Forest Service Chief says wildfires will be suppressed, rather than “managed”, for now

Temporary shift in policy due to extreme wildfire conditions in the West and competition for firefighting resources due in part to COVID-19 infections rising again

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1:55 p.m. MDT August 3, 2021

Cub Creek 2 Fire
Cub Creek 2 Fire in Northern Washington, July 25, 2021. InciWeb.

In an August 2 letter to the field, new US Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said that because there is in a “national crisis”, they will not “manage fires for resource benefit”. In other words, instead of allowing fires to burn in order to replicate natural conditions and improve the ecosystem, they will put them out — at least to the best of their ability.

This year there are several factors that brought us to the crisis: competition for firefighting resources, a large number of incidents, firefighter numbers reduced by COVID-19 infections, and fire behavior enhanced by drought. It has all led to larger, longer-duration fires. Not mentioned by the Chief is the hundreds of vacant Forestry Technician positions. In early July there were 800 on National Forests in California alone.

During a virtual meeting July 27 with Western Governors to discuss wildfire preparedness, President Joe Biden was told that their states need more aviation resources, they need help with obtaining aviation fuel, they need more boots on the ground, and they encourage aggressive initial attack. The last item was referring to managing rather than suppressing fires. Governor Gavin Newsom referenced last month’s Tamarack Fire south of Lake Tahoe that was monitored but not suppressed. It stayed very small for 12 days until it grew rapidly, spreading east for 20 miles into Nevada, burning more than 68,000 acres and destroying 25 structures. On the August 3 National Situation Report it is still listed as a less than full suppression fire.

In declaring what is a temporary shift in policy until the Western fire season abates, Chief Moore cited numerous reasons for the change:

The 2021 fire year is different from any before. On July 14, 2021, the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group raised the national preparedness level (PL) to 5, the earliest point in a decade and the third earliest ever. There are currently over 70 large fires burning across the nation and 22,000 personnel responding, which are both nearly three times more than the 10-year average for the month of July. Severe drought is affecting over 70 percent of the West, and the potential for significant fire activity is predicted to be above normal into October. Our firefighters are fatigued, especially after more than a year of almost constant deployments, beginning with helping Australia in January 2020, and continuing through a difficult 2020 fire year and then supporting the vaccination effort in early 2021. In addition, COVID-19 infections are rising again. They are degrading our firefighting response capacity at an alarming rate, which will persist until more Americans are vaccinated.

In short, we are in a national crisis. At times like these, we must anchor to our core values, particularly safety. In PL 5, the reality is we are resource limited. The core tenet of the Forest Service’s fire response strategy is public and firefighter safety above all else. The current situation demands that we commit our fire resources only in instances where they have a high probability of success and they can operate safely and effectively. We will rely on the tested principles of risk management in determining our strategies and tactics.

Chief Moore said this was not a return to the “10 a.m. Policy” from 1935 which set as a goal stopping the spread of every fire by 10 a.m. the second day.

In addition, ignited prescribed fire operations will be considered only in geographic areas at or below Preparedness Level 2 and only with the approval of the Regional Forester after consulting with the Chief’s Office.

This directive only applies to the US Forest Service, and not to the four land management agencies in the Department of the Interior — National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Bureau of Land Management. Of those four DOI agencies, only the NPS is into “managed fire” in a big way. We asked a spokesperson for the NPS if they were making a similar temporary change in policy, but they were unable to meet our publication deadline, “given how busy it is and the need to work with the Washington Office of Communications”. [Update at 5:06 p.m. August 3. NPS Branch Chief for Communication and Education Tina Boehle got back to us with information which indicated the agency is not making any changes in their fire strategies — without actually stating it specifically.]

Currently there is a less than full suppression fire burning in North Cascades National Park in Washington which has blackened 150 acres, and another that has burned 470 acres in Yosemite NP in California. There are 18 listed on the Situation Report on National Forests, with most of them being in the Northern Rockies Geographic Area.

A video produced by the Northern Rockies Fire Science Network posted on YouTube last year was intended to spark discussion about managing fire for resource benefit on public lands. It featured interviews with 22 fire practitioners, including Dick Bahr, National Park Service Program Lead for Fire Science and Ecology, who said:

We have really good modeling now. … If you’re not comfortable with where it’s going to get or you’re concerned about what it’s going to burn up — do you take on the fire, or do you take on protection of what you’re going to do? And now the big shift is, we have now the opportunity, go put the money and the effort into protecting that point you’re worried about losing and let the fire do what it’s supposed to do…

You’re going to win a few, you’re going to lose a few. And it’s OK to lose, but you’ve got to learn from them.

