences, eaves, and decks. A FEMA publication (13 MB) has excellent detailed recommendations. Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home. When implemented, Chapter 7A of the California Building Code, regulates these features.

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jack Cohen and Dave Strohmaier:

Uncontrollable extreme wildfires are inevitable; however, by reducing home ignition potential within the Home Ignition Zone we can create ignition resistant homes and communities. Thus, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Unfortunately, protecting communities from wildfire by reducing home ignition potential runs counter to established orthodoxy.

UPDATE September 3, 2021:

In a live briefing Sept. 3 about the Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe, California, East Side Incident Commander Rocky Oplinger complimented the land owners and managers for the fuel treatments that have been accomplished over the years. He said the 150-foot flame lengths dropped to about 15-feet when the fire entered the treated areas. This allowed hand crews and engines to take an aggressive approach to suppress the fire and prevent structure loss. The video of the briefing is on Facebook; Mr. Oplinger’s comments about the fuel treatments begin at 34:10.

Forest Service Chief squanders opportunity to request more funds for treating fuels

Also tells Congress “we’re on the right track with our air tankers”

Whaley Prescribed Fire Black Hills of South Dakota
The Whaley Prescribed Fire on the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In testimony April 15 before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen spoke to members of Congress remotely from a spacious office. She had two clear opportunities to accept or ask for more funding in two very important inadequately budgeted areas, fuels treatment and aerial firefighting. In one case when told by a member of Congress “You’re going to need some more help in the resource department,” she incredibly said, “No.”

Doubling or tripling the treatment of fuels

Later, at 48:00, Rep. Mark Amodei of Nevada had been talking about slow, medium, and fast lanes for fuel treatments: “If we want to start getting to the point with the National Forest Lands where we can say our stewardship is in the medium lane as far as fuels management then you’re going to need some more help in the resource department.”

Chief Vicki Christiansen, speaking to the Appropriations committee: “No. What I can speak to Congressman is the science. It is the policy of Congress and the Administration on how fast we go.”

(The Representative then seemed to become a little exasperated, perhaps wanting the Chief to say, “Yes, we could make more progress treating fuels if you could increase our funding.”)

Rep. Mark Amodei: “As a budget reality if this committee wants to help you with fuels, I’m just going to say it — you can disagree with me — we need to do better.”

Chief Vicki Christiansen: “We need to do better. We need to do better. We have more to do to make a difference, a significant difference, on the landscape.”

The need to do more was repeated in another discussion about treating fuels at 57:00. In a discussion with Representative Susie Lee (Nevada) the Chief said their data shows that when a wildfire spreads into an area that has been treated to reduce fuels, 86 percent of the time the fire behavior reduces significantly into a low-intensity fire. Their goal now, she said, is to “treat 40 percent of a fireshed in order to have a resilient forest.”

Rep. Susie Lee: “How realistic is it to be able to treat 40 percent of a fireshed?”

Chief Vicki Christiansen: “Well, that’s why we have to up our game two to three times what we are doing now. ”

Rep. Susie Lee: “OK.”

The Chief did not explain how she is going to increase fuels treatment by “two to three times” on stagnant funding.

Vickie Christiansen Appropriations Committee Forest Service fuels aircraft
Vicki Christiansen testified remotely before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies April 15, 2021.

Funding for aerial firefighting

At 34:05 in the video below Rep. Mike Simpson from Idaho was discussing aerial firefighting, and point blank asked — how much money do you need? She replied at the end of a long, off the subject meandering discourse, “We think we are really on the right track with our air tankers,” without mentioning budget needs.

“One thing I’ve been dealing with,” Rep. Simpson said, “are the aviation assets of the Forest Service… Are we going to have a clear outline for the next 10-year plan for what the Forest Service needs in terms of air assets? How the five and ten year contracts you’re looking at will affect us and benefit us and what we need to put into our budget to so that the Forest Service has the necessary equipment to address these wildfires?”

Chief Vicki Christiansen: “All great questions. But I have to say, you know it was, let me see, 16 years ago I was the new state forester in the state of Washington and my first time before this committee, you were ranking member………. [three and a half minutes later:] Relative to your question about air tankers, the contracting air tanker community has really come on line they are meeting our needs of contemporary air tanker capacity for wildland fire in the U.S. We are studying the question about going to a 10-year contract, what the pros and cons are. We’re nearly complete with that report. It will be going through clearance in a matter of a few days and it will be getting to the committee here shortly. So we’d be glad to discuss more about air tankers. But we think we are really on the right track with our air tankers. And thank you for being such a help and an advocate for getting us get the right resources.”

Rep. Mike Simpson: “Thank you.”

10-year contracts and fuel treatments

In December, 2020 Congress directed the Forest Service and the DOI to submit a report within 90 days that considered awarding 10 year contracts for aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities.

Fire Aviation wrote about these critical issues in December, 2018 and October, 2020. Here is a brief excerpt from the latter:

These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.

In addition to aircraft, the federal agencies need to have much more funding for activities that can prevent fires from starting and also keep them from turning into megafires that threaten lives, communities, and private land. More prescribed burning and other fuel treatments are absolutely necessary.

The longer we put this off the worse the situation will become as the effects of climate change become even more profound.

Technology in the Forest Service

In Chief Christiansen’s five-page prepared testimony, several tech-related initiatives were mentioned:

We are also investing in several key technology and modernization portfolios; including, Data Management, Enhanced Real Time Operating Picture, Decision Support Applications, and Modern Tools for a Modern Response. Additionally, implementation of the Large Fire Assessment process, as directed by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (Fiscal Year 2021 Omnibus), is helping us better account for our actions while fostering a learning culture.

Chief Christiansen said (at 18:15 in the hearing) the agency is investing $8 million in a pilot program to utilize a system for tracking the location of firefighters. They are also standing up a program for Unmanned Aerial Systems by purchasing their first 20 aircraft.

The agency has signed an agreement with the Department of Defense and committed funds to access a system that uses satellites to detect fires “which already supported over 500 fires just this year alone in 2021.” She did not say if she was referring to the fiscal year which began October 1 or the calendar year.