Southeast Regional Strategy Committee
Secretaries Jewell and Vilsack signed “The National Strategy: The Final Phase in the Development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy”
The National Strategy: The Final Phase in the Development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (PDF, 3.8 MB) represents the culmination of the three-phased Cohesive Strategy effort initiated in 2009. The National Strategy establishes a national vision for wildland fire management, defines three national goals, describes the wildland fire challenges, identifies opportunities to reduce wildfire risks, and establishes national priorities focused on achieving the national goals.
Wildland fire management in the Southeastern United States is complex and multi-faceted. The significant threat posed by unplanned or undesirable fires threatens the lives and well-being of emergency responders and the public, and damages or destroys homes, property, and other values-at-risk. Although the Southeastern region includes just thirteen states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it leads the nation in the number of annual wildland fire ignitions (Fig. 1), with an average of 41,500 unplanned ignitions burning a total of 1.9 million acres every year (NICC 2012).
Figure 1. Number of Wildland Fires by Geographic Area, 1997 – 2003 Source: U.S. Forest Service/Fire in the South.
This management challenge is exacerbated by rapid population growth, rapid expansion of wildland urban interface (WUI) areas, and the fragmentation of land ownership in the region. In 2011, 10 firefighters lost their lives during fire management in the Southeast (NIFC 2011). During that same year, in Texas alone 3,993,716 acres were burned by wildland fires, with 5,738 structures destroyed, including 2,946 homes (Texas Forest Service 2012). Today 118,083 Southeastern communities are considered at risk from wildfire (Southern Wildfire Risk Assessment 2006). Of these, 43 percent are assessed as being at very high or high risk from wildfire (Andreu 2008). Wildfire threat to homes is consistently above average due to the number and density of homes throughout the Southeast.
Over the past decade, population growth in the Southeast has outpaced any other region in the country. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the South’s population grew 14.3 percent between 2000 and 2010 to reach 114.6 million inhabitants at the end of the decade (Fig. 2). As of 2010, six of the ten fastest growing counties were in Southeastern states along with a total of 36 percent of the nation’s population (U.S. Census Brief 2010).
Figure 2. Population Growth in the Southeast between 2000 and 2010..
In the past, the Southeastern fire and land management community has relied on cultural and historical acceptance of prescribed fire to facilitate their implementation of appropriate management activities. New residents, however, are often unfamiliar with the use of fire as a valuable management tool. This population and an accompanying significant demographic shift, along with other factors, are creating new challenges for the fire management community. It is increasingly more difficult for agencies, organizations, and landowners to plan for and respond effectively to wildfire, while protecting vulnerable WUI communities and providing for firefighter safety. The Southeast has a complex fire environment unlike any other in the nation, with interrelated critical controlling factors influencing wildland fire management including:
- Wildfire Activity: between 2001 and 2010 nearly half of all national ignitions and over 40 percent of the country’s large wildfires occurred in the Southeast.
- Large and Rapidly Expanding WUI: As of 2000, more than half of WUI acres were located within the Southeast.
- Smoke Management Challenges: smoke impacts safety, health, and quality of life. Smoke-related impacts challenge the fire management community to implement management and response activities safely.
- Year-round Fire Season: wildland fires burn all 12 months of the year in the Southeast, stressing firefighting capacity and resources.
- Area Protected: Over 420 million terrestrial acres are protected from wildfire by federal, Tribal, and state agencies with just under half (200 million acres) being forested lands.
- Privately Owned Forestland: Nearly 90 percent of forestland in the Southeast is owned by over five million private landowners.
- Prescribed Burning: The Southeast leads the nation in prescribed burn acres accomplished on silvicultural land; but issues related to capacity, smoke, and liability are significant obstacles to encouraging practitioners to increase prescribed burning. Prescribed fire must occur at a much greater frequency than elsewhere in the country as a result of the region’s rapid vegetation regrowth rate.
- Invasive Species: Many invasive species spread quickly after a wildfire event, contributing to fuel loading and otherwise influencing forest health (e.g., cogongrass (Imperata cylindrica) spread).
- Working Forests: Traditional and new economically viable forest markets support local economies, help curb hazardous fuel accumulation, and serve as a source of local wildfire knowledge, but the long-term strength of these markets is unknown
- Strong Interrelationships in the Fire Management Community: An extensive history of excellent cooperation and working relationships exists between agencies, organizations, and local fire departments with other wildland fire management organizations, resulting in a safer, more effective response and collaborative planning for future occurrences.