Edited at 5:06 p.m. MDT August 3 to include late arriving information from the NPS which indicated that the agency is not making any changes in their fire strategies.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

40 thoughts on “Forest Service Chief says wildfires will be suppressed, rather than “managed”, for now”

  1. Did you happen to look at the fire in Lake county ,Mt. ?? Twenty or more structures burned ~!!

    1. Do you mean the Boulder 2700 fire that burned on private and CSKT Tribal lands when it was 91 degrees at 0100 with 30 mph winds?

      1. I just read on Inciweb that lichens are acting as ladder fuels on that fire. Second time reading that this year.

        Btw my wife Karen Peck says hello and hopes you are doing well.

  2. Finally, but long overdue!!! Thank you Chief Moore for making a sound decision.

  3. If I lost my house, it wouldn’t be ok to “lose a few”. Now is not the time to take advantage of the “modeling”. And, I count 38 fires on the sit report that say “other than full suppression”. I agree with Mr. Moore’s statement “The current situation demands that we commit our fire resources only in instances where they have a high probability of success and they can operate safely and effectively”. That means aggressive initial attack, and having a plan to actively suppress large fires. Interesting to see if those 38 fires change categories.

  4. The system needs a major overhaul. Managed fire needs to be the cart after the horse…not before it.
    A good example of how that might work would be how full, modified and limited suppression is done in alaska by all the fire suppression agencies.
    Limited gets just that…limited suppression. Maybe some point protection occasionally, but generally hands off. Already predesignated and mapped out for all to see.
    Full gets full protection if resources are available.
    And now we get to modified…imo, a wonderful concept and generally works well. Modified is treated as full from early fire season till around mid July (typical end of ak’s fire season) at which point it converts to limited. This “conversion” date can be moved to a later date on those seasons that are active past the traditional conversion end date. Seems like in 09 it got moved back at least twice, due to a prolonged season.
    It’s beyond me why our federal suppression efforts in the lower 48 can’t put the well understood science of fire into a straight forward plan of attack.
    Alaska’s fire management isn’t perfect…..there is way too much limited that can’t be kept in limited if it wants to come out. I would like to see large buffers of modified in place to protect communities and put the onus on land managers to actually have to “manage”.
    That said, I still think Alaska has some great fire management concepts in place that have been developed over the past 40 years or so.

    Are you listening chief Moore??

    1. Maybe because Alaska doesn’t have even close to the population density and WUI nightmares that most of the lower 48 do….

      1. Fuel moistures, both live and dead, along with a conservative use of weather forecasts, along with other science based benchmarks could or should be the basis for when to let managed fire burn.
        The alaska example I used is on the macro end of the spectrum….it does not get lost in the weeds.
        I am referring to the modified suppression. At it most basic concept, it says to put suppression in front of inaction during the traditional fire season.
        It’s a concept that should be applied to most wildlands whether they be state, federal or private.
        The flip side to that is to get out on the ground and get the prescribed acres burned during shoulder seasons when fire is beneficial. 1 prescription dollar spent for every suppression dollar.
        Is it really that complicated?

  5. So along with the Moses letter, years like this typically produce this response, which is mostly for political cover. Are the current “comp” type of fires going to be suddenly “fully suppressed?” Will all new starts be “fully suppressed?” Using what PL 5 fire resources? At what cost? What safety issues? Sounds decisive, though.

    As a memo in search of a problem, there is no “let burn” policy, and there is no “resource benefit” type of wildfire, though the Comp type of fire may or may not include such considerations among many, such as safety and cost. The wise manager will now just drop resource considerations as an objective and manage a fire as originally planned, though the memo may spook some managers to fully suppress their fires, and we’re back to the fire resource/cost/safety issue again.

    The current fire season has been affected very little by fires such as the Tamarack, but putting out a memo calling for a moratorium on such fires looks like some kind of action is being taken. And it appears this memo was put out with no coordination with the DOI fire agencies, who could have been given a little warning at the daily NMAC meetings at NIFC, for example. Perhaps it was, but since the NPS is scrambling for a response, it is doubtful this happened. It looks more like Forest Service leadership will do what it will, and interagency coordination is an afterthought at best, and more likely, of little concern when the politics are heating up.

