A decade of ignored warnings

Published November 1, 2000


A panel of leading American foresters meets in Sun Valley, Idaho. Its report finds that the policy of suppressing forest fire, as has been followed in Western forests for most of the twentieth century, has resulted in a large buildup of “excess fuels.” As a consequence,

Wildfires in these ecosystems have gone from a high-frequency, low-intensity regime which sustained the system, to numerous high-intensity fires that require costly suppression attempts, which often prove futile in the face of overpowering fire intensity. High fuel loads resulting from the long-time absence of fire, and the abundance of dead and dying trees, result in fire intensities that cause enormous damage to soils, watersheds, fisheries, and other ecosystem components.


The National Commission on Wildfire Disasters declares that “millions of acres of forest in the western United States pose an extreme fire hazard from the extensive build-up of dry, highly flammable forest fuels.”

May 1995

The U.S. Forest Service publishes Course to the Future: Repositioning Fire and Aviation Management, declaring that under current policies “the potential for large, catastrophic wildfires continues to increase.” The report warns that when those wildfires occur, as they inevitably will, “it will directly conflict with our ecosystem goals.”

December 1995

The U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior jointly issue a report on Federal Wildland Fire Management, stating that “millions of acres of forests and rangelands [are] at extremely high risk for devastating forest fires to occur.” The Secretaries declare that many forested areas are “in need of immediate treatment” to reduce fire hazards.


A panel of leading foresters declares that “fires in the Pacific Northwest occur less frequently than in the inland West, but can be even more catastrophic because of the high fuel volumes (dead trees). The limited road system and infrastructure make federal lands in this region increasingly susceptible to catastrophic fires.”


Barry Hill, Associate Director for energy, resources, and science issues at the General Accounting Office, testifies before Congress that as a result of past policies of fire suppression in the interior West, “vegetation accumulated, creating high levels of fuels for catastrophic wildfires and transforming much of the region into a tinderbox.”


The General Accounting Office issues Western National Forests — A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats. The report finds the Forest Service “has not yet developed a cohesive strategy for addressing several factors that present significant barriers to improving the health of the national forests by reducing fuels. As a result, many acres of national forests in the interior West may remain at high risk of uncontrollable wildfire at the end of fiscal year 2015.”