Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on March 1, 2019.

Hot Seat

A conversation with Vicki Christiansen, new chief of the US Forest Service, on her career, her agency’s wildfire challenges, and more


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If you were to craft a resume for the ideal candidate to lead the United States Forest Service during these times of record-breaking destructive wildfires, you might come up with something close to the resume of Vicki Christiansen.

In addition to serving as state forester in both Washington and Arizona, where she was responsible for the protection of tens of millions of wildfire-prone acres, Christiansen has been a land manager, a line officer, and a wildland firefighter, spending 32 years on the front lines coordinating wildfire suppression efforts across the West. After seven years with the US Forest Service as a deputy director, Christiansen was promoted to interim chief in March 2018, and named full-time chief this past October. She now leads a department of 25,000 full-time employees, including upward of 10,000 wildland firefighters, overseeing 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands.

The situation that Christiansen inherited at the Forest Service is less than enviable. Her agency, more than any other, is responsible for addressing the US wildfire problem, which over the past few decades has been defined by trends headed in all of the wrong directions. The average number of acres burned per wildfire has steadily climbed, while total acres burned has risen dramatically, routinely approaching 10 million acres annually. Climate change and other factors have caused the average length of wildfire season to expand to where experts now fear that fighting blazes may soon be a year-round affair. Most alarmingly, records for the largest, deadliest, and most destructive wildfires seem to be rewritten each year, most recently with 2018’s Camp Fire in California, which killed at least 86 people and caused an estimated $10 billion in insured damage.

If that weren’t enough, the resources needed to manage these catastrophic events have thrown the Forest Service into a budget tailspin. In fiscal year 2018, the agency spent about $2.8 billion on wildfire suppression, more than half of its entire budget; for comparison, in 1995, the agency spent just $377 million on all wildfire related activity, of which suppression was just a part. That matters, because as suppression costs soar, money for activities to address underlying problems that might help reverse wildfire growth—such as forest management, mitigation programs, and research—has shrunk dramatically.

With this as the backdrop, NFPA Journal recently spoke with Christiansen on a wide range of issues, including the Forest Service’s financial quandary and proposed fix, as well as her agency’s plan to address the growing and complicated problem of wildfire in America. No one agency, solution, or action will get us out of the wildfire mess, she said. It will take many people and organizations, working together to implement a host of initiatives, to slowly start turning the ship in the right direction.

In your 30-year-plus career of focusing on wildfire and protection, how do the last two wildfire seasons stack up historically?

Unfortunately, they are part of a larger trend that we keep seeing. We describe it as our “new normal” and it seems like we reset that new normal in increments practically every year. But what’s happened over these back-to-back years has been historic. You can’t even really measure it in the traditional ways, like the total number of fires or total acres burned. Those are indicators, but we’re trying to look more at the consequences of these fires. Things like the number of structures destroyed, the number of watersheds significantly impaired for years to come, destroyed critical habitats, destroyed critical timber resources—those are consequence that nobody wants to accept, and they’re what really matters. We are getting more and more of these kinds of consequences from many of these fires.

The scope of the issue is immense—how can the Forest Service make an impact on the problem?

No one agency—not even the Forest Service, with over 10,000 active firefighters and 25,000 other militia—has the resources to respond in these extreme events. Wildand fire response in this nation is a full-on interagency affair.

If we are to interrupt these trend lines, we all have to be working together. We have great hope that, if we focus and get the right investment in resiliency on the land and adapted communities and the right response to fire, we can start to stabilize this increase in risk trajectory. But it’s going to take focused efforts from all of us.

With that said, what are some specific strategies we should adopt to start moving the needle?

I could name one or two things or specific initiatives, but what I’d like to do first is suggest it’s more about an entire approach in how we look at risk and share risk. That approach is encapsulated in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which has three major goals. One, we must work on creating resilient landscapes. The second priority is to create fire-adapted communities. The third is rethinking our response so that we have a risk-based response to fire.

Across the nation, fire is a natural part of most landscapes, but we’ve interrupted that for over 100 years by trying to exclude it. We’re learning from a policy perspective that we need to bring that back into balance. There are over 1 billion burnable acres in this nation, and our communities are now part of these landscapes. But we still need to treat the land so that when fires do ignite, they don’t have the catastrophic intensities we are seeing today. At the same time, we need to ensure that our communities are fire-adapted so they can live through these fires. And we need to make sure our fire response makes sense—with these big, hurricane-type fires, we’re just throwing money away trying to extinguish them, and we’re unnecessarily exposing firefighters to risk when the probability of success is low to none.

Those are big concepts. How do you move from concept to reality?

All three of these national priorities still have to be strategically worked out. We recently released a framework of an approach we call Toward Shared Stewardship, which is an outcome-based investment strategy. We are asking states to convene key state, local, and tribal stakeholders to ask questions such as “What are the most important outcomes?” and “What are the most important risks?” Those types of exercises will really help us identify where and how we make needed investments.

Everyone needs to be working cohesively so that we do not have all of these independent actions. That is where we are going to move the needle on the risk trajectory. To do that, we need to look at the risk together, assess it, and work together on strategies to share some of that short-term risk, so that we can see a long-term gain. Then we need to jointly combine these efforts and our resources, financial and otherwise, to set priorities and intentionally undertake those needed actions in the wildland and in our communities.

What do you mean by accepting short-term risk for long-term gain?

For example, prescribed fire or controlled burns are one of the major land treatment tools we have to manage the vegetation on the landscape. Even though we have great assessment tools and great weather prediction tools, putting prescribed fire on the landscape still carries risk. We need to accept that risk and manage it well. Accepting some short-term risk for prescribed fire, including some of the smoke impact, and realizing that it will create fuel conditions that are far more resilient in the long term—that would be accepting some short-term risk for much longer reduction of the long-term risk. It is very important that we get into that practice across multiple jurisdictions and across the wildland/urban interface and more developed communities.

