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Quadrennial Fire Review

January 15, 2009

IAFC On Scene: January 2009

Wildland firefightingIn 2004, the U.S. Forest Service, the four U.S. Department of Interior agencies and their state, local and tribal partners that constitute the wildland fire community chartered the first Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR).

Like its predecessor, the 2009 QFR was designed as a strategic evaluative process that develops an internal assessment of capabilities of current programs and resources in comparison to future needs for fire management.

2009 Quadrennial Fire Review Final Report (pdf).
In terms of timeframe, projections of future conditions and risks potentially affecting fire management are long-term (a 10- to 20-year timeframe), while strategies for new mission requirements and building new capabilities are near-term, defined in a 4- to 5-year period.

The QFR is based on the U.S. Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review model, which has served for the past two decades as a vehicle to reexamine shifts in military strategy and changes in organizational tactics and capabilities. Conceptually, the intention of the QFR is to use the four-year interval between reviews as an opportunity to reassess the future environment in wildland fire; summarize shifts in mission, roles, responsibilities, and agency relationships; and chart new course directions for fire management.

It should also be noted that the QFR is not a plan or a policy making document. It contains no recommendations, action items or timetables. As an interagency assessment, it is purely advisory in tone. Its value is that it reaffirms interagency fire-management priorities and outlines investment decisions for the future.

To ensure an integrated perspective, the QFR focuses on fire management as a whole enterprise. There is no review of separate programs—preparedness, prevention, suppression, fuel reduction and restoration—or the functions that make up fire and fuel management.

Five federal public-land agencies with wildland fire responsibilities:

  • Bureau of Land Management
  • National Park Service
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of Interior
  • U.S. Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture
Integration also means that the five federal public-land agencies with wildland fire responsibilities conduct this review as a joint effort.

State, local, tribal and nongovernmental partners in the greater wildland fire community, including the IAFC, were also asked to participate in different phases of the QFR effort to ensure that a broad range of interests were fully considered and melded into the final report.

Driving Forces for Future Change

In looking to the future, the wildland fire environment is likely to be heavily influenced by the same driving forces identified in the 2005 QFR.

There is now general consensus from nearly all research quarters about the cumulative effects of accelerating climate change, accumulating biomass and stressed habitat conditions from drought effects plus other factors.

While there are differences about how stressful this will be and how soon the levels of change will be realized, there is broad agreement in the direction about where wildland fire and ecosystems are headed for the next 30-40 years.

The effects of climate change will continue to result in greater probability of longer and more severe fire seasons, in more regions in the nation – What has already been realized in past five years—shorter, wetter winters and warmer, drier summers, larger amounts of total fire on the landscape, more large wildland fires, increased lightning activity—will persist and possibly escalate in an irregular pattern the QFR refers to as asymmetric fire.

Fire-mitigation efforts must be prepared to cope with moving past the just reached 8- to 10-million acre plateau of wildland fire activity to potentially an even higher 10 to 12 million acres-affected range.

Cumulative drought effects will further stress fuels accumulations – The current drought cycle is expected to last for another 20 years. In terms of impact, competition for water in ecosystems, continued problems with exotic invasives and insect kill and faster drying of vegetation all will make fuels more flammable and drive fire behavior.

Drought effects in the Southeast and Southwest will make these areas especially vulnerable in terms of fire risk.

There will be continued wildland fire risk in the wildland urban interface despite greater public awareness and broader involvement of communities – Slower growth and the still to be assessed impacts of economic recession and rising energy costs may moderate this over the next few years.

But overall regional shifts in population and the increasing development of former timberland holdings will drive more seasonal recreation and fulltime residency in areas adjacent to the public lands—and in some cases where there are extensive in-holdings—inside the public lands.

At the tribal, state and local level, efforts promoting fire prevention—adapting community wildland fire protection plans, promoting hazardous fuels treatments and fire education—will continue to build.

Emergency response demands will escalate – The growing impacts of global warming and extreme climatic change will also be felt in the likely increase in frequency and devastation of other natural disasters; floods, storms and other natural disasters are only one set of potentially major events where massive government emergency response efforts would be required. (Earthquakes, pandemics, domestic animal and wildlife diseases, acts of terrorism are others.) As FEMA and other agencies and communities involved in emergency response have developed their capabilities in this arena, fire management must prepare and expect to be called on to play a major role.

Wildland fireFire agency budget resources—be it federal, tribal, state or local—will be strained by increased demands and rising costs during a period where government budget revenues will be very tight or falling – The current budget environment for federal and partner fire management is at best uncertain and difficult. Recession and very volatile energy costs are already putting pressure on all fire-management budgets. Federal suppression costs have already outstripped budgeted costs for five consecutive years. Many states are seeing their reserve funds overwhelmed when they have significant wildland fires. While pressure is mounting to find ways to contain costs, the reality of budget stress at all levels is significant now and likely to intensify over the next two to three years.

Mission Strategies: Fire Management’s Next Decade

The basic assumptions of future threats and risks to both natural (public lands) environments and manmade (wildland urban interface) communities, will require continued development and reprogramming of federal wildland fire agencies’ strategies and capabilities. Looking ahead, fire management’s approach to build strategic and tactical capability, more aggressively incorporate safety and risk management, and confront greatly increased and still escalating risks and threats and remain within budget realities will be a challenge.

WUI Conference, General Session 3: The 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review

In addition, the report contains sections that detail core capabilities, force structure, workforce development, infrastructure and capital assets, operating systems and current and developing technologies.

Don Artley, Montana State Forester (Ret.), is an ex-officio member of the IAFC’s Wildland Fire Policy Committee.