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Healthy Forest : An Initiative for Wildfire Prevention and Stronger Communities

Executive Summary

The American people, their property, and our environment, particularly the forests and rangelands of the West, are threatened by catastrophic fires and environmental degradation. Hundreds of millions of trees and invaluable habitat are destroyed each year by these severe wildfires. These unnaturally extreme fires are caused by a crisis of deteriorating forest and rangeland health, the result of a century of well-intentioned but misguided land management. Renewed efforts to restore our public lands to healthy conditions are needed.

This fire season is already one of the worst in modern history.

  • Already more than 5.9 million acres of public and private land have burned this year, an area the size of New Hampshire and more than twice the average annual acreage, with more than a month of fire season remaining. Fires have burned 500,000 acres more than they had at this time during the record-setting 2000 fire season.
  • Hundreds of communities have been affected by these wildfires. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes, and thousands of structures have been destroyed. With more people living near forests and rangelands, it is becoming increasingly difficult to protect people and their homes. Land managers must do more to address the underlying causes of these fires.

Catastrophic fires are caused by deteriorating forest and rangeland health.

America's public lands have undergone radical changes during the last century due to the suppression of fires and a lack of active forest and rangeland management. Frequent, low-intensity fires play an important role in healthy forest and rangeland ecosystems, maintaining natural plant conditions and reducing the buildup of fuels. Natural, low-intensity fires burn smaller trees and undergrowth while leaving large trees generally intact. Natural fires also maintain natural plant succession cycles, preventing the spread of invasive plant species in forests and rangelands. This produces forests that are open and resistant to disease, drought, and severe wildfires.

Today, the forests and rangelands of the West have become unnaturally dense, and ecosystem health has suffered significantly. When coupled with seasonal droughts, these unhealthy forests, overloaded with fuels, are vulnerable to unnaturally severe wildfires. Currently, 190 million acres of public land are at increased risk of catastrophic wildfires.

These deteriorated forest and rangeland conditions significantly affect people, property, and ecosystem health.

  • Fuels have accumulated so significantly that fires no longer burn at natural temperatures or rates, making them dangerous to fight and difficult to control. Catastrophic wildfires grow extremely quickly, making them difficult to control if they are not stopped immediately. For example, the Rodeo fire in Arizona grew from 800 acres to 46,000 acres in just one day.
  • Nearly 83 percent of firefighters surveyed identified the need for fuels reduction as the top priority for improving their safety.
  • Catastrophic wildfires burn at much higher temperatures than normal fires, causing long-lasting and severe environmental damage. A large, catastrophic fire can release the energy equivalent of an atomic bomb. Rather than renewing forests, these fires destroy them. While most natural fires burn at ground level and at relatively low temperatures, these catastrophic fires burn at extreme temperatures, destroying entire forests and sterilizing soils. These extreme fires can even kill giant sequoia trees that have survived centuries of natural fires. It can take as long as a century for forests to recover from such severe fires.

Enhanced measures are needed to restore forest and rangeland health to reduce the risk of these catastrophic wildfires.

Federal, state, tribal and local governments are making unprecedented efforts to reduce the buildup of fuels and restore forests and rangelands to healthy conditions. Yet, needless red tape and lawsuits delay effective implementation of forest health projects. This year's crisis compels more timely decisions, greater efficiency, and better results to reduce catastrophic wildfire threats to communities and the environment.

The Healthy Forests Initiative will implement core components of the National Fire Plan's 10-year Comprehensive Strategy and Implementation Plan. This historic plan, which was adopted this spring by federal agencies and western governors, in collaboration with county commissioners, state foresters, and tribal officials, calls for more active forest and rangeland management. It establishes a framework for protecting communities and the environment through local collaboration on thinning, planned burns and forest restoration projects.

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