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Performance Audit 20-08

GFC Forest Protection

Action needed to ensure continued success in suppressing wildfires

April 2021

 

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KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

To address lack of wildfire experience risks, GFC should:
  • Track personnel’s wildfire experience by combining data from the Incident Qualifications System, fire reports, and field management insights.

  • Determine type and numbers of Incident Management Teams (IMT) needed.

  • Develop succession plans for field management and IMT positions.

  • Develop wildfire training exercises.

To reduce wildfire response risks, GFC should:
  • Create formal statewide guidance for use of aviation resources.

  • Create a formal statewide staffing plan

  • Use additional aviation data points and better data integrity to determine fleet needs.

  • Use quantitative risk analysis to evaluate the impact of mitigation and prevention activities.

 

BACKGROUND

GFC Forest Protection responds to all wildfires, assists private landowners with wildfire mitigation activities (e.g., prescribed burning), provides aerial detection of wildfires, and conducts community outreach and education to prevent wildfires. GFC also provides equipment and training to county and municipal rural fire departments, provides fire weather forecasting, and oversees burn permits.

GFC Forest Protection is organized into two zones and 10 areas. Within the areas, counties are grouped into one of 77 county-units, each with three to seven rangers who respond to wildfires and conduct prevention and mitigation activities.

In fiscal year 2020, GFC Forest Protection expenditures totaled approximately $40 million.

 

KEY FINDINGS

Historically, the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) Forest Protection program has successfully suppressed wildfires. However, risks to GFC’s future success exist and need to be addressed.

GFC has successfully suppressed wildfires.

  • Between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, approximately 82% (13,800) of the nearly 17,000 wildfires within the state were suppressed before exceeding five acres.

A majority of GFC rangers have not experienced a severe wildfire season.

  • Approximately 58% of GFC’s rangers have been hired since Georgia’s last severe wildfire season in fiscal year 2011.

  • Opportunities exist to mitigate the risks associated with this lack of wildfire experience, including formally tracking rangers’ wildfire experience, conducting training exercises, and developing formal succession plans.

Risk could be reduced through more comprehensive planning.

  • GFC has not defined what the aviation program is expected to accomplish or how its resources are to be used, making it difficult to determine what the aviation fleet composition should be as the fleet ages.

  • Opportunities exist to better align the distribution of rangers with workload and wildfire risk. A long-term staffing plan could better ensure staffing aligns with risk and workload, and that any variations are due to valid reasons.

  • Local plans for wildfire protection have been adopted, but gaps in key areas exist. It is also necessary for some aspects to occur at the state level.

Suppression and Mitigation Workload Variation

More comprehensive data would provide better management information for decision-making.

  • GFC collects a substantial amount of data, but opportunities exist to create better management information. Examples include:

    • For aviation, ensuring data integrity and collecting additional data points on fire class day and suppression utilization.

    • A formal list of rangers qualified for each needed IMT team including identified primary and alternates for each position.

    • GFC could use quantitative risk analysis, such as updates to the Southern Wildfire Risk Assessment, to evaluate effectiveness of mitigation activities and inform future mitigation planning.