Audit Report: DOE-OIG-20-37

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March 23, 2020

The Department of Energy’s Wildland Fire Prevention Efforts at the Nevada National Security Site

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) is a research and development reserve in south-central Nevada that helps ensure the security of the United States and its allies.  NNSS’s management and operating contractor, Mission Support and Testing Services, LLC, is to comply with Department of Energy Order 420.1C, Facility Safety, which requires the contractor to establish a comprehensive fire protection program that includes an integrated site-wide wildland fire management plan.  This plan is to be consistent with the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and meet the requirements of National Fire Protection Association 1143, Standard for Wildland Fire Management.  As part of its responsibilities, the contractor develops the NNSS Wildland Fire Management Plan in accordance with the requirements.  The contract also requires the contractor to comply with State regulations which, in the case of wildland fire management, require the contractor to comply with the requirements of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code.  These regulations require the contractor to identify wildland fire hazards and take actions to mitigate the impact of wildland fire.  The NNSA’s Nevada Field Office is responsible for overseeing the contractor’s performance under the terms of the management and operating contract and ensuring compliance with the requirements of Department directives, including Department Order 420.1C.

Throughout its history, NNSS has experienced a number of wildland fires that endangered infrastructure and radiologically contaminated areas.  Since 2005, there have been more than 150 wildland fires at NNSS that burned over 44,000 acres.  Given the risk posed by wildland fire to NNSS’s facilities and workforce, we initiated this audit to determine whether the Nevada Field Office and the contractor were taking necessary actions to identify possible hazards associated with and mitigate the impacts of wildland fire as required by the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy, National Fire Protection Association standards, International Wildland-Urban Interface Code, and the NNSS Wildland Fire Management Plan.

Our review found that the Nevada Field Office and the contractor had taken some actions to identify and mitigate possible hazards associated with the impacts of wildland fire at NNSS.  While these were positive measures, we found that the contractor had not fully completed mitigation activities designed to reduce the impact from wildland fire.

We found that mitigation activities such as treating or removing excess vegetation needed to ensure defensible space and firebreaks around facilities, combustible utility poles, and along roadways were not being completed as required by National Fire Protection Association standards and International Wildland-Urban Interface Code.  We also found that roads necessary for protecting utilities and providing access for firefighters and equipment had not been maintained as required.  In addition, preparedness activities for upcoming wildland fire seasons had not been completed in accordance with the NNSS Wildland Fire Management Plan.

These issues occurred, in part, because the contractor did not develop a comprehensive, risk-based approach to wildland fire management at NNSS.  While contractor officials had assessed fire hazards for certain structures or areas as part of its wildland fire vegetation assessments, the contractor did not complete a formal risk assessment to evaluate the full spectrum of wildland fire risks for the entire complex or develop a formal mitigation plan.  In addition, these issues occurred due to a lack of Federal oversight of the contractor’s wildland fire management activities.  Although the Nevada Field Office is responsible for overseeing contractor performance and ensuring compliance with Department directives, the instances of noncompliance identified demonstrate that this was not always occurring.  We made five recommendations in order to enhance NNSS’s wildland fire protection strategies and provide increased protection for the Department's assets, as well as the health and safety of its workers and the public.

Topic: Management & Administration