As fire season heats up, proactive forest management is essential to maintaining healthy forests. But on May 20th, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) decided to put a 90-day pause on its prescribed burn program. 

That’ll have ruinous effects on the 193 million acres under its jurisdiction. The USFS faults the disastrous New Mexico wildfire, which formed from a rare escaped burn, as the impetus behind the decision.

“I am asking representatives from across the wildland fire and research community to conduct the national review and evaluate the entire prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation,” wrote USFS Chief Randy Moore in a statement. “Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning. I expect this to take about 90 days.” 

Fire specialists largely weren’t too pleased with the agency’s announcement. If the agency proceeds with the pause, the results would be devastating to vulnerable, fire-prone communities nationwide.

#1 – Prescribed Burn Escapes Are Exceedingly Rare

USFS Chief Randy Moore touted prescribed burns, noting 99.84% of the 4,500 annually scheduled prescribed fires work as intended. But he blamed “climate change, drought, dry fuels throughout the country and other factors” as a justification to reimagine the program.  

Controlled burn escapes are rare, as NPR notes: 

“When we see a prescribed burn, as in New Mexico, that escapes and becomes a massive wildfire that threatens communities, that prompts concerns about the safety of these prescribed burns of this very, very important tool,” Miller at USC says adding, “the vast, vast, vast majority of prescribed burns are conducted safely, do not escape, and you’ll never hear about them.”

Hard data on just how often intentional fires escape their boundaries is hard to come by. But Miller says estimates from the early 2000s show that fewer than 1% of prescribed burns might escape to become a major wildfire. “So we’re talking a really, really small percentage.”

This is no justification to stop the program. 

A prescribed burn, known as a prescribed fire or controlled burn, is a necessary tool employed by the USFS to prevent high-intensity fires. Forestry experts rely on this controlled application of burns to revitalize ecosystems requiring active management and treatment. 

The practice’s benefits far outweigh the costs, as they reduce hazardous fuels by lessening fuel load (such as the amount of dead trees or underbrush), improve habitat for threatened and endangered species, and promote regeneration of flora, watershed restoration, among its listed innumerable benefits. 

#2 If USFS Suspends Program Further, They’ll Burn Their Credibility 

Suspending this critical program will cast great doubt on the Biden administration’s capabilities to deliver on forest restoration efforts. 

President Biden’s Earth Day executive order proclaimed his administration would “strengthen America’s forests, boost wildfire resilience, and combat global deforestation.”

But as I previously noted here at IWF, the plan had vast shortcomings: 

To this end, the U.S. Forest Service has a “10-year strategy to reduce wildfire risk through science-based fuels and forest health treatments, with a goal of treating an additional 50 million acres across federal and non-federal lands.” 

But it’s reasonable to lack some confidence in the USFS plans as currently, USFS reports a backlog of 80 million acres needing restoration. It added 63 million acres are highly vulnerable to “high or very high risk of wildfire.” 

Indeed, ten years is too long to address this pressing need. And worse, the Biden administration undid the 2020 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) rule change that adopted a Prescribed Fire Guidance to encourage active forest management by narrowing down the “definition of “major federation action” to better manage forests and expand on “categorical exclusions” to discourage redundant efforts.” 

#3 – The Biden administration claims to consult Tribal interests in conservation decisions. Why aren’t they consulting them here? 

The Biden administration actively seeks Tribal input in environmental decisions. That consultation should extend to the prescribed burn program—which largely falls under the Traditional Ecological Knowledge guidelines they’ve embraced

Indigenous groups have touted this “good fire” for renewable practices.

The Guardian writes, “For more than 13,000 years, the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, Miwok, Chumash and hundreds of other tribes across California and the world used small intentional burns to renew local food, medicinal and cultural resources, create habitat for animals, and reduce the risk of larger, more dangerous wild fires.”

The National Park Service echoes the importance of this practice, writing, “This increased understanding of Indigenous traditions has led to many partnerships between Tribal, state, and Federal governmental agencies, with the goal of reintroducing cultural burns in many parts of the United States.”

Decisions concerning the prescribed burn program should be made based on science, not emotion. The USFS would be wise to resume it before August 20th.

To learn more about forest management, read my Policy Focus.