Forest-fire policy of U.S. federal agencies has evolved from the use of small patrols in newly created National Parks to diverse policy initiatives and institutional arrangements that affect millions of hectares of forests. Even with large expenditures and substantial infrastructure dedicated to fire suppression, the annual area burned by wildfire has increased over the last decade. Given the current and future challenges of fire management, and based on analytical research and review of existing policies and their implications, we believe several changes and re-emphases in existing policy are warranted. Most importantly, the actual goal of fuels-management projects should be the reduction of potential fire behavior and effects, not the simple reduction of fuels. To improve safety and economic efficiency, fire-suppression policies should recognize differences in the characteristics of wildfires, and strategies should be tailored to better respond to the unique demands of each fire. Where forest fires are burning large areas, as in the western United States, reducing the trend of increased amounts of burned area may require a diversity of treatments, including prescribed burning, mechanical fuels treatment, and increased use of the Wildland Fire Use Policy. Assessment of how fire is affecting forests would be enhanced if land-management agencies reported the area burned by low-, mixed-, and high-severity fire and what proportion is outside the desired trend or range of conditions for each forest type. Congress should provide an improved budgetary process for fire and fuels management, with a larger annual federal fire-suppression budget. Additionally, reducing annual area burned will require long-term coordinated efforts by federal and state governments, with robust partnerships between land-management agencies and the public in collaborative planning and stewardship. Research and adaptive management are essential in allowing fire-hazard-reduction projects to move forward where proposed projects are met with uncertainty and mistrust. While legislative reform may be desirable, a strategy that is not entirely dependent on new legislation is needed. Building on existing programs that are consistent with a science-based strategy will enable land-management agencies to better utilize information in pursuit of the overall objective of reducing uncharacteristically severe wildfires.
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