As devastating wildfires continue to rage in California and other Western states, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released the findings of an audit revealing federal agencies need to improve their efforts in assessing the effectiveness of wildland fire reviews.
Currently, firefighters are battling wildfires of historic proportions in California. The latest wildfire to explode in Northern California quickly forced thousands to evacuate just outside Monterey. The newest blaze has destroyed 1800 infrastructures and the death toll is on the rise, with at least six killed in the past couple weeks, making it the third most destructive wildfire in California history.
Wildland fires can have a damaging impact on the environment, homes, and other infrastructures. Moreover, according to GAO, wildland fires cost billions of dollars a year to fight. In fiscal years 2009 through 2014, the five federal wildland fire agencies obligated a total of $8.3 billion to suppress wildland fires.
“The agencies have acknowledged the importance of reviewing their responses to individual wildland fires to understand their effectiveness and identify possible improvements” GAO stated. “However, the agencies have not systematically followed agency policy regarding such fire reviews and, in the reviews they have conducted, they have not used specific criteria in selecting fires and conducting the reviews.”
GAO identified five federal agencies responsible for wildland fire management: Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. Over the past several years, these agencies have initiated a number of improvements to their wildland fire management, including the issuance of agency guidance in 2009 that provided managers with more flexibility in responding to wildland fires.
However, after reviewing multiple aspects of federal wildland fire management, GAO determined federal agencies still need to improve the way they assess the effectiveness of their wildland fire management programs.
The agencies assess the effectiveness of their wildland fire management programs through performance measures, efforts to assess specific activities and reviews of specific wildland fire incidents. The agencies are also in the process of developing new performance measures to enhance their risk-based approach.
GAO determined, though, that, “The agencies have not systematically followed agency policy regarding such fire reviews and, in the reviews they have conducted, they have not used specific criteria in selecting fires and conducting the reviews.”
For instance, although agency policy calls for reviews of all fires resulting in federal suppression expenditures of $10 million or more, agencies have not consistently followed this guidance nor have they used specific criteria for the reviews they have conducted. In previous reports, GAO stated that collecting information is crucial in making key management decisions and identifying problems.
Moreover, officials from the Forest Service and Interior Department said focusing on firefighting costs “does not allow them to identify the most useful fires for review.” They expect to develop criteria by the end of 2015, but did not provide information about how they plan to do so and what factors will be considered.
“By developing specific criteria for selecting fires to review and conducting reviews, and making commensurate changes to agency policies, the agencies may enhance their ability to help ensure that their fire reviews provide useful information about the effectiveness of their wildland fire activities,” GAO said.
In order to better position these agencies to develop effective strategies for wildland fire management, GAO recommended they develop specific criteria for selecting wildland fires for review and conducting the reviews, and revise agency policies accordingly.
“By developing specific criteria for selecting fires to review and conducting the reviews, and making commensurate changes to agency policies to help ensure the criteria are consistently applied, the agencies may enhance their ability to ensure that their fire reviews provide useful information and meaningful results,” GAO stated.
“This, in turn, could better position them to identify improvements in their approach to wildland fire management and thereby use their limited resources more effectively,” GAO concluded.
The agencies generally agreed with GAO’s findings and recommendations, and are taking steps to improve their wildland fire management efforts.