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Healthy Forest : An Initiative for Wildfire Prevention and Stronger Communities

Overview: Current Efforts to Control Wildfires and Restore Forest Health

Faced with conditions that are ripe for catastrophic and uncontrollable fires, firefighters are doing an outstanding job this year, controlling over 99 percent of wildfires on initial attack. (For example, on July 14, 504 new fires started, but only five grew to burn more than 500 acres). In this fire season alone, more than 500 large fires have already been contained. But when fires escape initial efforts to control them, they can become uncontrollable, costly and environmentally destructive.

Although firefighting efforts are largely effective, they are dangerous, uncertain, and expensive.
The real solution to catastrophic wildfires is to address their causes by reducing fuel hazards and returning our forests and rangelands to healthy conditions. Tree thinning and removal of dense underbrush can ensure thriving forests while reducing risks of catastrophic fires and the dangers they pose to firefighters.

Firefighters are effective in part because of additional federal resources provided for both firefighting and forest health programs.

  • So far, 1,932,000 acres of land have been treated with thinning or prescribed burning to reduce the accumulation of hazardous fuels; agencies expect to treat 2.5 million acres by the end of the year. Another 2.5 million acres of federal and private lands have been protected from insects and disease that contribute to fire hazards.

  • More than $2.2 billion in funding was provided in 2002 for fire prevention, suppression and restoration, $743 million more than was available in 2000.

  • This support has funded a total of 17,080 fire fighting personnel, 4,900 more than were available in the 2000 fire season. These funds also provided 377 additional fire engines, as well as additional aircraft, bulldozers, water tenders and other equipment.

  • One military unit (500 firefighters) has been assigned to wildfire fighting. And firefighters from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are assisting in firefighting efforts under cooperative agreements signed by Secretaries Veneman and Norton.

    A comprehensive 10-year strategy to make communities safer from wildfires.

    On May 23, 2002, Secretary Norton and Secretary Veneman signed an historic agreement with 17 western governors, county commissioners, state foresters, and tribal officials on a plan to make communities and the environment safer from wildfires through coordinating federal, state, and local action.

    Under the 10-year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan, federal wildfire agencies, affected states, counties, local governments and tribes agreed to the same goals, implementation outcomes, performance measures and tasks that need to be accomplished by specific deadlines. The comprehensive agreement covers all phases of the fire program, including fire preparedness, suppression and prevention, hazardous fuels management, restoration of burned areas, community assistance, and monitoring of progress.

    A key priority of the plan is more active forest and rangeland management to reduce the accumulation of fuels and to restore ecosystem health.

    The plan specifically calls for active forest and rangeland management, including thinning of forests and rangelands that produce forest by-products, biomass removal and utilization, and other tools that will meet long-term ecological, economic, and community objectives. (For examples of this work, see photographs on next page.)

    The plan also establishes 23 priority tasks for federal, state, and local governments, including:

  • Developing and implementing a process for federal, state, tribal, and local governments to collaborate on the annual selection of fuels treatment and burned area rehabilitation projects to make sure that priority areas near communities and ecosystems at risk of catastrophic fire are treated in timely fashion; and

  • Developing and implementing consistent and effective procedures for procurement, contracting, grants and agreements to support fuels treatment projects.

  • Assessing federal regulatory processes governing projects and activities and identifying measures to improve timely decision-making.

    The Administration is working to prevent future large, catastrophic fires by carrying out fuel treatment programs such as thinning and prescribed burning.

    The Forest Service and Interior Department are planning to treat more 2.5 million acres of land this year with thinning or prescribed burns that reduce the accumulation of hazardous fuels and restore forest health. At the beginning of August last year, these agencies had treated 1,573,000 acres. This year, the agencies have already treated 459,000 acres more than last year - a nearly 30 percent increase.

    Fuels treatment projects have prevented or stopped fires.

  • A recent study by the Western Forest Fire Research Center concluded, "Our results unanimously indicate that treated stands experience lower fire severity than untreated stands that burn under similar weather and topographic conditions." ("Effects of Fuels Treatment on Wildfire Severity," Omi and Martinson, March 2002)

  • Black Butte Ranch: Fuels treatment projects in the Black Butte Ranch area of Oregon significantly reduced wildfire damage. Stands of Ponderosa pine had been thinned and the understory treated through hand-piling, mowing and burning. These treatments reduced damage to the Ponderosa stands and provided firefighters with open, defensible space and anchor points for low intensity backfires that protected more than 1,200 homes from the Cache Mountain Fire.

