On Tuesday, January 18, the USDA Forest Service and Biden administration unveiled a 10-year strategy to mitigate the worst effects of wildfires. The strategy leverages $3 billion in funding from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to increase the pace of thinning and prescribed fire treatments near wildland-urban interfaces in high-risk areas . A press release from the USDA summarized the critical state of our nation’s forests: “Overgrown forests, a warming climate, and a growing number of homes in the wildland-urban interface, following more than a century of rigorous fire suppression, have all contributed to what is now a full-blown wildfire and forest health crisis.”
While this is hardly news to forest management community, securing funding to deal with the issue has long been a challenge. According to the new strategy, the Forest Service will work with partners to increase fuels and forest health treatments up to 4x current levels, particularly in the West. An additional 20 million acres of National Forest System lands and 30 million acres of other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands are targeted over the coming decade. Funding from the Infrastructure Act will support investments in the Forest Service workforce, including establishing a new firefighter job series and converting more than 1,000 seasonal firefighters to permanent positions. The Confronting the Wildfire Crisis strategy represents a ‘paradigm shift’ in Federal forest management because fuels and forest health treatments will be applied more strategically nation-wide, prioritizing areas where communities face high fire risk. The scale of treatments may finally begin to approach the scale of the problem.
Research on the carbon benefits of fuels treatments has shown mixed results as treatments often grow back before being impacted by wildfire. Emissions from wildfires are also notoriously difficult to model as they are driven largely by fire intensity which depends on dynamic factors such as fuel moisture, weather, and wind. Contrary to some narratives, intense forest management does not always reduce the risk of extreme fire behavior, but does always come at a high carbon cost [2,3]. Overall, more ecologically aligned fire-management should lead to more resilient forests that can maintain steady carbon stocks over time. Such an approach includes allowing naturally occurring fires to burn when human lives and infrastructure are not at risk. Utilizing unplanned ignitions is a welcome feature of the new strategy and should be prioritized.
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