The U.S. Forest Service fails to properly identify areas where workers can remove brush and dead wood that could fuel forest fires, potentially putting forests already at risk of burning in increased danger, according to a watchdog report.

In a report released with little fanfare, the Department of Agriculture's Office of the Inspector General released a damning report on the Forest Service's mismanagement of hazardous fuel reduction projects. Those projects are used to clear brush and dead wood from Forest Service land to limit the amount of potential fuel for wildfires.

According to the Aug. 16 report, the inspector general said the Forest Service has no consistent process for identifying where wildfire fuel should be removed, doesn't use science-based risk assessment to pick projects and doesn't accurately report data on the work it does.

As forest fires burn in western states, it's clear that the Forest Service isn't making the most of its limited budget to protect against wildfires, the report states. Just five of the 154 national forests had risk-assessment processes being developed or in place to figure out how to prioritize projects.

"Without a uniform methodology for identifying, selecting and documenting high-priority hazardous fuels reduction projects, and a formal review process to ensure the highest priority projects are selected, [the Forest Service] may not apply its limited hazardous fuels reduction resources to the national forest areas most in need of hazardous fuels reduction treatment," the report said.

"This places those areas at increased risk for catastrophic wildland fire, particularly in the [areas where cities and forests meet] and sensitive habitat and watershed areas."

According to the Forest Service's daily report, 28 uncontained large fires are burning in the United States and 82 total. About 786,000 acres are affected.

The report states the Forest Service put some of its most at-risk lands in even more danger with its haphazard process for choosing what fuel reduction projects to do.

According to the report, the watchdog visited six Forest Service regions and didn't find any that documented why Forest Service officials chose certain projects. Despite the Forest Service's manual requiring documentation of the decision-making process, a more informal process was used.

"[The Forest Service] does not have a formal review process to evaluate the identification and prioritization of hazardous fuels reduction projects. Instead, [the Forest Service] provides oversight through informal means and communications," the report stated.

"[The Forest Service] has not conducted formal hazardous fuels program reviews in its regions in several years due to decreased budgets and restrictions on business travel, and instead relies on improved telecommunication technology and a high level of trust in the [Forest Service] units' decision-making abilities."

In the report, the Forest Service recognized its processes are flawed. However, it declined to establish a national policy for assessing how to prioritize fuel reduction projects.

"The national office is developing a national risk model that will be used to identify and prioritize hazardous fuels reduction areas," the service said. "The results will inform allocation of resources to the regional level. Projects will be designed based on those priority areas; however, the priority of implementation of individual projects is not a national scale decision."

The Forest Service also seemed to be guilty of double and sometimes triple-counting the amount of land it treated without making that clear in reports to Congress.

The inspector general says the Forest Service overstated the amount of acres it treated because a project could have required more than one treatment.

For example, if a project called for cutting down brush and other excess plants, then piling those excess plants up and then doing a prescribed burn on a 500-acre area, the Forest Service's methodology allowed it to count that as 1,500 acres of land being treated.

That led to several regions overstating how much land was being treated for wildfires, including one region that exaggerated its accomplishments by more than 16 percent, according to the report.

"The overall objective of the hazardous fuels reduction project is to reduce the risk of wildfire to the landscape and surrounding communities by removing the hazardous fuels," the report stated. "This inaccurate reporting caused [the Forest Service] to over-report its hazardous fuels reduction accomplishments in [fiscal years] 2012-14 by 103,459 acres, out of 3,703,848 acres, or a difference of 2.8 percent."