GAO Report on USFS Rx Fire Program

Article about a new GAO report (thanks to Michael Archer for the link to the article).

FOREST SERVICE: Fully Following Leading Practices for Agency Reforms Would Strengthen Prescribed Fire Program

Why GAO Did This Study
Wildfire severity has increased across the U.S., causing loss of life and property and damage to ecosystems. To mitigate wildfire risk and improve forest health, the Forest Service uses prescribed fire to reduce fuels. The agency reports that less than 1 percent of prescribed fires escape control and become wildfires, but escapes can have significant effects.

GAO was asked to review the Forest Service’s efforts to improve its prescribed fire program following two escapes in New Mexico in 2022. This report addresses, among other things, (1) steps the agency has taken to reform its prescribed fire program and (2) the extent to which it has followed selected leading practices for effective agency reforms. GAO reviewed relevant Forest Service documents; interviewed officials from agency headquarters, regional offices, and national forests; interviewed stakeholders and Tribes; and conducted in-person site visits and interviews in Idaho and New Mexico.

What GAO Recommends
GAO is making four recommendations to the Forest Service related to its prescribed fire efforts: (1) develop outcome-oriented goals and performance measures; (2) develop and implement a strategic workforce plan; (3) develop an implementation plan for its reform efforts; and (4) assess the appropriate level of resources to maintain day-to-day management of reform efforts. The Forest Service generally agreed with the report and recommendations, and plans to develop and implement a corrective action plan to address the findings.

From Appendix 1:

From 2012 through 2021, the Forest Service conducted around 50,000 prescribed fire projects, 43 of which resulted in an escape declaration (0.09 percent). These escapes occurred throughout eight of the Forest Service’s nine regions and varied in size, impacts, and characteristics (see table 3). Specifically, our review of Forest Service documents found:

• The area burned outside of the planned project boundary ranged from less than an acre to approximately 20,000 acres, with the median escape being 68 acres.
• Of the 43 escapes, 24 (56 percent) remained within Forest Service lands and 19 (44 percent) spread onto non-Forest Service lands.1
• Damage was reported for 30 of the 43 escapes (70 percent).2 The type of damage varied, with 24 escapes reporting damage to natural resources (e.g., trees and other vegetation), seven escapes reporting damage to improvements (e.g., fences, signs, roads), and six escapes reporting damage to structures (e.g., houses, outbuildings).
• Complexity of the escaped prescribed fires varied, with 29 of the escapes (67 percent) occurring from projects rated as moderate complexity in the prescribed fire plan, 12 escapes (28 percent) from projects rated as low complexity, and two escapes (5 percent) from projects rated as high-complexity.
• Twenty-seven of the escapes (63 percent) were from a broadcast burn, whereas 16 of the escapes (37 percent) were pile burns.
• Drought conditions were present for 18 of the escapes (42 percent).3



5 thoughts on “GAO Report on USFS Rx Fire Program”

  1. Interesting report on Rx fire and escapes. The data did not include the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak (Hermits/Calf) escapes of 2022, but those fires were the reason for the GAO Report in the first place.

    What this report should have done was included Hermits/Calf in the data. The average escape size of 68 acres gives a false reference point to the over 341,000 acre Hermits/Calf. The total number of structures in the study were minuscule, compared to the 903 structures destroyed and 85 damaged in Hermits/Calf!

    I guess the report showed some improvement, only to be waylaid by outcomes outside the norm. I don’t know how many escapes occurred in 2022-2023, or if Hermits/Calf were the only ones? I doubt that.

    Another set of recommendations to develop and follow, tiered to the wildfire crisis strategy, the “missing” accomplishments of billions in fuels money, the employee hiring crisis, and I saw today that NFFE has jumped on the pile for employee housing crisis!

    Whew, this has got to be a major distraction of fulfilling management priorities and keeping employees engaged in meaningful service. Results of that “Best Places to Work” Survey may be a doozie this year……

    • Also interesting that they omitted the early 2000’s where there were a number of significant escaped Rx burns including the Cerro Grande fire.

  2. If started a reply at lunch but unfortunately dropped a gob of salsa, smack dab on my phone! 🤣. I took that as a sign to reply later….

    Anyway, calling an Rx fire an escape was, when I was a burn boss, the call of the burn boss, depending on whether or not the response could be handled by the content plan of the burn plan. Of course, if additional resources were needed – outside contingency, that was a full-fledge escape.

    There has to be some room in analytics of the fire itself; “slopovers” are not viewed as an escape, but they happen regularly. A little bit of discretion goes a long way! The escapes and tragedies of the recent past are certainly unacceptable, and accountability is lacking…..

  3. It is interesting that poke burns. We’re considered but I guess they are a.prescribed burn of sorts. Astonished that 37 percent of the escaped were. From piles


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