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Tom Tidwell, Chief
World Forestry Congress 2009
Buenos Aires, Argentina
— October 20, 2009


Good afternoon! It is a pleasure to be here to talk about wildfire management in the United States. Our fire management is tailored to the nature of our forests and to our patterns of landownership, so I will begin with those.

U.S. Forest Landownership and the Role of the Forest Service

Our country is rich in forests. The United States has roughly 300 million hectares of forest land covering about a third of our land area. We have boreal forests, temperate rainforests, northern hardwoods, oak/hickory forests, dry pine woodlands, and various other coniferous and deciduous forest types. We even have tropical forests in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Fifty-seven percent of our forest lands are in private ownership. My agency, the U.S. Forest Service, manages about 20 percent of the forest land in the United States, called national forests. The remaining 23 percent are in tribal, state, county, municipal, and other federal ownership, including our national parks.

The great majority of our forests are in private ownership. In the eastern United States, it is 83 percent. You might be surprised to hear that the U.S. government has no direct role in regulating private forest land. Individual states govern private forestry through state forestry laws, and those laws vary widely.

Still, my agency’s mission extends to all forested lands in the United States, both public and private. The U.S. Forest Service was founded in 1905. Our mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

We fulfill our mission in part through conservation research. The U.S. Forest Service has 7 research stations and 81 experimental forests nationwide, representing 85 percent of the forest types in the United States. We have a century of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, wilderness, and other resources, much of it related to fire regimes and fire management.

We also fulfill our mission through technical and financial assistance. The U.S. Forest Service works with partners across shared landscapes through our State and Private Forestry organization. Every state and territory has its own forestry agency, and we work with the State Foresters to help private landowners manage their lands sustainably. We also work with Tribes and with other public land managers, particularly when it comes to fire.

Fire Management Partnerships

Fire knows no borders and boundaries, so we work with partners nationwide to manage wildfire across shared landscapes. Most states have their own fire organizations, and the four other federal land management agencies also have fire organizations—the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All of our fire management organizations work together through the National Incident Management System, which coordinates fire management resources across the United States.

Our cooperative framework is based on dozens of fire management agreements with the states. For example, we have a master agreement governing fire management in California. The signatories include the state of California, the U.S. Forest Service, and the four other federal land managers. The master agreement outlines the rules, principles, plans, and resources used for managing fire in California. It covers preparedness, prevention, suppression operations, and the use and reimbursement of interagency resources.

Since we work together through a common Incident Management System, it only makes sense to have a common strategic approach. Through interagency agreements at the federal level, we have a common federal fire management policy, updated in 2001. We are developing a corresponding fuels management strategy. We launched a National Fire Plan program in 2000 in response to the severe fire season we had that year, and in 2006 we updated the corresponding 10-year strategy implementation plan, in collaboration with the state governors. Taken together, these agreements form a national strategic framework for managing fuels and wildfires while enhancing fire protection and postfire recovery for communities and landscapes.

Our national approach to wildfire management is based on the need to protect people, property, and wildland resources … and on the recognition that fire is a natural part of many landscapes. Our overarching goal is to sustain and restore healthy, resilient ecosystems, recognizing that many of our native ecosystems need fire to thrive. Our approach is accordingly based on safe and effective fire suppression … and, where appropriate, on the safe and effective use of fire.

In a nutshell, safety is our first priority. We suppress fire where we must, and we use fire where we can.

We also work through partnerships around the globe. Through our Fire and Aviation Management program, the U.S. Forest Service has cooperative agreements with partners on every continent to better understand the influence of fire on forest management and climate change … and to incorporate fire mitigation strategies into forest management systems.

Our agreements include sharing suppression resources. In 2001, for example, we signed an agreement with Australia for mutual assistance in firefighting between the United States and three Australian states. Our command structures, training, and physical requirements for firefighters are similar to those in Australia and New Zealand. That allows our countries to exchange firefighters who can readily blend into each other’s organizations.

Partnerships at Work

Such partnerships are important, because history shows that no single entity can manage fire alone. The U.S. Forest Service underwent its first trial by fire in 1910, when fires blew up across the northern Rocky Mountains, burning more than a million hectares and killing 78 firefighters. We began building partnerships with the states and other partners, and our firefighting became more and more effective. From the 1970s through the 1990s, barely 1.3 million hectares burned on average each year.

To some extent, we became the victims of our own success. As fire retreated across the landscape, fuels that normally would have burned continued to accumulate in a process that proved to be unsustainable. At the same time, climate change was contributing to drought and worsening fire weather and fuel conditions, especially in the western United States.

In the summer of 2000, fires exploded across much of the West. For the first time since the 1950s, more than 2.8 million hectares burned in a single year. Two years later, more than 2.8 million hectares burned again. In 2004 and 2005, more than 3.2 million hectares burned; in 2006 and 2007, it was more than 3.6 million. In the last 10 years, at least nine states have had record-breaking fires.

