Wildfire Strategy Focuses on Where the City Meets the Forest

City skyline with snow-capped mountains behind.

Los Angeles skyline with the Angeles National Forest in the background. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

Andrew Avitt
Pacific Southwest Region
July 14, 2023

Editor’s note: The Forest Service, now in its second year implementing its strategy to Confront the Wildfire Crisis, has announced 11 additional landscapes across the country that will be treated to help reduce wildfire risk to communities. This article focuses on one of those landscapes in Southern California, that encompasses four national forests and spans 4 million acres. 

On a clear day in Los Angeles, it is readily apparent how close wildland spaces are to developed areas. It’s estimated that in Southern California, 10% of the country’s population (25 million people) is just a short drive from a nearby national forest. Wildfire in these areas is an ever-present risk, threatening communities, communications sites, recreation areas, archaeological sites, electric power lines, and roads. 

The Forest Service has been managing the land to reduce wildfire risk around these areas for decades. Now the agency along with partners are increasing these treatments across the country. Man walks through forest carrying a tool, with smoldering fire in front and trees in back.

The nationwide Forest Service strategy, now in its second year, is committed to addressing the wildfire crisis in the places where it poses the most immediate threats to communities. Early this year the agency announced an additional 11 landscapes, including 4 million acres across Southern California forests. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests” combines a historic investment of congressional funding, with years of scientific research and planning, all to dramatically reduce the nation’s wildfire risk over the next decade. 

In Southern California the Forest Service and its partners have identified 4 million to reduce those risks. 

Reducing Risk to Communities in Southern California 

Man uses a chainsaw to cut dense brush with another person behind cleaning up debris.

Forest Service employees trimming back dense brush on the San Bernardino National Forest. The work is a part of the Grass Valley project which was strategically chosen to lower wildfire risk to the communities of Lake Arrowhead and Crestline. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

The Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, and San Bernardino National Forests have already begun work with partners across the landscape and across boundaries. It’s important not just because it’s a large area. The proximity of people, homes and communities in and around these forested landscapes makes them strategically significant to reducing wildfire risk.  

Jeff Heys is the Forest Service’s wildfire crisis strategy landscape manager for Southern California. He said there has been a major shift in recent years towards reducing wildfire risk.  

“Historically, we’ve put so much money and effort into fire suppression, now we are also putting a larger emphasis on proactive fire management,” said Heys. “That means reducing ignitions which usually occur along roadways, maintaining strategic fuel breaks so we can stop wildfire from moving into or out of our communities, and increasing our forest treatments.”  

This year, the Forest Service received $10 million, the National Forest Foundation is set to receive $30 million, and the state of California is contributing $30 million to help reduce wildfire risk in Southern California beyond their ongoing investments.  Dense forest area with water body below to right and mountains behind.

The picturesque community of Lake Arrowhead, located in the San Bernardino National Forest. Lake Arrowhead is just one of more than 70,000 communities identified by the Forest Service at increased wildfire risk. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

It’s an encouraging starting point, said Heys who added that investment in this type of collaborative landscape scale work is only expected to grow in the coming years. 
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to wildfire risk reduction, there is no silver bullet, said Heys, “We need to rely on all the tools — that’s forest thinning, prescribed fire, goat grazing, fuel breaks, mastication, piling and burning, and herbicide.” 

And just as there is no one catch-all tactic to reducing wildfire risk, there isn’t one organization that can get the work done alone either. 

There are seven large collaboratives of partners across the 4-million-acre landscape. They are helping implement work on national forests, in and around communities and across many types of land ownerships and jurisdictions. “We are all speaking the same language. We all know what needs to be done, and we’re all ready to work together.” Firefighter walks toward fire truck with burst of flames and smoke to the left.

In recent years extreme wildfire has become more common in the western United States. This photo taken during the October 2019 Tick Fire exemplifies the challenging environments wildland firefighters face. The fire, which started from an outdoor barbecue, burned several thousand acres and caused the evacuation of 40,000 people from the Santa Clarita Valley. (Photo courtesy of Robert Robledo, engine captain on the Angeles National Forest)

“Let’s take Orange County as an example,” said Heys, “The COAST [County of Orange Area Safety Taskforce] organization motivates everyone in Orange County to be working together to achieve what’s important in Orange County. The San Diego RCD [Resource Conservation District] does that for San Diego. The Inland Empire RCD and Community Foundation do that for the Inland Empire. The Santa Monica Mountains and Rivers and Mountains Conservancies do that for Los Angeles. And the Coastal Conservancy does that for the central coast, from Ventura to Monterey. So each of these entities helps to coordinate those efforts and build capacity at these smaller scales. And all of them are in and adjacent to the national forests.” 

They are also working to increase the involvement of 44 Tribes in proactive fire management, including cultural burning, with the help of the Climate Science Alliance. 

Recent accomplishments include an unprecedented 2,500 landscape-level prescribed fire carried out in June at Thomas Mountain on the San Bernardino National Forest. And the pace of work has never been faster — with contracts issued and fuels cut, piled and burnt over months instead of years. 

“We don’t have the capacity to do all of this work by ourselves,” said Heys. “All of these groups of partners, fire safe councils, elected officials, and the governor’s task force are essential to getting the work done and to achieving our common goal of lowering risks to communities.” 

For more on the national strategy, please visit: Confronting the Wildfire Crisis | US Forest Service (usda.gov) 

Plus, read about the agency’s 10 initial landscapes and additional 11 landscapes

Flickr album: Cleveland National Forest: Prescribed Burn | Flickr 

Tops of trees as look down on small homes tucked in a valley.

A view of the Inland Empire from the hills of the San Bernardino National Forest. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

Four firefighters pull hoses to spray a fire engulfing a large truck.

Roadways are common ignition points for wildfires that can start from cigarettes, sparks and vehicle fires. Strategically treating along roads helps reduce wildfire behavior if a fire were to start in these areas. The treated areas, coupled with the road, may also serve as a fuel break where firefighters might contain future fires. (Photo courtesy of Robert Robledo, engine captain on the Angeles National Forest)

Person, with torch in once hand and tool in the other, walks away from the flames of a prescribed fire.

The prescribed fire project, designed to support forest health and to protect nearby communities, was carried out by 30 firefighters from the Palomar Ranger District. Prescribed fire is one essential way to create fuel breaks around communities. Treated areas like the one on Palomar Mountain may help to slow the progress and intensity of future wildfire and give wildland firefighters an opportunity to more safely engage. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

Women in yellow hard hat with burning fire and brush in background.

At Goose Valley, Danica Marikovsky looks on at fuel treatments continuously taking place across the Cleveland National Forest. These burns across California are planned to expand in the coming years with newly added support from the agency’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)