Forest Service resumes prescribed fire program, but some fear new rules will delay projects
The U.S. Forest Service is resuming its prescribed burning program with new rules that it says will minimize the risk of fires escaping control and damaging communities. The announcement comes after a 90-day pause prompted by a pair of escaped burns that merged into the largest wildfire in New Mexico history and destroyed hundreds of homes.
But some experts say the restrictions, which include requirements that agency administrators authorize ignitions for 24-hour periods only and be on-site for certain burns, create more barriers to doing the work precisely when the need for it is most acute.
“At face value, it seems like these are not that big a deal,” said Bill Tripp, director of natural resources and environmental policy at the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources in Northern California. “But in actual practice, it’s pretty much going to shut burning down at any level significant to what needs to take place, at least in the Forest Service jurisdictions.”
Prescribed burning refers to the practice of setting land alight under optimal conditions to ensure it burns at a relatively low intensity. The practice is considered one of the best tools to mitigate catastrophic wildfires because it consumes vegetation that can carry flames up into the forest canopy. When that happens, wildfires spread faster, burn hotter and kill trees.
Many ecosystems in California are adapted to regular, low- to moderate-severity fires but have not burned for decades because of the criminalization of Indigenous burning and aggressive fire suppression.
Even as evidence mounts that prescribed burns are effective in reducing wildfire risk, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies are falling behind.
These landscapes are now increasingly sustaining severe damage by blazes that ignite during extreme weather and burn in areas that are dense with vegetation. Higher temperatures and drought, which are fueled partly by climate change, have also caused those fuels to become drier.
Fire scientists, cultural practitioners and government officials have overwhelmingly called for a dramatic increase in the use of prescribed fire to restore balance to these areas. The California Air Resources Board’s draft climate plan describes this as necessary to help reduce wildfire emissions. A state task force on forest and wildfire resilience has partnered with the Forest Service to jointly commit to burning 400,000 acres in California each year by 2025.
“Getting more ‘good fire’ on the landscape is not only critical to public safety, it’s essential to restoring California’s fire-adapted ecosystems,” said Alex Stack, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In its report announcing the new rules, the Forest Service also identified a number of recommendations to ramp up its use of prescribed fire, including establishing an interagency training center and developing a national strategic plan.
While this work is needed, the Forest Service must also ensure the safety of firefighters and residents, Shayne Martin, assistant director for media relations, said in a statement.
“We need prescribed fire to make these communities safe in the long-term, but it can’t come at the expense of safety in the short run,” he said. The new rules are necessary to accomplish this, as the same climate conditions that are fueling unprecedented wildfire behavior are also making controlled fires behave in unpredictable ways, he said.
A report released by the Forest Service in June found that a New Mexico prescribed burn grew into the 341,000-acre Hermits Peak fire because conditions were drier than personnel had recognized and fuel loading was heavier than they’d realized.
Although it seems counterintuitive, the escape actually demonstrated the need for agencies and partners to put more fire on the landscape, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, area fire advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension.
“It’s not just about how that fire started but the condition of the landscape it was burning in, the fact it had no fire history in the last 100 years or so,” she said. “It was this very homogenous forest that didn’t have patchy patterns of recent fire like we would want to see.”
An increase in catastrophic wildfires has reduced California tree cover by 6.7% since 1985, and researchers fear the lost trees will never grow back.
The Forest Service says its prescribed fire program has a 99.84% success rate. Of the 0.16% of burns that do escape control, even fewer cause damage, said Quinn-Davidson, who is also the director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council.
“Why are we spending so much time focused on the things that go wrong when almost 100% of the time it goes right?” she said.
On the other hand, the likelihood that wildfires will rage through California communities each year remains high, she said, pointing to the Mosquito fire west of Tahoe and the Fairview fire near Hemet, which together have prompted evacuation orders for more than 30,000 people. And increasingly, forests are not recovering from large, high-severity fires but are instead converting to shrublands, she said.
“We know that prescribed fire is our best tool to prevent these catastrophic wildfires, but we keep adding restrictions making it harder to do it,” she said. “Those of us who have worked a long time doing this, we’re feeling frustrated with the lack of forward progress.”
Together with the Karuk Tribe, Quinn-Davidson had planned a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange event to bring Indigenous women from around the world to the mid-Klamath area in less than three weeks. The new rules could derail the projects they have planned, which were to take place on Forest Service land, she said.
She’s particularly concerned about the requirements that every burn plan be approved by a technical reviewer, and that agency administrators issue daily approvals for ignitions and be present on-site for high-complexity burns.
“Those three new requirements are pretty severe,” she said. “They are going to have major impacts and are going to halt and delay projects this fall season and into the future.”
Previously, administrators would authorize windows of several days to a few weeks, which allowed burn bosses to proceed as soon as weather conditions were right, Quinn-Davidson said. These windows of opportunity have already grown narrower as drought, climate change and fuel overloading have prolonged active wildfire seasons and reduced the number of days with conditions conducive to burning.
She fears that the additional oversight could result in a bottleneck of burns awaiting approval. And often, there’s a single administrator for an entire Forest Service unit, which will mean that only one complex project can take place at a time within a given area, she said.
The new rules, which also include requirements that ignition authorization briefings be standardized and burn bosses document whether all elements of the agency administrator’s authorization are still valid based on site conditions before proceeding, present yet another example of an agency responding to a high-profile incident by institutionalizing more red tape, Tripp said.
“The fact of the matter is, if we keep stacking on additional administrative burdens, we’re never going to get anything done,” he said.
As wildfires become more extreme, some worry California will near a tipping point in which its forests emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb.
The way he sees it, such rules are mainly about reducing liability in the event that something does go wrong. At some point, he said, that thinking is going to have to shift. Damage is no longer being caused chiefly by the fact that fires are starting, but that agencies have excluded them from the landscape for so long, he said.
“Fire is a natural process, it’s a natural function, but you are putting it into an anthropogenic management paradigm that is creating exacerbated conditions,” he said. “And therefore it is your fault when these fires burn hotter than they should.”
Most of the burning in Karuk territory has been on private and tribal trust land, which Tripp estimates comprises about 2% of its territorial landscape and is spread out over 100 miles of river corridor. More recently, collaborative burning within the National Forest system has been starting to take place. Still, the condition of the other 98% of the land, which is administered by the Forest Service, will ultimately end up affecting whether peoples’ homes survive the next wildfire, he said.
“You can do all the work you want on a couple acres of private property, but if there’s a fire coming to your house from Forest Service land, it doesn’t matter what you did,” he said. “Your house will burn down.”
The Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, which includes representatives of the Karuk Tribe, the Forest Service, the Mid Klamath Watershed and Salmon River Restoration councils and local fire safe councils and environmental groups, has been working for the better part of a decade to start scaling up burning efforts. The collaborative has identified a 1.2-million-acre planning area, much of it within the National Forest system, for projects to restore historical fire regimes, Tripp said. The new restrictions could impede that work.
“It’s depressing to say the least,” he said. “As Indigenous peoples, we’re investing all of our blood, sweat and tears into revitalizing our burning practices and it seems like the agencies are consistently creating reasons to delay that, to make it harder to do.”
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