The Challenge of Wildland Fire Management in an Era of Climate Change

Tom Tidwell, Chief
FAO Committee on Forestry
Rome, Italy
— October 5, 2010

Thank you, Mr./Madam Chair. I am pleased to be here to discuss a critical issue for the United States and for the world:  the challenge of wildland fire management in an era of climate change.

The U.S. Forest Service has more than a century of research and management experience related to wildland fire. During that time, our understanding and our policies have changed. At one time, we tried to suppress all fires, but we now know more about fire’s role in sustaining forest and grassland ecosystems. At one time, we envisioned nature as static, but we now see the story as more complex. Our natural landscapes have been changing for thousands of years.

Climate is the most important natural shaper of ecosystems. It affects the location and composition of forests … and the frequency and extent of wildfires. Across the United States, wildfire seasons have been getting worse, partly under the influence of a changing climate. From 2000 to 2008, at least nine states had record-breaking fires. From 2000 to 2009, almost 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings burned in wildfires. Other countries around the world are having similar experiences, including Australia, Canada, Greece, and Russia. 

Researchers in the United States have attributed these trends to the earlier snowmelt and drier soils associated with a warming climate. Climate change has also led to milder winter temperatures in the western United States, allowing bark beetles to reproduce faster and spread to new areas. Entire landscapes  are being attacked by bark beetles, from low-elevation piñon pine to high-elevation whitebark pine … and at latitudes ranging from Arizona in the south to Montana in the north. Our northernmost state, Alaska, has billions of trees killed by the effects of a changing climate.

Landscapes filled with dead and dying trees, particularly in a drought, can fuel enormous fires, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Forests in the United States currently sequester about 12.5 percent of the carbon dioxide that our citizens release each year. But some projections show that rising forest mortality and fire season severity could turn our forests into a net carbon source by the middle of the century. That would greatly worsen the effects of climate change.

In the United States, 57 percent of our forests are on private land, and the rest are managed by states, counties, and tribal, municipal, and federal governments. The forest health issues we face cross landownership boundaries, particularly in an era of climate change. Accordingly, we are taking an all-lands approach. Cross-boundary partnerships make sense, both domestically and internationally.

This applies to wildland fire management as well, and  we are developing a Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy using an all-lands approach. The strategy follows the principles of integrated forest fire management found in the Fire Management Voluntary Guidelines. The guidelines are helping us develop a program to address all aspects of fire management, particularly in an era of climate change.

Our Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy has three main goals:

  1. First, restoring ecosystems on a landscape scale—in other words, building fire-adapted natural communities.
  2. Second, building fire-adapted human communities, partly through programs for sharing knowledge and technical resources.
  3. Third, responding appropriately to wildfire. That includes using fires where we can … and suppressing them where they threaten lives, homes, and critical natural resources.

Our new cohesive strategy aligns with the U.S. Forest Service’s national roadmap for responding to climate change. The national roadmap is based on climate change adaptation … and mitigation. It charts a course to help ecosystems and communities adapt to the effects of a changing climate, including worsening wildfires, through ecological restoration. It also charts a parallel course for activities to mitigate climate change.

Much of what we already do … many of the authorities and partnerships we already have … either respond to climate change or position us to do so. For example, the U.S. Forest Service has a century of experience working with partners across jurisdictions for wildland fire protection. That gives us a firm foundation for landscape-scale initiatives designed to restore ecosystems and reduce fire danger, thereby meeting the goals of our Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy … while also meeting our commitment to climate change adaptation.

I’ll give you an example. This past August, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration projects worth $10 million in nine states. One project is in Idaho, where the U.S. Forest Service is working with a collaborative group of local citizens to protect communities from wildfire and restore ecosystems. The project includes thinning and burning on about 5,000 hectares of national forest land, replacing a culvert to restore fish passage, and obliterating 120 kilometers of old unneeded road.

Mr./Madam Chair, this concludes my remarks. I look forward to learning more about climate change and its impact on wildland fire management around the world. Thank you for your leadership on forest-related issues and opportunities.