- Rural Fire Departments: An extensive network of rural fire departments, including mostly volunteer fire departments, are responsible for most initial response to wildfires throughout the region.
No single agency, organization, or landowner can adequately address these complex and interrelated challenges on their own. The National Wildland Fire Management Cohesive Strategy (Cohesive Strategy) is a collaborative, three-phase effort to create a landscape-level national fire strategy that addresses these increasingly complex challenges of wildland fire management in the United States. This national effort is novel in that it has encouraged participation by all individuals and entities with a stake in fire management as partners during the strategy’s development. This diverse stakeholder group includes federal and state land management agencies, local governments, private landowners, environmental groups, Tribal groups, fire professionals, non-governmental organizations, and others. The Cohesive Strategy effort also marks the first time that regions of the country have had an opportunity to provide locally-specific input for incorporation into a national strategy. Stakeholders from the Southeast have engaged in the Cohesive Strategy effort during the entire process. During Phase I, national goals were established and a framework for the creation of the strategy was developed. In Phase II, the Southeastern region identified three regional goals and objectives that highlighted challenges, resources, and evolving opportunities unique to the South. The goals identified are:
- Restore and Maintain Landscapes: Landscapes across all jurisdictions are resilient to fire-related disturbances in accordance with management objectives.
- Fire-Adapted Human Communities: Human populations and infrastructure can withstand a wildfire without loss of life and property.
- Wildfire Response: All jurisdictions participate in making and implementing safe, effective, efficient risk-based wildfire management decisions.
Over the past ten months, the Southeastern region has been in the process of selecting regional alternatives as part of the Phase III process. These regional alternatives focus on identifying specific actions and activities that would best help achieve regional objectives while retaining maximum flexibility for land managers to determine the most appropriate management activities for their property. Five key values important to Southeastern stakeholders were identified early in the Cohesive Strategy process, and helped guide the development of regional alternatives, along with the regional goals and objectives developed during Phase II:
- Firefighter and Public Safety
- Marketable Products
- Ecological Services
- Cultural values
- Property Protection
Actions and activities from Phase II that were considered best able to enhance regional values and make progress towards achieving regional goals were identified for each of the five value areas. The goal of this process was to identify emphasized alternatives which, using a scientifically-informed approach, would potentially have the greatest positive impact in each value area, developing a suite of potential choices to be used in combination or singly. The diversity of ecosystems, land management goals, and landscapes across the Southeast means that a single solution will not work for everyone – and required developing a suite of potential choices to be used in combination or individually. Additionally, with nearly 90 percent of Southeastern land owned privately, decisions cannot be made at the state or regional level for the vast majority of landholdings. Instead, partners in the Cohesive Strategy may, moving forward, work collectively with land managers and landowners, using the best available information, to encourage and inform their decision-making process to help address issues and challenges related to wildland fire. Twenty-five actions were identified from the Phase II and were consolidated into the action plan.
Regional Action Plan
The development of the Cohesive Strategy has been guided by the Southeastern Regional Strategy Committee (RSC), comprised of representatives of key stakeholders in the fire management community, and heavily informed by stakeholder input. In the last two years alone, more than 1000 individuals have provided comments, participated in forums, meetings, or responded to online survey requests which have helped guide the Cohesive Strategy process in the Southeast. At the beginning of Phase III of the Cohesive Strategy, a regional risk analysis was developed which built on the regional strategy and identified regionally-specific values. The regional risk analysis also identified 25 actions. The Phase III regional action plan serves as a roadmap for the implementation of the Cohesive Strategy, which is expected to begin in spring 2013 and continue for five years, until renewal.
The current draft of the Southeast regional action plan contains 6 overarching strategies and 23 actions, grouped around the 5 values and a set of identified barriers to success. Collectively, the 23 contain 124 separate implementation tasks. Although this may sound daunting, spread out over 5 years and broken into short, medium and long-term periods, along with numerous partners offering to serve as “lead” on individual tasks, moving these tasks forward is realistic. It will no doubt take extraordinary collaboration, but that is the primary intent behind the cohesive strategy in the first place.
The success of the Cohesive Strategy in the Southeast depends on the continued engagement and support of stakeholders in the wildland fire management community as well as the activation of novel stakeholders. This will likely include individuals and groups that may not consider themselves stakeholders in wildland fire management.