"The 2000 fire season was, by most standards, one of the worst in the past half century. National attention began to focus on wildfires when a prescribed burn in May escaped control and burned 235 homes in Los Alamos, NM [New Mexico]. In September, the Clinton Administration proposed an additional $1.6 billion for wildfire management, and Congress enacted much of this proposal in the FY2001 Interior Appropriations Act (P.L. 106-291). However, Congress still faces questions about forestry practices, continued funding, and the federal role in wildland fire protection. Many factors contribute to the threat of wildfire damages; two major factors are the decline in forest and rangeland health and the expansion of residential areas into wildlands--the urban-wildland interface. Over the past century, aggressive wildfire suppression, as well as past grazing and logging practices, have altered many ecosystems, especially those where light, surface fires were frequent. Many areas now have unnaturally high fuel loads (e.g., dead trees and dense thickets) and an historically unnatural mix of plant species (e.g., exotic invaders). Fuel treatments have been proposed to reduce the wildfire threats. Prescribed burning -- setting fires under identified conditions -- can reduce the fine fuels that spread wildfires, but can escape and become catastrophic wildfires, especially if fuel 'ladders' and wind spread the fire into the forest canopy. Commercial timber harvesting is often proposed, and can reduce heavy fuels and fuel ladders, but can increase the threat unless the slash (tree tops and limbs) is properly disposed of."
CRS Report for Congress, RL30755