An Evaluation of the Forest Service Hazardous Fuels Treatment Program—Are We Treating Enough to Promote Resiliency or Reduce Hazard

Vaillant, N. M. and Reinhardt, E. D., 2017. Journal of Forestry

Original research (primary data)
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The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy recognizes that wildfire is a necessary natural process in many ecosystems and strives to reduce conflicts between fire-prone landscapes and people. In an effort to mitigate potential negative wildfire impacts proactively, the Forest Service fuels program reduces wildland fuels. As part of an internal program assessment, we evaluated the extent of fuel treatments and wildfire occurrence within lands managed by the National Forest System (NFS) between 2008 and 2012. We intersected fuel treatments with historic disturbance rates to assess the extent to which the program compensates for the disturbance deficit caused by fire suppression and with current wildfire hazard to evaluate whether fuel treatments strategically target high hazard locations. Annually, 45% of NFS lands that would have historically burned were disturbed by fuel treatments and characteristic wildfire, indicating that NFS lands remain in a “disturbance deficit.” The highest wildfire hazard class had the lowest percentage of area treated and the highest proportion of both wildfire of any severity and uncharacteristically high-severity wildfire, suggesting that an alternative distribution of fuel treatment locations will probably improve program effectiveness.

Case studies

Basic information

  • Case ID: INT-091-1
  • Intervention type: Management
  • Intervention description:

    Forest Service fuels program to reduce wildland fuels. Fuel treatments are designed to reduce or redistribute ground, surface, and canopy fuels by removing trees, masticating/mowing small diameter trees and shrubs, piling fuels and burning them, or applying prescribed fire.

  • Landscape/sea scape ecosystem management: Yes
  • Climate change impacts Effect of Nbs on CCI Effect measures
    Wildfire  Unclear results location of mechanical treatments, prescribed fires, and wildfires with respect to historic fire return intervals or potential wildfire hazard for NFS lands over the period of 2008 to 2012. they compared the type and spatial coverage of fire management with 1) the annual area that would have historically burned as a proxy for annual disturbance required to create or maintain fire-adapted resilient landscapes. MFRI quantifies the time between fires under the presumed historical fire regime and was derived using state and transition modeling. - calculated ratio of area currently disturbed (treated or burned in wildfire) to area historically burned was calculated 2) They looked at Wildfire Hazard Potential which is to map areas with relative potential for the occurrence of fires that had a high likelihood to escape initial attack and/or be difficult to suppress. 3) LANDFIRE-assigned wildfire severity to characterize acres burned as characteristic or uncharacteristic with respect to severity based on presumed historical fire regimes
  • Approach implemented in the field: Yes
  • Specific location:

    for all NFS lands and for each region (Northern [R1], Rocky Mountain [R2], Southwestern [R3], Intermountain [R4], Pacific Southwest [R5], Pacific Northwest [R6], Southern [R8], and Eastern [R9]; Figure 1)

  • Country: United States of America
  • Habitat/Biome type: Temperate forests | Montane/Alpine |
  • Issue specific term: Not applicable


  • Notes on intervention effectivness: the study does not assess extent to which the severity, frequency, or risk of wildfire hazard was directly affected by the intervention in comparison to a baseline (due to lack of available data to do the analyses). Rather it uses measures to determine whether or not current forest management strategies for fire hazard control (type and extent) are likely to be sufficient to mitigate fire hazard. It also looks at % of wildfire acres that burn with uncharacteristically high severity. “relative potential for the occurrence of fires that had a high likelihood to escape initial attack and/or be difficult to suppress.” basically, the definition of effectiveness is whether or not current management, in combination with wildfires that have occurred, approximates historical disturbance rates. They posit this is needed to maintain fire resilience landscapes. conclusion – USA wide - The current scale and pace of treatment implementation is not keeping up with the current needs or addressing the backlog (North et al. 2012) of the many years of wildfire suppression and limited fuel treatment implementation. Current treatment rates are insufficient to fully create and maintain resilient landscapes, especially in frequent fire rotation areas. We found over the period assessed that 11% of wildfire acres burn with uncharacteristically high severity. The intervention is concluded to be not effective enough because essentially, fire management is not mimicking natural processes enough to reduce the occurrence of severe fires. We could therefore conclude that it is effective but not enough, however I have coded for as unclear. ** 03/12 BT-AC: intervention is not effective enough as defined by the authors b/c they compare fire behaviour to that expected under historical natural conditions and the aims are to return fire regimes to that state and the intervention was not effective enough to achieve that but there is no baseline (what would happen if there was no intervention at all) therefore do not know the extent to which it still may be having some positive effect (even if authors conclude it is not effective enough) and so effectiveness labeled as unclear
  • Is the assessment original?: Yes
  • Broadtype of intervention considered: Not applicable
  • Compare effectivness?: No
  • Compared to the non-NBS approach: Not applicable
  • Report greenhouse gas mitigation?: No
  • Impacts on GHG: Not applicable
  • Assess outcomes of the intervention on natural ecosystems: No
  • Impacts for the ecosystem: Not reported
  • Ecosystem measures:
  • Assess outcomes of the intervention on people: No
  • Impacts for people: Not reported
  • People measures:
  • Considers economic costs: No
  • Economic appraisal conducted: No
  • Economic appraisal described:
  • Economic costs of alternative considered: No
  • Compared to an alternative: Not reported

Evaluation methodology

  • Type of data: Quantitative
  • Is it experimental: No
  • Experimental evalution done: Not applicable
  • Non-experimental evalution done: Empirical case study
  • Study is systematic: