Wildfire season has already begun in many locations around the country. Some of the areas going up in flames include the increasingly developed zone known as the wildland-urban interface, where fire risks are most apparent to people.
One of the steps being taken to help reduce the hazard is fuel reduction work that thins out or removes dense tree stands, making them less prone to wildfire, or at least easier to control when they do burn. Prescribed burns and mechanical removal of trees are two of the most common tools.
In 2010, the US Forest Service says it made about 2.9 million acres less fire-prone (of which 1.6 million acres were in the wildland-urban interface), building on a similar number the year before. The number of treated acres has risen fairly steadily during the past decade, and the Forest Service is targeting about 2.3 million acres for work this year, similar to its initial 2010 target.
Some of this year's work will be occurring in areas near you. Historically, many of the prescribed burns have been in the Southeast, in an arc extending from TX to FL. Other leading states include AZ, CA, MN, NC, and OR.
By region, the acreage breakout was:
Region 1 (Northern): 111,000
Region 2 (Rocky Mountain): 148,000
Region 3 (Southwestern): 261,000
Region 4 (Intermountain): 197,000
Region 5 (Pacific Southwest): 180,000
Region 6 (Pacific Northwest): 451,000
Region 8 (Southern): 1,432,000
Region 9 (Eastern): 162,000
Region 10 (Alaska): 2,000
For more details by state, see:
- Fire Information — Wildland Fire Statistics  (includes links to extensive information about current fires and many other wildfire issues).
These prescribed burns helped tamp down about 100 fires that burned into these treated zones in 2010, according to the Forest Service. On the other hand, many prescribed fires escaped their intended boundaries, sometimes destroying homes and other buildings and infrastructure and adding extensive additional firefighting costs (though the positive spin is that fewer forested acres now pose a serious threat in the future). Of the prescribed fires conducted by the Forest Service (covering 58% of the total burned acreage), five escaped, burning an additional 12,986 acres. Whether intentional or accidental, such fires often pose a health risk to people, as the particulates and gases affect both nearby and distant communities.
When mechanical methods such as logging are used to treat high-risk areas, a number of other issues arise, such as damage created by the logging, finding markets for the felled wood, and timing actions properly so that the wood still has value for some type of use.
Crews doing this mitigation work typically come from either federal, state, or local agencies. They are at work year round in one location or another, though each area will have its peak and low seasons.
To find out where work is planned in your area, contact your local region or forest.
For more wildfire information, see:
- US Forest Service; Fire and Aviation Management;  media, Jennifer Jones,  208-387-5437, cell, 208-631-0406.
The ongoing federal budget impasse may not have much significant effect on this year's mitigation work. If the rest of the fiscal year is funded at FY 2010 levels due to approval of a Continuing Resolution for the rest of the year, the 2.3 million acre target may remain in place, unless there is specific language stipulating otherwise. At the moment, neither the House nor the Senate proposal has targeted this program for reductions. To keep up with this moving target, contact either Jones (see above) or Joe Walsh  (202-205-1134).
Many other angles are worth exploring as you cover this issue, including restrictions on development in the wildland-urban interface, adoption of site-specific architectural and land development recommendations or requirements to reduce flammability of buildings and infrastructure, requirements for improved access for fire-fighting vehicles, increasing insurance costs for development in risky areas, risks posed to major infrastructure elements such as power lines, roads, and railroads, tax losses for local communities when sizable developed areas are destroyed, and escalating tree deaths caused by drought, insect damage, and climate change, creating more flammable fuel for the fires.
For many more resources for covering any type of wildfire issue, search the TipSheet archives.