Still, our wildfire suppression remains highly effective. Year after year, the U.S. Forest Service quickly suppresses 98 percent of ignitions on national forest land, containing them at very small sizes. The few fires that escape initial attack, however, tend to become enormous. On these fires, safe and effective firefighting is critically important, and we are fortunate to have the Incident Management System.

One of those big fires was the Gunbarrel Fire just last year. The Gunbarrel Fire was ignited by lightning on the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, part of the Greater Yellowstone Area in and around Yellowstone National Park. The fire burned mostly in beetle-killed pine in remote and difficult terrain, mainly in a wilderness area. Much of it burned in an area we had designated as a fuel treatment corridor.

In the central Rocky Mountains, vast areas of fire-adapted lodgepole pine are suffering from bark beetle epidemics, partly due to the effects of climate change. Such events are naturally followed by stand-replacement fires that help regenerate the forest. As remote as it was, the Gunbarrel Fire didn’t initially threaten any homes or wildland resources. To the contrary, it presented a perfect opportunity to use wildfire to treat fuels and restore forested landscapes.

So that’s what we did—we used the Gunbarrel Fire to achieve resource benefits. We assigned a wildland fire management team to monitor fire activity, arrange for any evacuations, and protect any threatened structures.

But after a few weeks, the Gunbarrel Fire made a big run—almost 3,000 hectares. That exceeded the maximum management area we had planned, and the fire started to show plume-dominated fire behavior, so we began aggressively suppressing the wildfire. We assigned a type 1 incident management team to the fire, the type of team we use to suppress large wildfires. Within a week, the fire was 70 percent contained.

In all, the Gunbarrel Fire burned more than 25,000 hectares over about 5 weeks. We had up to 12 crews, 38 engines, and 8 helicopters assigned to the fire in its final stages, with more than 500 personnel. Overall, the fire cost more than $10 million to manage, which is far less than typical for a wildfire this size, which might cost hundreds of millions of dollars to suppress.

At the same time that wildfires are getting bigger and more dangerous, more and more people are moving into fire-prone forests, increasing the risk to people and property. The U.S. Forest Service will release a study this fall predicting that, from 2000 to 2030, about 23 million hectares across the United States will see a substantial rise in housing density. Almost 52,000 communities across the United States are at risk from severe wildfires.

Under these circumstances, partnerships for fire protection are more important than ever. In 2003, the U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing state and federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service to help communities prepare community wildfire protection plans. About 4,800 communities to date have developed these plans.

A community wildfire protection plan brings a community together to reduce its vulnerability to wildfire. The process is collaborative, raising local awareness. It involves:

  • assessing local risks to communities and ecosystems as well as local fire agency preparedness;
  • promoting firesafe building and landscaping practices, partly through local regulations, zoning, and codes;
  • planning local fuels treatment and restoration projects in coordination with federal, state, and local governments; and
  • monitoring and evaluation.

Community wildfire protection plans can draw on our national Firewise Communities program, a partnership for helping homeowners keep their homes and properties safe from catastrophic wildfires.

Need for Global Partnerships

As fire seasons grow in the United States, we are increasingly relying on our global partners for support—and they are relying on us as well. The U.S. Congress has passed a law allowing the U.S. government to request emergency assistance from foreign fire agencies, even without a prior agreement. This arrangement will let us draw on Australian, Canadian, and other foreign suppression resources during critical fire seasons.

All sides benefit. This year, the United States sent three burned area emergency rehabilitation teams, a 20-person hand crew, and 15 fire specialists to Australia. We also sent an incident management team and 20 smokejumpers to Canada to help fight fires in British Columbia.

Last year, we had a fire siege in northern California, and we got help from almost four dozen Australian fire operations specialists. In 2006, when fires blew up in our western states, Canada sent us 10 crews along with 11 smokejumpers and 59 overhead personnel … and Australia and New Zealand sent us 115 fire specialists and management personnel.

I could go on, but you get the idea. We started exchanging suppression resources in 2000, when we had our biggest fire season in 50 years. That year, we got help from over 500 firefighters from around the world.

I remember the 2000 fire season well. We learned that we’re in a whole new era when it comes to fire. We had huge blowups like the Valley Complex in Montana, which burned 120,000 hectares … the Eastern Idaho Complex, burning 77,000 hectares … and the Command 24 in Washington state, burning 65,000 hectares. Few of us had ever seen anything like it.

We remain deeply grateful for all the support we got from other countries that year … and in the years that followed. We are firmly committed to continuing and strengthening those global partnerships, especially in this new era we are in, this era of megafires and growing fire seasons, this era of climate change. No one of us can succeed alone. In the century to come, success in managing wildfire will depend on building partnerships on a global scale.

Thank you.