How Substantive Policy Change Reduces Wildfire Risk

How Substantive Policy Change Reduces Wildfire Risk

Gov CIO Outlook | Monday, June 14, 2021

By removing bureaucratic hurdles to forest management projects and increasing the Forest Service’s potential to work with partners, more forest acres can be treated to decrease wildfire risk.

FREMONT, CA: Scientists are warning of unprecedented wildfire risk for the western United States. Climate change is a factor driving that risk. Still, more than a century of suppressing fires on federal, state, and private lands has also contributed to conditions that drive larger, hotter, and more destructive wildfires. In recent years wildfires have created hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, reversed carbon sequestration, degraded water systems, decreased air quality, increased carbon emissions, and damaged ecosystems.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will assist decrease fire risks over time. However, streamlined, proactive forest governance and management are required to avoid damages to property, the environment, and the loss of human life. Present plans and budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies know this reality. But with a backlog that needs treatment to reduce wildfire risk, engaging the wildfire threat needs more than enhanced planning and increased spending.

Several climate-related effects, including changes in precipitation, increased aridity, and shifts in vegetation types, have made forests more vulnerable to wildfire. These climate-based conditions have emerged gradually and will continue, compounding the fire risk already present in the West due to more than a century of fire suppression. Years of fire suppression have generated an overabundance of fuel in western forests. When coupled with the dry conditions that are now the norm, untreated woodlands are potential sources of immense destruction and social disruption.

Forests are one place where these two objects intersect. While the budgets of state and federal agencies reflect the increasing awareness of the threat wildfire poses to American communities, the nation’s potential to get “left of boom” could be greatly enhanced via changes in federal forest policy that support partnerships between the Forest Service, states, counties, and private firms. It is essential to optimize agency processes, remove bureaucratic challenges, and encourage a whole-of-society approach to engage the challenge and mitigate near-term risk. Wildfire is a present and growing risk to the health and safety of the people. Engaging and reducing the risk will need changes in how we govern and manage the forests.

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