Forest Service Chief calls for treating two to four times more hazardous fuels

Forest Service Chief Vicki ChristiansenForest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources June 17, 2021. (Still image from the Committee video.)

In what will be one of her last appearances in a Congressional hearing before she retires at the end of August, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen called repeatedly for a “paradigm shift” for treating hazardous fuels.

Today she testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to defend the President’s budget request for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2022 which begins October 1.

In addition to increasing the amount of timber harvested on Forest Service lands, the topic of reducing the number of devastating wildfires came up many times in the hour and a half hearing. A video is available on the Committee’s website.

Senator John Barrasso (WY) mentioned (at 27:49 in the video) that in an April hearing the chief said a paradigm shift was needed to reduce the hazard fuels in forests. He asked,  “Do we need to dramatically increase the number of [wildfire mitigation] acres treated annually?” Chief Christiansen said,”Yes… We can’t just do the same old thing we’ve always done, just treat whatever acres we can get to… We have a crisis. We have a crisis that needs to be addressed differently.”

The Chief said the agency treats about three million acres each year, but they need to treat two to four times that amount.

Senator Ron Wyden (OR) got the Chief to confirm that the agency’s latest estimate is that it would take $20 billion over a 10-year period  to “get in front of the hazardous fuel challenge” (at 39:25).

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group created a wildland fire glossary of terms, which includes their definition of “hazard fuels”:

A fuel complex defined by kind, arrangement, volume, condition, and location that presents a threat of ignition and resistance to control.

Senator Wyden addressed the possibility of a fire season this year that could be worse than average (at 36:40). He asked, “What is the plan for keeping people safe when there are fires in multiple communities in the West?”

Chief Christiansen said, in part, that in recent years there has been competition for firefighting resources when the number of fires have resulted in requests for firefighters and equipment that were unable to be filled, and later said, “Our system is at a breaking point.”

Senator Wyden asked the Chief to submit a “written statement on what the plans are if we are short on resources in the West.”

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (NV) asked if the President’s proposed budget includes sufficient funding for battling wildfires, post-fire recovery, prevention, reducing hazard fuels, and addressing invasive species.

“Senator, it’s a step in the right direction. A significant step in the right direction… It helps in modernizing our wildland fire workforce. It does not get us every step that we need to be.

“I’m very concerned about our workforce,” she continued. “They are tired, and fatigued. Their mental well-being and stress that we are concerned about. Many of these folks are temporary employees and they try to make a year’s living in six to nine months. There are still more things to address, but this budget is a very good first step.

Senator Masto asked about the recruitment and retention challenges that the agency is facing (1:05:30).

“It’s a calling to do this work,” the Chief said. “But anybody should be able to have a living wage to do this work. We do have concerns about a competitive wage… We are committed to work with the Department of the Interior and others to do a comprehensive look at our workforce needs.”

“Please share that,” said Senator Masto. “It’s the same thing I’m hearing in my state from our fire chiefs. It’s a challenge. And this is something we have to address.”

Senator Angus King (Maine) said timber sales on public lands fell from 13 billion board feet in 1988 to 3.2 billion last year, a factor of five, he said. (1:13:07) “What in the hell happened,” he asked. Later he said, “Coincidentally from 1991 to 2020 the number of acres burned has gone up by a factor of five. Is there a connection?”

“Yes sir, there is,” the Chief quickly replied. The Senator moved on to another topic and did not allow her to fully explain why she thought there is a connection.

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