      1. Agree. Very well said.

        All I thought of when I got the email with this memo attached was….”great, now we will be pushed into that snag patch instead of being asked to consider it”. I’ve seen this before. Someone in charge says something and suddenly the outcome on the ground is not as anticipated. Here comes the over aggressive IA in the name of a memo from someone who’s probably never been left in some crappy spike camp without food or water because the helo was committed to recon instead of logistical support of the people doing the labor.

        If the Tamarack fire was full suppression and someone got killed during the IA, the questions about why people even engaged would be flowing freely and we would be seeing a memo about adjusting our risk management. What if some of those fires not being fully suppressed are in a burn scar that is full of nasty terrain or landscape wide snag patches?

        We work in a lose-lose profession and that’s probably why people don’t want to work here anymore.

        1. Full suppression doesn’t mean you have to go direct all the time. It just means put it out instead “monitoring” it.

      1. Thanks Mark! I remember the times a letter like this came out and unit managers wanted the fire staff to fly out and suppress all the tiny fires in the middle of the wilderness. Essentially transferring a risk to their careers from the extremely unlikely event the fires might take off to a higher risk to the firefighters from an aircraft or hazard tree accident.

  6. Wow! What a novel idea… put the fires out!

    So this is a clear acknowledgement that for years their intent has been to “manage” fires rather than suppress them (see Donnell, Rim, Tamarack etc). Its long been evident on the ground, but now they are finally admitting it publicly as being agency policy.

    How many tens of thousands of firefighter lives, airborne and ground pounder alike, have been put in harm’s way unnecessarily in recent years in service of managing fires? Why use 100 people to put it out when it’s small, when you can manage it into mega-fire size and engage 500, 2,000, 5,000 people or more. And holy cow, think of the costs!!

    When the Tamarack fire started the local area was in the grip of a record setting severe heat wave. The entire state was in the midst of a historically significant draught. Fuel conditions were at dangerous levels. Yet the HTF chose only to monitor. It was twelve days between ignition and conflagration. Seems like it could have warranted full suppression efforts are some point during those 12 days based on weather and fuels conditions alone. But nope! Monitor… manage… destroy.

    Well, I wish them luck with their new policy. I just hope they have the resources available considering the huge numbers of vacant positions this year.

  7. How are we suppose to get out of this fire backlog? Think next year will be better, or the next? When have we really managed wildfires for ecological benefits without pushback? Are we raising a generation of fire managers or ground pounders? Do you want staff looking down and eating dirt for a career or managing the millions of acres we’re tasked with overseeing? We’re on an endless path of mega fires till we can get some black on the ground.

  8. Good points from Southern Torch Master. At some point maybe we’ll start looking at how to manage wildfires better rather than going back to the suppression policies that allowed so much fuel to accumulate over the years.

  9. What really should be happening is more attention paid to stopping them before they start. I live surrounded by national Forest near Lake Tahoe and it is ridiculous how many illegal campfires are allowed to be lit. They spend so much money and manpower trying to put these fires out and a ridiculously small amount to stop them. Rarely will you see any Rangers out in the evening keeping an eye out for these campfires. They say 90% of these fires are started by illegal campfires. Everyone wants to blame it on global warming and drought, etc. While I don’t doubt those things, let’s not overlook the true cause of forest fires, illegal campfires.

    1. 90% may be human caused, but not just camp fires. Vehicle accidents, powerlines, fireworks, arson or just general poor decision making, are af ew of the human causes of wildfires.

    2. Former LEO here: you think fire resources are stretched thin, imagine one LEO for over 2 million acres; I can guarantee you that chasing campfires is a pretty low priority.

  10. It took how many homes to burn down not mention the wildlife that was killed because of this WW2 BS policy. OH and all the tree huggers time to thin the forest to late you blame it on global warming and you were the ones who went from wood to plastic and are killing the whole world because of your actions thanks. DA

  11. 27yrs in the Fire Service so not armchair BS been there and sick of the BS going on in the US Forest Service.

  12. Don’t you think these massive fires accomplish what most resource agencies wish they could accomplish following decades of Smokey the Bear fire management but see the futility in doing so?

