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With Extreme Fires Burning, Forest Service Stops 'Good Fires' Too

Controlled burns, like this one in Lassen Volcanic National Park, reduce the risk of extreme fires by clearing flammable brush.
National Park Service
Controlled burns, like this one in Lassen Volcanic National Park, reduce the risk of extreme fires by clearing flammable brush.

Updated August 10, 2021 at 1:03 PM ET

Facing record-breaking dry conditions across the West, the U.S. Forest Service announced it will aggressively put out wildfires this summer. As a result, the agency's use of "good fire," the lower-intensity blazes that clear out overgrown forests, will also stop.

With thousands of firefighting personnel battling extreme blazes, federal officials say no one can be spared for fire prevention work. But some fire experts worry that the blanket rule takes away the most important tools foresters have to reduce future wildfire risk, even in parts of the country where it may be safe to use them. More than 40 scientists sent a letter requesting the Forest Service reconsider the policy change.

"It's a tough decision, I think, because politically, there's a lot of pressure to put every single fire out," says Crystal Kolden, fire scientist at the University of California, Merced. "The problem is that political pressure is not based on good science."

Many extreme fires across the West are being fueled by overgrown forests, where dense vegetation has accumulated over a century of fire suppression. In recent years, the Forest Service has worked to reduce that risk by using fire proactively.

The agency is now suspending the use of prescribed burns, where foresters set carefully controlled fires that remove brush and vegetation, but don't kill the mature trees. It's also suspending what's known as "managed wildfires for resource benefit," where naturally caused fires are cautiously allowed to burn if they're in remote areas and don't pose a risk to people.

"We are in a 'triage mode' where our primary focus must be on fires that threaten communities and infrastructure," Forest Service Chief Randy Moore wrote in a letter announcing the change. "When western fire activity abates, we will resume using all the tools in our toolbox."

Political pressure grows to attack wildfires

The agency has faced growing pressure since the Tamarack Fire exploded south of Lake Tahoe, Calif. in July, destroying at least 14 homes. Sparked by lightning in high mountain wilderness, the Forest Service didn't send fire crews due to safety concerns over the remoteness of the location. After burning for more than a week, winds drove the fire into the town of Markleeville.

While the Tamarack Fire was not considered a managed burn to benefit the ecosystem, California Governor Gavin Newsom called for a policy shift.

After starting in remote mountains, the Tamarack Fire burned toward the town of Markleeville, Calif. in mid-July.
/ SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett
After starting in remote mountains, the Tamarack Fire burned toward the town of Markleeville, Calif. in mid-July.

"We need your help to change the culture in terms of the suppression strategies, in this climate, literally and figuratively, to be more aggressive on these federal fires," Newsom told President Biden.

The Biden Administration responded quickly.

"We have to have more boots on the ground," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Newsom last week. "And I pledge to you and commit to you that will happen."

Kicking the wildfire down the road

Still, the suspension is raising flags for some forest ecologists who say, with millions of acres of forest overloaded with vegetation, the agency can't afford to fall farther behind on reducing fire risk in the West.

"If we're going to stop managed wildfire now, then we're kicking the can down the road for those fuels to burn and they may burn in even hotter and drier conditions," Kolden says .

While summertime burns aren't used in all Western forests, banning beneficial fires could limit the number of acres the Forest Service reduces vegetation on this year, leaving overgrowth that may be the fuel for dangerous fires down the road.

Summer in California can be a useful time for the Forest Service to do prescribed burns and other vegetation treatments. In June through September 2019, the agency completed burns on almost 13,000 acres, according to public data.

Summer is also when many naturally caused wildfires begin, sparked by lightning in wilderness areas. In 2009, the Forest Service adopted a policy to allow more of these fires to spread, especially where the terrain is too remote for prescribed burns.

In the Southwest, the Forest Service managed fires like this on more than 270,000 acres in 2020 to benefit the ecosystem. In that part of the country, managed wildfires have become a significant strategy, because summer monsoon rains reduce the risk those fires could get out of hand. But the policy is controversial, because in rare cases, managed wildfires have escaped, threatening homes and people.

Western U.S. still has a fire deficit

Where federal agencies have completed their work, this approach of controlling and managing has helped prevent wildfires from reaching extremes. With less vegetation on the ground in those areas, the fires don't reach high intensity, as was seen in parts of the 2013 Rim Fire around Yosemite National Park.

"Every time I've been out on a large wildfire, the only thing that has moderated fire spread has been past fire footprints on the landscape," says Mike Beasley, a retired fire manager who worked for the National Park Service and Forest Service for decades.

Despite the record-breaking wildfires of recent years, the Western U.S. still has a fire deficit. Millions of acres once burned every year, either in fires caused by lightning or set by Native American tribes who used fire to shape the landscape. Over millennia, forest ecosystems were accustomed to these low-grade fires, but that changed when the era of fire suppression began. For much of the last century, the Forest Service actively stopped all fires, adopting the "10am rule," where fires had to be extinguished by 10am the next day.

That policy helped set the stage for the extreme wildfires today, which have burned hotter and more intensely than many forests are adapted to.

Experts say low-grade controlled burns are a crucial tool to limit extreme fires on millions of acres in the Western U.S.
/ National Park Service
National Park Service
Experts say low-grade controlled burns are a crucial tool to limit extreme fires on millions of acres in the Western U.S.

"The amount of fuel that's built up over that time period is bigger than anything these forests have experienced in recent millennia," says Keala Hagmann, research ecologist at the University of Washington. "We do have tools at our disposal to change the ways these fires are burning and the window of opportunity is closing rapidly."

An estimated 20 million acres of forested land in California, nearly 20% of the state, needs some form of fuel reduction. California signed an agreement with the Forest Service last year to reduce vegetation on 1 million acres a year collectively, but the goal is still far off. In 2019, projects only took place on 100,000 acres statewide.

Hotter climate boosts fire risk and chances to reduce it

With thousands of firefighters occupied on wildfires in extremely dry conditions, some say the shift in policy is a necessary tradeoff this summer to protect communities and prevent more homes from burning.

"Governor Newsom supports the science of 'good fires'," a spokesperson for Newsom responded by email. "But there are no 'good fires' in atrocious conditions, and that's what the western states are experiencing right now."

As the climate warms, hotter droughts are becoming increasingly common in the Western U.S.. Just as is happening this year, dry conditions could continue to limit the use of beneficial fire when burning is deemed too risky. Firefighters, exhausted from months of battling extreme blazes, are less available to assist with prescribed burns.

"The challenge here is that it's easy to say: with climate change, we shouldn't do this anymore," Kolden says. "But that is a fire suppression mentality and that's what got us in this situation in the first place."

Fire experts say Western states will need to embrace 'good fire' at a much more dramatic scale to stave off the record-breaking fires seen in recent years. Communities need to create defensible space, reducing the flammable vegetation around them, as well as embracing wildfire building codes and retrofitting existing homes with fire-resistant materials.

"I'm afraid for the future," says Beasley. "It's going to be such a political hot button topic. They're going to take the path of least risk and that's just going to be to suppress. And that's not going to be successful in all cases and we better be prepared for that."

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Lauren Sommer
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.