Sabrina Lehrke's thesis
Forestry and Fire Management in the West: A Dynamic Homeland Security Enemy
– Executive Summary –
In the 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment, the Department of Homeland Security listed wildfires as a top threat to the homeland. More specifically, in the western United States, more than 26,000 wildfires burned approximately 9.5 million acres, resulting in 43 direct deaths and 3,000 indirect deaths and totaling $16.5 billion in damages in 2020. Most wildfires (80%) have been on federal lands; nonetheless, a unified front is necessary for addressing Western wildfires, as 85% of wildfires are caused by humans. Within the last decade, wildfires in the western United States have increased in scale and frequency due to climate change factors and human activity. In the same vein, across the West, there has been a significant rise in people living in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and personnel shortages for wildfire suppression and mitigation, which is problematic for obvious reasons. Since the wildfire threat is expected to return yearly, the United States needs to ensure communities and critical infrastructure are protected and prepared against the threat and that forest health is strong to preserve the homeland’s resiliency.
This thesis compares and evaluates forestry and fire management practices in the western United States to identify a more unified approach among stakeholders to address wildfire scale and frequency. In doing so, this thesis seeks to answer the questions: How has the difference between western states’ forestry and fire management practices affected wildland fire response and how can forestry and fire management stakeholders address wildfire scale and frequency in the Western United States? For this thesis, forestry and fire management stakeholders include firefighters, forestry managers, policymakers, and citizens. In all, the intention behind this thesis and the research showcased is to bring the conversation of the West’s wildfires to the forefront of the nation’s agenda to advocate for a unified approach, as catastrophic wildfires impact the country every year.
In addition to the introduction and conclusion, this thesis has four main chapters that detail key factors and conversations surrounding the wildfire threat in the western United States. Through a comparative analysis approach, the research presented in this thesis showcases three western states (Arizona, California, and Alaska) to capture the historical and current forestry and fire trends to convey wildfire impacts on forest health, communities, and critical infrastructure. This thesis also offers two fictional scenarios based on real events that are intertwined with simulation models via FARSITE, a tool offered by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to produce fire growth simulations, to visualize the effectiveness of mitigation efforts on wildfire growth and illustrate wildfire impacts on communities and forest health. Furthermore, this research compares the factors, resources, and costs associated with prescribed burns and wildfires and wildfire suppression and mitigation to provide decision-makers and citizens with the effects behind each action and advocate for the prioritization and investment for prescribed burns and mitigation projects. Last, this thesis covers landmark legislation and recent federal initiatives that relate to and influence forestry and fire management to showcase the opportunities and potential challenges posed to forestry managers. This research also details the discussion surrounding post-wildfire hazards and recovery efforts, including insurance dilemmas and the need for community involvement to demonstrate the critical components of maintaining resilient communities, and further emphasizes wildfire impacts. Overall, showcasing the three western states offers a glimpse at similar wildfire behavior and impacts across the West. Thus, the research provided in this thesis applies to most western states and underscores the point that resiliency against wildfires is imperative to ensuring the protection of the nation’s natural resources, communities, and critical infrastructure.
In answering the two research questions posed, the bottom line is forestry and fire management operations at the federal and state levels are not negatively impacting wildland fire response, as they all share a similar mission, conduct mitigation projects, and receive and distribute funds to reduce the wildfire threat. However, the primary drivers affecting wildland fire response in each state are the climate conditions, human activity, invasive species, the availability of personnel and resources during and off-season, and the expansion of the WUI. Regarding the second question, four recommendations are offered to forestry and fire management stakeholders to address wildfire scale and frequency in the western United States.
There is no single answer to reducing wildfire impacts and improving the west’s resiliency against wildfires. Nonetheless, steps can be made among all stakeholders to address the wildfire threat. For one, community involvement is integral to addressing wildfire scale and frequency. Community engagement among residents, tribes, forestry professionals, and scholars is crucial in identifying community solutions to mitigate wildfire impacts. Second, additional resources and utilization of technology would prove beneficial in mitigating wildfire threats. For instance, simulation tools, like FARSITE, can inform strategic mitigation projects and citizens about the success mitigation projects can offer. Ultimately, resource allocation and sustainment are vital to wildfire prevention and suppression. Third, action is needed among policymakers to incentivize mitigation operations, push funding to forestry agencies, address insurance concerns, and create a cohesive approach among western states. Last, examining alternative solutions and being open to implementing them is critical for forestry managers, as these solutions can effectively mitigate wildfires. All in all, the wildfire threat will continue to evolve in the United States, especially in the West, so action must be taken, and solutions must be identified for years to come, to mitigate wildfire impacts on forests, communities, and critical infrastructure.
 Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Threat Assessment (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2020), https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf.
 Katie Hoover and Laura A Hanson, Wildfire Statistics, CRS Report No. IF10244 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2022), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10244; Jeff Masters, “Reviewing the Horrid Global 2020 Wildfire Season,” Eye on the Storm, January 4, 2021, http://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/01/reviewing-the-horrid-global-2020-wildfire-season/; Marshall Burke and Sam Heft-Neal, “Indirect Mortality from Recent Wildfires in California,” Global Food, Environment and Economic Dynamics (blog), September 11, 2020, http://www.g-feed.com/2020/09/indirect-mortality-from-recent.html.
 Wildfire Causes and Evaluations,” National Park Service, March 8, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/articles/wildfire-causes-and-evaluation.htm; Hoover and Hanson, Wildfire Statistics, 2022.
 Deb Schweizer, “Wildfires in All Seasons?,” U.S. Department of Agriculture (blog), July 29, 2021, https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2019/06/27/wildfires-all-seasons.
 Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Fire Administration, Wildland Urban Interface: A Look at Issues and Resolutions (Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2022), https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/wui-issues-resolutions-report.pdf; Zach Urness, “Labor Shortage Leaves U.S. Struggling to Hire Firefighters Despite Record Wildfire Funding,” Statesman Journal, May 11, 2022, sec. Nation, https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/nation/2022/05/11/worker-shortage-western-drought-wildfire-season-2022-wildland-firefighter-hirings/65354018007/.