    This makes for a conspiracy theory as absurd as the one (s) that fomented January 6. There is a “hidden agenda” in the highest of places taking advantage of drought and climate change “permitting” these huge fires, effectively accomplishing that which resource agencies can only dream of accomplishing… cleaning up the forests, bringing them back to health. Unfortunately burn severity, WUI and public outcry totally messed it up and now the chickens are coming home to roost. LR

  13. 90% of wildfire (in certain areas) may be human caused, but not just camp fires. Vehicle accidents, powerlines, fireworks, arson or just general poor decision making, are a few of the human causes of wildfires.

  14. This is long overdue. It is not possible to manage a wildfire, hence the wild part. While not fighting a small fire might seem like a good idea if we have the conditions that were present before the dehydration of climate change and the increased power of wind storms, suppression at this time in history is prudent.
    Why risk lives when we can stop many of these fires while they are small?

  15. Meaningless, the man does not have anywhere near the aerial firefighting aircraft to put his words into practice.

  16. Sounds like a good plan. Put the fire out, lest we let history repeat itself and let the little fire blow up and kill people.

  17. I remain surprised at just how many old timers want us to continue their misguided management that got us into this mess.

  18. I just read on Inciweb that lichens are acting as ladder fuels on that fire. Second time reading that this year.

    Btw my wife Karen Peck says hello and hopes you are doing well.

  19. Wildfires in the wilderness not threatening any structures should be allowed to burn. People perhaps forget that not just trees burn, look at the recent 40K acres wildfire in Hawaii. In many parts of the country it’s grasslands, sagebrush, mountain mahogany. Fires can accidentally be started when ranchers and farmers ditch burn, perhaps not having had checked the weather forecast ie wind events beforehand. It’s totally different when we’re dealing with the WUI. Contact your Congressman and Senators, and ask for more funding, which is a large part of the problem, less funding has hampered resources everywhere for way too long. Lest we too forget, many species of trees don’t regenerate unless there is a forest fire.

  20. Appreciate comments on FS lack of communication with other fed land managers. I do not wish to disparage Randy Moore or his accomplishments, but I know for sure I am not the only employee who has worked under him who finds his leadership style utterly lacking and completely unable to inspire confidence. He is a political tool who really seems to think that if he just repeats himself enough people will agree and support him. From sexual harassment on national TV to Forest Supervisor reassignments to the firefighter T shirt fiasco to the inability to recruit and keep talent to the cult like deification of “line officers” who are administrators not professional resource managers – he is a failed leader, but apparently made of Teflon. This latest “policy” which any first year fed attorney will tell you is not legally policy – and which everyone on the ground knows cannot and arguably should not be implemented – is just another example. The wrong leader at the wrong time for the FS.

  21. Yep. A bunch of old employees, too old and feeble to assist the situation today, living in a fantasy about how great everything was back when men were men and old growth trees were scared. And now we should listen to them and send young men and women into the snag patch on steep ground?… do what? There are no more crews available. Stop with the gushing accolades and increase their pay scale. That might help. When Zinke and “unskilled” Tom McClintock visited the Ferguson Fire camp in 2018 for a briefing, at least McClintock wasn’t dozing off, like Zinke. After citing Trump’s disgraced and likely criminal Interior Secretary Zinke on p. 17 and following with “Nobody knows how to manage forests better than the Forest Service,” you start to get the picture from these self-aggrandizing annuitants that don’t even have a clue what wildland firefighters are facing today. But it is toward these so-called “experts” that Randy Moore turns to on day one at his new post as they assert “it’s time to declare that all fires will be promptly and aggressively extinguished, period.” Again, I would ask, “with what resources, Chief?” The fire use option of drawing a big box and letting the fire come to you over time is THE ONLY option available when you have no resources available. They are all too busy protecting people’s homes. The ask here is that firefighters risk their lives as much for private timber land as they would for a person’s home. We start with stolen land, in the first place, using a checkerboard grid placing arbitrary straight lines of land ownership across steep terrain. Then throw in for good measure a bunch of untreated slash and a shrub layer dead from herbicide application, and you have what these pro-industry hacks call “forest management” leading to “resilient vegetative mosaics.” Using the word “mosaic,” likely because they once heard an intelligent ecologist use the word, I am curious about all those planted stands of densely packed seedlings that will burn like gasoline for their first thirty or forty years of existence. How is that resilient? This is what happens when you listen to foresters who look at trees as a commodity vs a forest ecologist. But then again, listening to ecologists is not something Randy Moore is known for, preferring instead to swear fealty to the timber industry.

