Eastern Region exceeds goal to reduce hazardous fuels in 2021

The USDA Forest Service Eastern Region ended 2021 on a high note, surpassing its annual goal to reduce hazardous fuels in forests and lower the threat of potentially catastrophic wildfires.

Dry timber and brush can serve as hazardous fuels to inflame smaller fires and turn them into highly destructive and potentially deadly wildfires. In 2021, the Eastern Region’s hazardous fuels reduction target was 236,000 acres, with a focus on lowering wildfire risk and increasing ecosystem restoration. Ultimately, the region accomplished 253,581 acres, exceeding the goal by 17,581 acres.

Steve Goldman, deputy director of the Forest Service’s Eastern Region Fire and Aviation Management program, said that hazardous fuel reduction operations took place on national forest lands in 15 of the 20 Eastern Region states — that is, all the states in the region that have Forest Service land. In addition to work on federal lands, states across the Northeast, Midwest and mid-Atlantic run their own fuel management programs supported by the Forest Service’s Cooperative Fire funds, which also reduced hazardous fuels in their locations, Goldman added.

Roughly 164,559 acres of the total were treated within the wildland urban interface, a zone shifting between undeveloped areas and places developed by humans.

Prescribed fire accounts for almost half of overall accomplishments, totaling more than 100,000 acres, said Brian Schaffler, the Regional (Fire) Fuels Management program manager. These smaller intentional fire operations burn off vegetation in forests that can potentially become tinderboxes for larger fires if left untreated.

According to Goldman, the regionwide fuels reduction milestone was accomplished despite big challenges, including COVID-19 and the historic fire season in the West, which drew Forest Service resources from across the country. This summer’s wildfire activity in Minnesota also impacted the Eastern Region’s availability to conduct prescribed burns. At the same time, some drought-affected areas in the Eastern Region were too dry for prescribed burns.

Construction and maintenance of fuel breaks (removing so much fuel that the potential for fire is dramatically reduced), along with timber harvests to remove fuel, also served to reduce hazardous fuels.

There has probably been a little herbicide in addition to prescribed burns, Goldman said. “Our timber sales are almost always done mechanically,” he added. “Timber harvest, mowing or mastication (grinding down), and prescribed fire are our three main treatment types.”

Pauses in prescribed fire operations due to wildfire activity occur frequently, Schaffler said. But there is built-in resiliency to accomplish work if one treatment is not available for a period of time, thanks to the Eastern Region’s integrated fuels management approach, which leverages a variety of treatments.

“The work completed in 2021 reduced wildfire risk to communities and highly valued resources on the landscape in addition to improving landscape restoration and ecosystem function,” said Schaffler.

In 2022, the Eastern Region’s hazardous fuels target is 242,000 acres with a focus on reducing wildfire risk. This work will be done collaboratively with partners and includes both Forest Service and non-Forest Service adjacent lands.