The US Forest Service Planned to Increase Burning to Prevent Wildfires. Will a Pause on Prescribed Fire Instead Bring More Delays?

John Weir started noticing the smoke once he hit Tucumcari, a New Mexico town about 40 miles west of the Texas border. 

Weir, a specialist in fire ecology for Oklahoma State University Extension, was headed to the first in-person meeting of a national committee assessing policies on prescribed fires—blazes intentionally set to burn away excess vegetation that could drive megafires. But by the time the group assembled in New Mexico in early May, two such burns set by federal agencies had escaped control and run wild, eating up 200,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest north of Albuquerque. Weir could see the smoke from more than a hundred miles away as he drove to the meeting from central Oklahoma.

In response to the two escaped burns that would merge into the Calf Canyon/Hermit Creek Fire—the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history—the chief of the U.S. Forest Service would soon declare a nationwide, 90-day freeze on prescribed burns on land the agency manages. While to many residents impacted by the fire, that may seem like a rational response, the chief’s May announcement came just months after the agency laid out plans to drastically increase its use of prescribed fire in the coming decade to help thin overgrown forests as a warming and drying climate drives an increase in the amount of land burning annually in U.S. wildfires. 

To Weir, the pause on prescribed burns was a setback. He and many other fire scientists and foresters believe the U.S. needs to be setting many more burns to contend with a wildfire crisis that’s worsening every year.

“Prescribed fire needs to become a priority,” said Weir. “It’s not a priority now.”

Headed into the fall, the U.S. government is at a crossroads, navigating how to increase its use of controlled fire while handling the public relations nightmare that results from the minuscule percentage—0.16 percent—of those burns that go awry. Today, the agency is stuck between decades of poor land management that it must reverse, which most foresters and firefighters say requires the increasing use of prescribed burns, and climate-primed, tinderbox forests and grasslands that can quickly erupt with uncontrollable wildfires. Right now, wildfires are burning across the West—two of six active wildfires in Oregon have already burned more than 100,000 acres each, while in Idaho firefighters don’t expect to contain a fire sparked in July until the end of October.  

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In September, the Forest Service released its recommendations on how to better implement prescribed fire—laying out additional checks that practitioners must implement before burning, calling for the development of a national strategy on how to perform prescribed burns and building out a labor force dedicated to that work. It could be a fresh start, a way to get much more “good fire” on the land to improve forest health and reduce the overloads of woody fuels that could feed the next megafire. But some fire scientists, land managers and foresters worry the summer’s freeze on such burns may lead to more delays, or restrict treatment on more acres. 

Too Many Bad Fires and Too Few Good Ones

Fire is a natural part of many landscapes. Periodic fires reduce fuels on the ground while ash refreshes soil. People, particularly from Indigenous communities, have used controlled fire and cultural burning to manage land for thousands of years. But that changed with colonization and the Forest Service’s fixation on putting out every wildfire on public land as quickly as possible. Cultural burning became a crime, and Indigenous people were persecuted for starting fires. In the 1930s, the agency implemented a policy requiring that wildfires must be extinguished by 10 a.m. the day after they were reported (last year the Forest Service said it would try to put out all fires rather than managing them, due to a lack of resources amid extreme fire conditions in the U.S. West; the agency specifically argued it was not a return to the so-called 10 a.m. policy).

The Forest Service began allowing prescribed fire decades ago, but that didn’t lead to true evolution on the issue, according to Scott Stephens, a professor who leads a fire science laboratory at University of California, Berkeley.

“That’s probably why in some ways we’re in the predicament we are today,” he said. “We just don’t have the legacy of fire use.”

Since the U.S. first implemented its zero-tolerance policy toward wildfires, the nation’s forests have become dense with fuels that could have burned away. The small trees, brush and grasses that crowd woodlands provide more fuel for fires. Rising temperatures and deepening droughts spurred by climate change dry out and kill trees and other vegetation, leaving it increasingly vulnerable to the flames and leading fires to burn bigger and hotter. Meanwhile, more people are moving into flammable landscapes, where they become the primary source of ignitions and their houses serve as new fuels for the blazes. 

In January, the Forest Service published a high-level strategy document that recognized the wildfire crisis it had created with its adversarial relationship to fire. It noted that confronting the explosion of wildfires in the U.S. West required a “paradigm shift,” and said it would use mechanical thinning—cutting down timber with axes and chainsaws—and prescribed fire to treat 20 million acres of national forest lands over the next decade and work with partners to treat another 30 million acres.

Then the prescribed fires in New Mexico—one started in January that smoldered quietly under the snow and another set in April—escaped control and merged to form the conflagration that Weir spotted on his drive. In a review of the April fire, the agency said persistent delays of the planned burn and thin resources led the Forest Service to accept “unforeseen risk” in setting it. Vegetation conditions were also much drier than the burn team recognized, it reported, adding that it needs to do a better job of acknowledging long-term drought and “climate factors.”

In May, just days before the agency froze all of its burn operations, a Forest Service burn in Colorado also erupted into a destructive wildfire, increasing resistance to the practice. 

To many fire experts, the national pause was a setback for a federal agency already far behind on its prescribed burning agenda. Some advocated for a regional pause instead. Many said the Forest Service needs to make a sea change in its commitment to prescribed burns—the kind it called for in January—to entirely shift how the agency and the nation think about fire.

To actually make good on its commitment to burn more, experts said the agency must build up its workforce, cut red tape that keeps burns from happening and recognize Indigenous expertise in land management, particularly with fire.

Bill Tripp, director of natural resources and environmental policy for the federally-recognized Karuk Tribe, says there’s plenty of unnecessary state and federal barriers to getting more good fire on the ground. He’s concerned that the agency’s recommendations in the wake of this year’s wildfires in New Mexico add “additional administrative burdens” that could make it harder to use fire for land management.