    Let’s talk about mosaics. Over the past couple of years of wildland fire with climate-supercharged fires burning in the peak of the season, in my experience as a fire behavior analyst, the ONLY landscape features having any slowing effect have been recent fire footprints. Expensive fuel treatments are quickly overwhelmed with spotting distances of 2-3 miles or more, and what happens to the fires when they reach commercial timber lands? They accelerate, particularly in dense young planted stands. We need more black on the landscape from wildfires burning off the peak season and prescribed fires. Just last week I worked a large fire in Washington State that was going out along vast areas of the perimeter that were in contact with recent fire footprints and the areas that had received a prescribed fire treatment had retained much of the tree canopy. Our incident management team’s work was made more easy by being able to “herd” the main fire into a 2018 fire area – an area that was succulent and green, rather than “destroyed.”

    Virtually all the advances in wildland fire risk management have come from efforts to expand the use of wildland fire for good – protecting both human and natural communities. Do we really want a workforce so dumbed down that all they know to ask for is a bigger hammer? Of course that’s the answer in the firefighting aviation world, as it is in the private firefighter-for-hire world. That’s to be expected. Once you develop a niche in receiving government largess, you expect to keep getting fed by the Fed, funding lobbyists and wrapping yourself in the false patriotism of profit. And how far behind are the whack jobs that want to fire missiles and drop munitions to snuff out fires?

    Unlike the signatories who appear to have a lot of sway with the new USFS Chief, I actually continue to support the annual fire suppression effort as an FBAN on a Type 1 IMT. I am currently reconsidering that commitment. It would appear as though Chief Moore is committed to the failed apartheid state of fire exclusion. Refusing to acknowledge the benefit of wildland fire in fire-adapted and fire-evolved landscapes, and moreover, leading the public to believe that all fires can and should be suppressed is the height of human hubris and will likely be the death of more wildland firefighters. It is not their duty to die protecting property.

  22. Let’s all not forget the lack of attention to the invasive species in the landscape management equation, and the connection to fire and the degradating conditions these harmful invaders create—particularly with the hundreds of millions of acres of fire-regime changing invasive annual grasses that keep them from gaining ground when they manage woody fuel loads across the West. California Forest Service invasive species control work lacks any sense of reality, with accomplishments lower than every other USFS region by an enormous gap. While “lack of forest management” seems to be their only excuse for the increasing wildfire problem, they invasive species threat has largely been ignored by every USFS Chief since Dale Bosworth. Federal budget reports and their own data shows that the national invasive species threat is upwards of 15 times larger (in both economic, environmental, and human health measures) than the top 10 Wildfire years combined…yet the USFS spends more money on fire suppression in any given year (not counting all the other federal and state agencies) than the entire United States Government (across all federal departments and agencies) does against invasive species. Achieving a healthy forest is not only achieved by increasing the number of foresters they hire and the number of acres of acres thinnned….when the fuels are quickly replaced by something like Cheatgrass, Buffelgrass, Etc. And don’t forget the need to boost the priority of fighting the invasive species threat at state and local levels… rangeland and forest landscapes where fires are increasing.

  23. One thing that contributes to this “critical situation” of personnel shortages on fires is the arbitrary way the FS is allowed to hire AD employees for incidents..its delegated to the local Forest Supervisors to sign off on hiring qualified retirees and others with no 9versight and if they just don’t like someone for whatever reason they can block them from getting signed on for fires even if towns are burning..Here I sit less than 50 miles from 4 major fires, red card full of quals in “critical shortage” positions,still current on redcard. retired after 30 years in R5 fire, and cant get signed on as an AD with no explanation given..with always superior performance evals…and several other local Fire retirees here are in the same boat..there needs to be a process that streamlines picking up qualified overhead that doesnt rely on who the “approving official” likes personally or not. With most Fed Fire overhead retiring at 57, its a huge underutilized force of qualified Fire Managers.

  24. First of all, I’ll believe it when I see it. Secondly, how will they do that in Wilderness Areas? Are planning on suspending the Wilderness Act prohibiting road building, chainsaws, etc? I’m afraid this decree is just window dressing.

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