On Friday, May 20, Randy Moore, chief of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), announced, “… Today, because of the current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field, I am initiating a pause on prescribed fire operations on National Forest System lands while we conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools and practices ahead of planned operations this fall.”
Prescribed burns, formerly controlled burns, are an integral tool for the USFS to reduce the risk of grave wildfires. Moore did not explain the reason for the sudden and unexpected halt in using these types of burns, although some media outlets have suggested that several recent prescribed burns in New Mexico and other western states have escaped theor initial boundaries. The Forest Service’s Inciweb site, which identifies active fires, list 11 prescribed burns throughout the nation between March 17 and May 17.
“The review I am announcing today will task representatives from across the wildland fire and research community with conducting the national review and evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation,” Moore said in his press release. “Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning.
“The pause I am announcing today will have minimal impact on these objectives in the short- and long-term since the agency conducts more than 90 percent of its prescribed burn operations between September and May,” Moore assured.
Prescribed burn operations are essential tools managers need to protect communities and first responders, improve forest conditions and reduce the threat of extreme fires, according to Moore’s press release.
In order to conduct a prescribed burn, a “burn plan” must be prepared and approved. These plans identify the conditions — both weather and vegetation — that could enhance or endanger the potential burn.
Neither the regional nor local public information officers knew anything about current or future prescribed burning activities or plans.
In January, the USFS released its “10 Year Strategy to Confront the Wildfire Crisis.” The strategy proposes various treatments, including using prescribed fire and thinning to reduce hazardous fuels, on USFS lands and supporting these treatments on other federal, state, tribal, private and family lands.
On its website, the USFS defines prescribed fire as a planned fire used to meet management objectives. The elimination of all fire can lead to the accumulation of dangerous fire-susceptible foliage.
Trees are stressed by overcrowding; fire-dependent species disappear; and flammable fuels build up and become hazardous.
According to the USFS, the right fire at the right place at the right time can reduce hazardous fuels, protect communities from extreme fires, and remove unwanted species that threaten native species.
As of May 20, Cal Fire reported 2,021 fires on both state and USFS lands in California in 2022. This compares to 2,458 as of May 20, 2021, and the five-year average of 1,536. This year, nearly 9,200 acres have been burned compared to 15,200 last year.