“What I’m seeing is more delays and more administrative provisions being established than enabling conditions being created,” he said.

Many other fire experts worry that the Forest Service isn’t making the drastic organizational changes necessary to significantly increase the number of acres burned intentionally each year.

Ann Bartuska, an ecologist and senior advisor at Resources for the Future who once served as the Forest Service’s director of forest management, empathized more with the political bind that followed the conflagration in New Mexico.

“The simplest thing, even if it’s a hard thing to do, is to say, ‘alright, we’re going to stand down,’” said Bartuska. “Taking this pause, I think, was a good idea.”

It’s not the first time a federal burn gone wrong turned public sentiment against prescribed burns. Bartuska sat on a commission assembled after another New Mexico prescribed fire escaped more than two decades ago, destroying hundreds of homes in Los Alamos and threatening the national laboratory that conducts nuclear and other research there. A review of that burn, which caused damages costing about $1 billion, noted problems that “raise questions about the current readiness of the federal land management agencies to effectively support and administer prescribed burns.” Even today, Bartuska said, better data is still needed on fuel, weather and environmental conditions where a burn is taking place to predict how a prescribed fire will behave. 

Since that fire in 2000, federal agencies have only managed to burn a little more than 2 million acres in two years, according to data through 2019 kept by the National Interagency Fire Center. California alone needs to treat more than 20 million acres using prescribed burns, tree thinning, and managed wildfire, according to 2020 research from Stanford University and the University of Miami. And those treatments would need to be repeated periodically to keep that land from becoming overgrown with fuel again.

Even with a commitment to increasing the amount of land treated with prescribed fires, the Forest Service could be challenged to find enough people to light them. With the agency’s focus on extinguishing fires, its hiring revolves around the traditional peak fire season from May through summer and into the fall. Its workforce balloons during those months, and firefighters often travel away from home to fight big blazes, so other parts of the country that might have ideal conditions for burning have trouble rounding up enough personnel. That’s on top of the agency’s struggles to hire enough people in recent years, despite a federal order to raise wages.

“We’re trying to do prescribed burning with a fire suppression workforce on the edges of fire season,” said Stephens. “We’re going to have to be much more nimble.”

The Forest Service reiterated its commitment to change in the September review of its national prescribed fire program. In creating a national strategic plan for prescribed burning, the agency said it would include “necessary staffing, funding, and monitoring” to get the work done. In the next six months, the Forest Service also plans to establish a prescribed fire training center in the West.   

But actually rearranging priorities and marshaling the resources to accomplish the needed burns requires more, perhaps even an act of Congress, according to experts like Stephens. This year, the federal government allocated $103 million for wildfire risk reduction as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, with $80.9 million going towards expanding fuels management, including prescribed burning. Experts say the government needs to go further, making clear that good fire is a priority recognized by federal law. Tripp suggested legislation that manages natural wildfires, allowing them to burn when they can help reduce fuel loads and improve forest health without threatening people, and requiring fires that are extinguished by wildland firefighters to be relit later when they can be of benefit.     

“We’re just going to have to flip the way we think about these things and get to work,” said Tripp. “If we don’t, we’re just going to continue to see small towns get wiped off the map.”

Where Burns Are Happening

In the absence of federal action, managers of private, state and tribal lands and some nonprofits have carried the torch of prescribed burning. 

Tripp has been setting controlled fires known as “cultural burns” on tribal lands since he was 4 years old. In the 1990s he started writing grants for the Karuk Natural Resources Department to use fire as part of a fuel reduction program. Now he’s working to break down barriers that keep tribes from cultural burning. He wants California to recognize Karuk tribal sovereignty and lessen permitting requirements (state and federal governments put restrictions on prescribed burning that require managers to assess environmental impacts, safety, air quality and liability).

“Why does cultural burning have to fit within the context of a prescribed fire?” said Tripp. “This is an Indigenous practice that predates California and tribes have sovereignty over their members, lands and territory.”

Other pockets of the country, such as the Southeast, have also kept a “culture of fire” alive, said Marek Smith, who is based in North Carolina as the North America fire director at the Nature Conservancy, which burns about 120,000 acres annually. In an average year, Florida agencies and private landowners burn an average of more than 2.1 million acres—more than the Forest Service has burned in any of the last ten years through 2019, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Weir, who saw the smoke from the New Mexico fire on his way to the prescribed fire meeting, has taught landowners how to light prescribed burns for more than 30 years as part of his work at Oklahoma State University. Though climate change is making fires more severe by drying out fuels and deepening drought, and scientists are working to understand how this affects wildfires, Weir says the fundamentals of assessing conditions—both in terms of weather and crew preparedness— remain the basis for implementing successful burns.

“Prescribed burning is not rocket science,” he said. “It is not difficult.”

But it has been for the federal government. And fire managers say it can be done, but time is running out to get it right.The fuel accumulation that has increased the risk of wildfires burning big, climate driven increases in temperatures and deepening of droughts and shrinking seasons in which burns can safely be conducted are only expected to become more severe. 

“There really is significant hope, research tells us we can do it. The question is, do we have the wherewithal to make decisive change?” Stephens asked. “That decisive change has got to come in the next couple years or less.”

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                Emma Foehringer Merchant is a journalist who has covered environmental issues ranging from disasters to wonky energy regulations to air pollution. She’s reported on the environment and energy for publications including The Boston Globe Magazine, The New Republic, Vice News, and Grist. Most recently, Emma covered clean energy as a staff writer for Greentech Media and helped alums of that organization form a new publication called Canary Media. She’s attending MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing and holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental analysis from Pomona College, where she lived through a California drought while studying how climate change is impacting the state’s environment and people.

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