Question for Readers: Are Fire Management Plans Required? If So, What’s in Them?

I was taking a look at a more recent Taxpayers for Common report on wildfire (to be posted later) and ran across this report from 2002.  The title is Wildfire: Just the Facts.

1. During the 2002 wildfire season:

  • 2.4 million acres of Forest Service and burned, in addition to 4.8 million acres of other federal, state, and private land.
  • Firefighting costs reached a record-breaking $1.6 billion.
  • 2,381 structures were lost.
  • Over 30,000 people were involved with firefighting efforts, including firefighters and support personnel.

2. Decades of fire suppression have actually increased the risk of wildfire, especially in forests that experienced frequent low-intensity fires that cleared out undergrowth. Wildfires are a natural part of many forest ecosystems, thus some wildfires should be allowed to burn within certain limits. Human safety and the protection of property and natural resources should remain priorities.

3. Funds spent on fire preparedness directly reduce the amount spent on fire suppression. According to the Forest Service, every $1 spent on fire preparedness decreases suppression costs by $5-$7.

4. According to the General Accounting Office, the Forest Service relies on the commercial timber sale program to reduce wildfire risk and tends to concentrate on forests with high-value timber rather than those facing the greatest risk. Also, fire-risk reduction projects are judged based on the number of acres treated, leading to the treatment of the cheapest areas, as opposed to those that are at the highest risk.

I’d say that the first statement is not true anymore, the second still a topic of concern.

5. Commercial logging can increase the risk of wildfire. Logging removes large, green, fire-resistant trees leaving behind smaller fire-prone trees; opens the forest canopy which leads to drier forests that are more susceptible to fire; and leaves behind flammable materials (i.e. twigs, branches and needles) that increase the rate of fire spread.

I don’t think that this was a “fact” then.. I guess it has to do with the “can” in the bold versus the plain old statements in the rest “logging removes” not “can remove.”

6. Congress gives the Forest Service a “blank check” when it comes to firefighting and does not even try to set a realistic budget for fire suppression. Congress has always reimbursed the agency for any and all costs.

Perhaps fire borrowing came and went since 2002.

7. Fifty-six percent of all National Forests lack approved fire management plans, which were required by the 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Policy. These plans outline what will and will not be done in the event of a wildfire, and the lack of such plans can actually make it harder and more expensive to fight wildfires. Because of the blank-check funding for fire suppression, the Forest Service has little incentive to try to reduce costs through the implementation of these plans.

What are these? Were they really required? Does every Forest have one now? What’s the difference between a fire management plan and a fire plan amendment?

9 thoughts on “Question for Readers: Are Fire Management Plans Required? If So, What’s in Them?”

  1. Chapter 9 of the Red Book discusses fire management planning, and contains links to other references, including the 1995 wildland fire policy.

    Courts have held that the preparation of an FMP requires an accompanying EA or EIS. In at least one instance, the FS decided to withdraw an FMP rather than complete the NEPA analysis.

    I’m unaware of the current legal landscape here, but I suspect for this reason, as well as the agency’s general lack of resources, that many FMPs are out of date. I would be somewhat surprised if there is a national forest that entirely lacks a plan, though.

  2. I should add that the Red Book points out that FMPs can tier to LRMPs for NEPA purposes. With more LRMPs now being updated than was the case in the mid-2000s, the NEPA/FMP issue may have receded in importance.

    Sorry, that’s a lot of acronyms! :-/

  3. Thanks, Rich…
    I wonder how the current new forest plans are handling fire management planning? Is anyone out there familiar with what they are doing? And what about old ones, are they updated, with or without NEPA?

  4. It would be interesting to have tUSFS respond to this paper to see where we are today I have problems with the timber. Sale equal more fire hazard. concept but some elements of the controversy still use it

  5. The way I remember it (and it seems to fit with the 2006 date on the court decision Rich cited) , when the FS found out it had to do NEPA for fire plans, it decided to stop doing them. I think there was a suggestion to try to roll them into forest plans, which was not popular. I don’t remember seeing much in recent forest plans that would cover this ground, but I would suspect that each forest has something they don’t advertise as a plan. It would be interesting to hear more about where this all stands today.

    • I think Jon may have the right answer here. The Colville has a (relatively) recent LRMP update (2019) that I’ve been using as a best practice (or at least a good practice) model. Relevant documents are here:

      The plan’s treatment of fire management is (imho) pretty advanced, but the relevant direction is scattered throughout the plan. There is no”Fire Management Plan” section, and it would not surprise me if that omission is for litigation avoidance purposes.

      • Thanks, as always, Rich, for the helpful info. Back in the old days, we thought it would be handy to have two versions of the plan, one by DCs standards and all the other plan components, and the other by topic. It would be a lot of extra work, but very helpful for people reviewing with a particular topic in mind.

  6. I’m just surprised that with all the interest and all the $ going into wildfire, an enterprising prof or grad student hasn’t done a study of what’s in forest plans with regard to wildfire.

  7. Several times in my USFS career, I’ve heard people GS-11 (and up) say “That place really needs a fire”. Such people would probably find a way to include those places inside any “big box” that might occur, during a wildfire incident. In many ways, that might be considered good and ethical. In other places, where humans might ‘summer’, District Rangers might want such ‘squatters’ to be burned out, once and for all.

    This is where Fire Plans could provide more transparency and trust, in controversial issues.


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