After temporarily banning “let burn” or “fire use” fires in California in 2008 and severely restricting them in all national forests in 2012, the U.S. Forest Service is returning to a policy of allowing more vegetation fires to burn naturally with only minimum intervention by firefighters. In a February document titled “Wildland Fire Response Protocol”, Tom Tidwell, the Chief of the USFS, laid out the policy to be used this year which allows line officers “to use wildland fire as an essential ecological process and natural change” in areas “identified pre-season as having low threats to values to be protected”.
This is a change from the USFS policy in 2012 when Jim Hubbard, the Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry directed in a two-page memo that any fire strategy with restoration as one of the objectives must first be approved by a Regional Forester. According to an article in the San Francisco Examiner, Mr. Hubbard said, “It looked like a fire year that would exceed our resource capacity to respond. We didn’t have the resources to cover long-duration events”.
Later Forest Service Chief Tidwell did some damage control. In a guest commentary in the Denver Post he wrote: “…our fire-management policy has not changed” and that restoring the health of our nation’s forests continues to be a “cornerstone”. He said “The Forest Service has the personnel and equipment to continue our policy of restoring the health of our nation’s forests”, and, “A national guidance memo by Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard in no way represents a departure from our standard fire-response policy.”
The 2013 policy direction emphasizes cost saving: “[Use] only those suppression assets needed to safely implement tactics in support of reasonable objectives.” And, “release assets as soon as they are no longer needed.”
UPDATE March 14, 2013: in a statement released on March 13, Chief Tidwell said their fire policy has not changed, just their “guidance”.