USFS to allow more “fire use” fires

Swamp Ridge Fire, Grand Canyon NP
Swamp Ridge Fire, Grand Canyon NP
Swamp Ridge Fire, Grand Canyon National Park, north rim. NPS photo.

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”. 

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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6 thoughts on “USFS to allow more “fire use” fires”

  1. I thought that we had finally turned the corner on this stupidity. Apparently the lessons of last year, such as Ruidoso, NM weren’t enough to point out how misguided it is to let it burn. This doesn’t even take into account the climate change (man made, temporary or otherwise) that we are currently experiencing. As an initial attack pilot I see what happens when they are put out, ( gee the forest lives) and when they aren’t ( thousands of acres of destruction that will never recover to its former vitality). As some point SOMEONE needs to value our forests and start managing them for long term survival, not self inflicted destruction, natural or not. S**t, why not just clear cut them…

    If those misguided managers would put them out when they were small and manageable it WOULDNT COST 400 million to extinguish them.

    On the other hand, if they don’t get their act together on tankers, there won’t be any way to put them out IA anyways…

    1. “If those misguided managers would put them out when they were small and manageable it WOULDNT COST 400 million to extinguish them.”

      Isn’t this mentality the thing that got us into this mess to begin with? Too much fuel in the forests to make REALLY big fires. Not to mention the unhealthy state of the forests with all the trees competing for the the minimal resources. It’s like trying to to feed 100 people with only enough food to feed 25. You’re going to have some awfully unhealthy people.

  2. Fire is another tool in forest management tool box. Just as we dam rivers, build airports, and allow tourists to visit Yellowstone we closely manage sensitive activities and then hope for the best. Extinguishing each and every fire within 24 hours will leave us with non-diverse brush clogged stands of trees, but not a natural forest.

    1. 100% agreed. The forest will come back. We see destruction in the limited scope of our short term reckoning of events. We need to step back and look at the big picture. Fire has been a crucial part of the ecosystem for millennia that have not been interfering. Where loss of human improvements will allow we need to let the forests get back to nature. Protect what needs protecting and let nature take care of the rest.

  3. At one point I believed let it burn. Not anymore. There are millions of acres that have not had a fire for hundreds years that has been “put out” causing the understory to over grow. Yet everyone blames overgrowth on man for putting out fires. Ridiculous. Nature doesn’t start fires when it would be healthy to let them burn, it starts them when conditions are ripe for conflagration. I believe we are in a period of time where climate change is going to have a grave impact on forests ability to regenerate, and forests that are already standing are far more valuable then in the past, and should be protected. Men putting out fires prematurely to keep them torching is simply good stewardship to try to protect a resource that won’t or can’t grow back anymore. However good stewardship means thinning, harvesting, and managing the forests for the future as well. Deciding that forests should burn, rather than developing and implementing a policy of care, is oversimplifying and will lead to huge areas that are unnecessarily going to be lost for generations or forever.

    1. The problem is how we are framing it. It isn’t something that you should or shouldn’t “believe” in. The need for fire in many ecosystems is a scientifically based fact- your opinion or mine doesn’t matter at all. Just putting them all out does work. For a while. Then it fails catastrophically and massively, with heavy fuel loadings an a continuous fuelbed that hasn’t been broken up by natural fires.

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