The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has looked at how three agencies, namely the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), contracted for goods and services for wildfire response. Overall, GAO found that the agencies prioritized speed when ordering, but one agency had officials – who were not contracting officers – approve individual orders that exceeded their ordering limit.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, from 2018 through 2021, nearly 226,500 wildfires burned more than 30.7 million acres in the United States. Additionally, from January through October 2022, there were nearly 60,000 wildfires affecting 7.2 million acres of land. Recent assessments of wildfire management strategies and climate factors suggest that the length of fire seasons and frequency of large fires in the United States are increasing. In addition, human development in and around wildland areas continues to grow, placing more people and infrastructure at risk of being affected by wildfires.
Several federal agencies share responsibility for leading wildfire response and recovery. These agencies often work with private sector contractors to obtain life-saving goods and services quickly. FEMA, the Forest Service, and BLM collectively obligated at least a total of $2 billion for wildfire response and recovery from fiscal years 2018 through 2021.
The three agencies primarily used firm-fixed-price contracts to meet wildfire-related needs. Firm-fixed-price contracts accounted for 89 percent of contract obligations for wildfires at the Forest Service, 94 percent of obligations on contracts for wildfires at BLM, and 73 percent of obligations on contracts for wildfires at FEMA.
To mobilize goods and services quickly, the agencies used multiple approaches. For example, they used indefinite delivery contracts and assigned ordering officials, who can be authorized to place certain orders on behalf of the government. However, GAO found, for the orders reviewed, that BLM and Forest Service’s use of ordering officials did not always align with their respective agency policies. For example, four of six BLM orders GAO reviewed exceeded the $25,000 ordering limit specified in policy. The cumulative values of these orders ranged from $900,000 to $2.1 million. GAO reported on April 13 that BLM has since taken steps that will address the issues identified for these orders, but has not yet updated all of its related policies.
Each of the selected agencies had processes in place for collecting lessons learned. For example, all three agencies have panels or forums that allow for discussion of contracting issues and conduct wildfire reviews resulting in reports that may cover contracting challenges. However, GAO found that the Forest Service has not yet established mechanisms to archive and track implementation of all lessons learned identified during these reviews. Officials told the watchdog that they had not done so because the first report was only provided to congressional committees recently, but they added that work is underway to do so.
One of GAO’s recommendations resulting from its review is that the Secretary of Agriculture should ensure the Forest Service develops a mechanism to implement, track, and archive the lessons learned developed through its large fire reviews. GAO is making five additional recommendations, including that BLM and Forest Service take steps to improve ordering official policies and their implementation. The agencies concurred with the recommendations.