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Another Audit Followed By Another Year of Smoke

In an audit done by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) completed in July 2016 of the USDA Forest Service (FS) hazardous fuels reduction, the auditor’s office reviewed controls on selection of projects, impacts on Community Wildfires Protection Plans and if the agency responded to the corrective actions outlined in the 2016 audit. What the OIG found was that “FS needs to develop and implement risk assessments and guidance across the agency and document and implement a formal review of hazardous fuels reduction project selections. It should implement new tracking measures and make software modifications to accurately record accomplishments and require staff to charge all costs only for “work actually performed.”

The audit gives a clear look at the size and scope of the issues facing FS land managers today and stresses the need to continue to find ways of reducing the fuel buildup in the national forest. “FS manages more than 192 million acres in the National Forest System (NFS). An estimated 58 million acres of this land are at high risk of ecologically destructive wild land fire. The most extensive and serious problem related to the health of national forests is the over-accumulation of vegetation that can fuel fires, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, and catastrophically destructive wildfires that can be difficult to contain. It has been estimated that these hazardous fuels1 are accumulating three times as fast as they can be treated. Reducing the buildup of hazardous fuels is important in reducing the extent, severity, and cost of wildfires.”

For those of us living in the wild land urban interface, we understand the importance of what the 2016 audit reveals. Those hazardous fuels were the reason many communities face fire seasons that continue to grow in both length and severity. While the audit report recommends 11 actions for improving the designation of hazardous fuel and accounting, it says nothing about the litigation that continues to stop forest health projects from being completed. The report also looks at risk assessments and suggests that more reviews would help. “FS lacks a consistent, cross-agency process for selecting its highest priority hazardous fuels reduction projects for completion. FS units do not use scientifically-based risk assessments to select projects; they do not document the processes used for selecting projects; and the Washington Office does not review project decisions made at the regional and district level.” While more cooperation might be helpful, a serious plan that included prescribed fire, thinning and harvesting would be a better strategy.

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