Hand-in-hand with treating the landscape is the need for fire-adapted communities, which are communities built and maintained with ignition resistance. How can we make sure this happens?

It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort. We need to be influencing down to local homeowners, builders, realtors, community developers, community planners, elected officials, state legislators, the insurance industry—the list goes on and on. We need to convey to all of them that this is our new normal, and that we cannot assure any community that wildland fire isn’t going to be a part of the equation. We all say “it’s not if but when” in many of these communities.

Wildland firefighters in nature, Vicki Christansen is sole woman in the group

Front Lines Christiansen, third from left, in 1999 with a fire crew in Washington state. She spent more than three decades on wildfire suppression efforts. Photograph: USDA Forest Service

There are many other things that can help us do that, too, including carrot-or-stick incentives on the community development side. We need to incentivize communities to think about their fire adaptations for both communities that are already built and communities yet to be built. About 83 percent of the wildland/urban interface in the West is yet to be developed. What we do to influence how the wildland/urban interface is developed in the future is a very high leverage gain. There are several things in that arena that I know NFPA is thinking about with other partners about adaptation in the future.

As you know, NFPA’s most prominent and widely used model for wildfire preparedness is the Firewise USA® program, which organizes and supports hundreds of voluntary groups in communities across the nation that undertake wildfire mitigation work around their homes and neighborhoods. How do volunteer programs like these fit into that multipronged strategy you just outlined?

Efforts like Firewise USA are absolutely important to help raise that awareness. We have to raise awareness before we can get new behaviors to create a different set of actions. A good example of this happening in my lifetime is seatbelts. As a young child, I wasn’t belted in, but I would never consider not strapping my young granddaughter into a car seat, let alone a seat belt. In my lifetime, smoking in any public place was also accepted and was the norm; of course, now it isn’t. We can change behaviors in a society, but it is not just a one-off effort—we all have to work together. We are seeing more and more awareness about fire adaptation. Programs such as Firewise, Ready Set Go, and Fire Learning Network are multipronged approaches that will help us change our behaviors and ability to live with wildfire in the future. We are proud and thankful for the long partnership and commitment that NFPA has with Firewise USA and we are committed to that partnership.

Are there ways NFPA can or should expand its role to aid in the efforts you outlined above?

The outcomes we are trying to achieve in the wildland fire environment are dependent on a number of factors: social, cultural, financial, political, environmental, governmental. All of these things play into how we respond, react, prepare, mitigate, and change the risk of wildfire. To that end, I think NFPA has a very important role and a very important constituency. It has a role as a convener and facilitator in the code world, the education world, and the structural wildland firefighter responder world. That is critical because the wildfire problem is not just a one-effort fix—this is a whole system. How do we influence local fire officials to think about this system, and to realize that not all fire is bad? How do we figure out how to work with our partners to have more of the right kind of fire on the landscape? How do we create fire adaptation? As a convener and facilitator, these are some high-leverage areas NFPA can help with.

All of the efforts you’ve outlined take considerable financial resources, yet the cost to put out these increasingly large and destructive wildfires has risen dramatically over the last couple of decades. How does spending on suppression impact the nation’s ability to do the groundwork to better address the root of the problem?

The Forest Service has had back-to-back record-breaking years for suppression costs alone—we keep breaking our own records. We spent over $2.4 billion in fiscal year 2017 on wildland fire suppression, and in 2018 we went up to just over $2.6 billion and had to transfer upward of $800 million from our non-fire account. We’ve had to borrow from the non-fire account in all but three of the last 15 years to cover suppression costs, because we ran out of money in our fire accounts. We say “borrow” because Congress may or may not replenish those funds; many years they do but it’s not a guarantee. It’s clearly disruptive to all the work we are trying to do on the landscape on the prevention side.

Is there a fix to this conundrum?

I am very pleased to say that this past March, Congress passed an omnibus bill, which included a fire funding fix. It won’t go into effect until fiscal year 2020, so still a year away, but nevertheless, we will finally be able to stabilize what I call this freefall that we have been in, and address the Catch-22 where the more we need to work on prevention, forest management, and forest resiliency, the fewer resources we have.

How does the fire-funding fix work, exactly?

The Forest Service is budgeted on a rolling 10-year average—the more suppression costs keep rising each year, the more the 10-year average keeps rising, and more and more of our constrained budget goes into fire suppression and less into non-fire and prevention programs. What the fire funding fix will do is stabilize our suppression costs. We will go back to the 2015 10-year average, and it will stabilize from there. Anything we have to spend during a year above that amount—which is just over $1 billion in appropriated funds for suppression—will be considered catastrophic and will come out of a separate account, a disaster relief fund account. So we don’t expect to have to borrow anymore from other accounts and we won’t have this continued erosion of our non-fire budget.

How much additional money do you expect to allocate to other programs like forest management and fire mitigation and prevention? Will those levels increase now that you don’t have to dip into those funds for suppression?

I’d like to answer that with confidence, but our funding is still a part of the whole Department of the Interior appropriations bill and dependent on congressional approval, so there is no guarantee that that money will come back to the Forest Service. What I can respond to with confidence is that the Forest Service is doing everything to show that it is a good investment, and that we will work to prioritize our investment in the landscape based on outcomes that states and communities want to help identify with us. We are working all the time on strengthening and improving our processes, how we get work done, and how we can be more strategic in getting work done. If we can strengthen that confidence in Congress—and they already gave us confidence with the fire funding fix—to show that we are a good investment, then we are confident they will put that money back into the Forest Service.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Newscom