Gearing Up for Wildland Fire Season

thumbnail environmentWith fires already burning in Southern California and the Southwest, the western United States is gearing up for another fire season. The federal government plays several roles in addressing wildland fires—from suppressing wildfires and reducing potentially hazardous vegetation that can fuel fires, to educating the public about the risks of wildfires and developing wildland fire management strategies.

Appropriations for federal wildland fire management activities have grown rapidly, averaging approximately $3 billion annually in recent years, up from about $1 billion in fiscal year 1999. We have looked at several aspects of federal wildland fire management, including these two examples.

Firefighting Aircraft

IGAO Podcast Iconn 2013, we examined the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s joint responsibilities for maintaining a fleet of firefighting aircraft, such as airtankers that drop fire retardant chemicals. The Forest Service contracts for large airtankers and certain other aircraft, while Interior contracts for smaller airtankers and water scoopers.

A decrease in the number of large airtankers in the federal fleet—from 44 in 2002 to 8 in early 2013—has led to concerns about the agencies’ ability to provide aerial firefighting support. We recommended, among other things, that the Forest Service and Interior expand efforts to collect information on the performance and effectiveness of firefighting aircraft, and enhance collaboration across agencies and the fire aviation community.

fire1

Image excerpted from GAO-13-684

Wildland Fire Management and Community Protection

We reported in 2009 that federal agencies responsible for managing wildland fires on federal lands were making progress at cost-effectively protecting communities and resources from fires. For example, in an effort to reduce the intensity of wildland fires and help prevent them from spreading into places where people live, the agencies increased their focus on clearing flammable vegetation and underbrush. The agencies had also sponsored fire protection education for homeowners, and provided grants to help homeowners implement what they learned, such as the importance of “defensible space” around homes.

fire2

Image excerpted from GAO-09-877

Additional information on our work on wildland fire management can be found on our Key Issue page.


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