  • Medicine Fire: Fuels treatment conducted by the Round Valley Indian Tribe in 2001 was instrumental in stopping the Medicine Fire near Riverside, California. The fire spread rapidly uphill until firefighters stopped the blaze at the Perry Ridge fuel break. Without the fuel break, the fire could have burned over 1,000 acres, consuming valuable timber and watershed resources, threatening the Round Valley Reservation and other nearby communities.

    Fuel Reduction in Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Mill Creek Fires: Prescribed burning in California has helped control fires. Several arson fires in the Mill Creek drainage adjacent to the Cow Mountain Recreation Area in California have burned thousands of acres. Concerned stakeholders worked with the BLM to schedule a prescribed burn in the fall of 1981, but before the burn could be completed an arsonist set another fire that burned over 26,000 acres, including 35 structures. Fire suppression and rehabilitation costs exceeded $2 million. BLM and the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection implemented a prescribed burn in the Mill Creek drainage in 1997. When another arsonist struck in July 2001, the fire was stopped at less then 10 acres, preventing potential damage to public and private resources and saving fire suppression and rehabilitation costs.

    The Administration is working to make its fuels treatment and forest health programs even more effective.

    Actions taken to improve the programs include:

  • Procedural Improvements:

    • A Cohesive Fuels Treatment Strategy for all Forest Service and the Department of the Interior agencies is being developed that places a priority on selecting projects where the risk of catastrophic fires to communities and ecosystems is the greatest.
    • Forest Service, Interior, state, local and tribal officials are working together to jointly select and prioritize fuels treatment projects.
    • The process for selecting final fuels treatment projects has been accelerated to October of each year to make better use of fall and winter prescribed fire conditions.
    • A common reporting system has been developed for fuels treatment projects across all agencies.

  • Management Effectiveness:

    • The Department of the Interior has appointed a full-time fuels treatment director to insure accountability for fuel treatment projects.
    • The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are developing common performance measures that are consistent with the Government Performance and Results Act and are outcome oriented.
    • The agencies are including implementation of the National Fire Plan as an element in annual performance evaluations of field staff, and specifically including staff's effectiveness in completing required fuels treatment work.

  • Critical Research: Over 167 research projects on a variety of subjects both ecological and socio-economic are currently in progress. Studies range from impacts of wildfires on communities, impacts of fuel treatments of wildfires, preventing wildfire disasters in the wildland urban interface, to the utilization of small diameter wood products.


    The Administration is restoring record amounts of burned forests and rangelands.

  • The Forest Service and Department of the Interior will stabilize and rehabilitate more than 2.5 million acres of land this year. Stabilization treatments stop the immediate loss of soil from wind and water erosion and protect municipal watersheds. Rehabilitation restores habitat, native plant cover, forest cover, rehabilitates roads and trails, and prevents the spread of invasive grasses and weeds.

  • A Native Plant Report has been submitted to Congress that includes plans and recommendations to supply native plant materials for emergency stabilization and longer-term rehabilitation and restoration efforts. Working with a variety of federal, state, and local partners, including private sector growers, the native plant material development program has provided $12 million to secure a reliable source of native vegetation for ecosystem restoration projects.

    The Administration is providing more than $428 million in fire prevention, preparedness, and suppression assistance this year to thousands of communities.

    The Forest Service, Department of the Interior and the Federal Emergency Management Administration provide funding for equipment, personnel, training, community hazard mitigation plans, market utilization of small diameter materials, fuels reduction projects, and cost reimbursement to thousands communities and local, rural and volunteer fire departments. These agencies are writing a memorandum of understanding to better coordinate all future grants given to communities.

    Federal assistance is supporting volunteer firefighting and forest health efforts.

    In the last two years, there has been an increase in federal assistance and support to rural and volunteer fire departments, which in turn respond to fires on federal lands. Volunteer and rural fire departments are the first line of initial attack in up to 90 percent of all wildfires. Federal assistance has improved rural and volunteer fire departments' capabilities by providing personal protective gear, equipment, and training. Last year, more than 12,000 volunteer and municipal firefighters received federal training, and more than 40 new volunteer fire departments were organized.

    Student Conservation Association volunteers have enlisted in the fight against wildfires.

    Student Conservation Association volunteers are also doing vital work on many forest health restoration and fire safety education projects. Recognizing the urgency of the wildfire threat, SCA has quadrupled the number of volunteers providing fire-related services in the last year. SCA has enlisted hundreds of volunteers to assist property owners along the wildland-urban interface in identifying and implementing strategies for protecting their homes and properties from wildland fires. SCA volunteers conduct fire audits in rural communities, help homeowners create defensible space around their homes, and work to reduce fuel loads and remove invasive species. SCA volunteers give over one million hours of service each year to ensure the health of America's forests, parks and wild lands.



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