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Audit faults forest program controls

by Noelle Straub, Star-Tribune    October 09, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Forest Service has not developed national guidelines to assess the risks communities face from wildfires and is unable to ensure that the most important fire prevention projects are funded first, an independent government audit has found.

And while the majority of catastrophic wildfires occur in the West, nearly 58 percent of the total acres treated in fiscal year 2004 were in the southeastern states, the report said.

"The Forest Service cannot clearly identify the level of risk to communities from wildfire," it said. "It cannot demonstrate to stakeholders its accomplishments in reducing those risks with the funds provided."

The Forest Service agreed with the report's assessments and vowed to put changes in place by July 31 next year.

The Inspector General Office of the Agriculture Department last month released the audit report on the implementation of the Healthy Forest Initiative, focusing mainly on programs to reduce the over-accumulation of vegetation that can fuel fires.

The Forest Service's fiscal year 2006 budget included $281 million for direct funding to reduce hazardous fuels, with which the agency plans to treat as many as 1.8 million acres, the report said.

But the Forest Service has not developed specific, national criteria for assessing the level of risk that communities face from fires or to justify the selection of one project over another, the report said.

The agency also lacks the ability to ensure that the most important projects are funded first, it said, instead allowing the prioritization of projects to be at the discretion of individual field units.

"(The) Forest Service relies on field-level officials to identify communities at risk and prioritize projects based on their own criteria, which vary from region to region," it said.

The focus has been on treating as many acres as possible rather than the highest priority acres, the report said. Regional foresters' performance evaluations have been tied to the number of acres they have treated, the report said, giving managers incentive to choose the easiest rather than most important acres to treat.

"There is no control to prevent field units from treating the easiest and least expensive acres in order to achieve target acreage levels instead of treating those acres that will more effectively reduce risk," it said.

In fiscal year 2004 the southern region treated more than a million acres, largely through prescribed burns, a less-expensive method. By contrast, the intermountain region treated only 59,000 acres, the northern region 86,000 acres and the Rocky Mountain region 110,000 acres.

"The majority of catastrophic wildfires occur in the west, but the southeast states treated over 57 percent of the total hazardous fuels acreage in the United States in FY 2004," the report said.

But although this appears to be an "inappropriate allocation of resources," there is no way that determination can be made because the Forest Service includes such limited information in its accomplishment reports, the audit said.

The agency's reports on its hazardous fuels reduction program are "misleading and not representative of the actual achievements," the audit said. That's because the agency simply reports the number of acres it has treated but does not include information on how much the risk from wildfire has been reduced.

Also, an acre that has received two different treatments may be reported twice, as two acres treated.

The Forest Service agreed to add more information, such as the percent of acres that change condition class, which measures wildfire risk, breaking down accomplishments by region, and differentiating between initial and maintenance treatments and multiple treatments on the same acres.

The inspector general also recommended that the Forest Service develop specific, national guidance for assessing the risks of fires and determining the benefits of fuels treatment and restoration projects.

The Forest Service agreed. It also vowed to establish controls to assist the regions in prioritizing projects so that the most vital projects happen first. Factors to be evaluated include the proximity to a community, fuel type, condition class and others.

The report also called for ensuring funds are distributed to the area with the highest concentration of priority projects nationally,

Forest Service officials believe that a new system called LANDFIRE, which uses satellite imagery to map the land and models to provide more detailed information about soil, vegetation, climate and fire history, will help identify communities most at risk.

Congress funded the project in 2002 and a prototype has already been completed for Montana and southwestern Utah, the report said.

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