US Forest Service to resume prescribed fires

New requirements are in place

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Test fire on the Las Dispensas prescribed fire April 6, 2022
Test fire on the Las Dispensas prescribed fire on the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, April 6, 2022. The prescribed fire later escaped, merged with another escaped prescribed fire, and burned more that 341,000 acres and 903 structures. USFS photo.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced that the nearly four-month suspension on prescribed fires has been lifted after receiving the findings and recommendations provided by a National Review Team.

The suspension and review occurred after two prescribed fires on the Santa Fe National Forest in Northern New Mexico escaped in April, merged, and became the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak wildfire that burned more than 341,000 acres and 903 structures. The area was later hit by flash floods which resulted in more damage. On September 18 the fire will transition from a Type 2 Incident Management Team to a Type 3 Team.

smoke Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire in northern New Mexico, May 10, 2022. Seen from Santa Fe. Photo by Allen Olson.

A report released by the Forest Service in June about the two escaped fires concluded the approved prescribed fire plan was followed for most but not all of the parameters. The people on the ground felt they were close to or within the prescription limits but fuel moistures were lower than realized and increased heavy fuel loading after fireline preparation contributed to increasing the risk of fire escape.

The National Review Team that evaluated the agency’s prescribed fire program produced a 107-page report which included seven recommendations. Chief Moore said in a statement, “I have decided to conditionally resume the Forest Service’s prescribed fire program nationwide with the requirement that all seven tactical recommendations identified are followed and implemented immediately by all Forest Service units across the country. These actions will ensure prescribed fire plans are up to date with the most recent science, that key factors and conditions are closely evaluated the day of a prescribed burn, and that decisionmakers are engaged in those burns in real time to determine whether a prescribed burn should be implemented.”

The seven recommendations in the report:

1. Each Forest Service unit will review all prescribed fire plans and associated complexity analyses to ensure they reflect current conditions, prior to implementation. Prescribed fire plans and complexity analyses will be implemented only after receiving an updated approval by a technical reviewer and being certified by the appropriate agency administrator that they accurately reflect current conditions.

2. Ignition authorization briefings will be standardized to ensure consistent communication and collective mutual understanding on key points.

3. Instead of providing a window of authorized time for a planned prescribed fire, agency administrators will authorize ignitions only for the Operational Period (24 hours) for the day of the burn. For prescribed fires requiring multi-day ignitions, agency administrators will authorize ignitions on each day. Agency administrators will document all elements required for ignition authorization.

4. Prior to ignition onsite, the burn boss will document whether all elements within the agency administrator’s authorization are still valid based on site conditions. The burn boss will also assess human factors, including the pressures, fatigue, and experience of the prescribed fire implementers.

5. Nationwide, approving agency administrators will be present on the unit for all high-complexity burns; unit line officers (or a line officer from another unit familiar with the burn unit) will be on unit for 30-40% of moderate complexity burns.

6. After the pause has been lifted, units will not resume their prescribed burning programs until forest supervisors go over the findings and recommendations in this review report with all employees involved in prescribed fire activities. Forest supervisors will certify that this has been done.

7. The Chief will designate a specific Forest Service point of contact at the national level to oversee and report on the implementation of these recommendations and on the progress made in carrying out other recommendations and considerations raised in this review report.

Chief Moore said two additional actions will occur by the end of this year:

  • Working with the interagency fire and research community and partners they will establish a Western Prescribed Fire Training curriculum to expand on the successes of the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center headquartered in Tallahassee, Florida.
  • The Forest Service will identify a strategy, in collaboration with partners, for having crews that can be dedicated to hazardous fuels work and mobilized across the country to support the highest priority hazardous fuels reduction work.

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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.

41 thoughts on “US Forest Service to resume prescribed fires”

  1. There was a fairly damning article on prescribed burning in the most recent issue of the FSEEE newsletter that I subscribe to.

    It was saying that when the test or prescribed burn fires were started in April on the Santa Fe National Forest, the NOAA had already issued a red flag warning for the area. If true, I cannot fathom what in the world they were thinking.

    I continue to believe that prescribed burning is a great tool *IF* it’s used right. It’s good to see that they won’t throw the baby out with the bath water and end all prescribed fire.

    1. The USFS report about the escaped Rx fires said, “A National Weather Service Red Flag Warning was not headlined for Forecast Zone 103 in the Fire Weather Forecast (FWF) or the Spot Weather Forecast (FWS). However, Red Flag Warnings were in effect for other fire weather zones on the day of the prescribed fire due to the combination of relative humidity and wind.”

      1. The FS report, “Gallinas-Las Dispensas Prescribed Fire Declared Wildfire Review, does not analyze the earlier “escaped prescribed burn in Calf Canyon . . . sparked by a pile burn from January that crews mistakenly thought was extinguished and had stopped monitoring.” In other words, most of the outcome of the Hermits Peak fire would likely have been the same regardless of the later prescribed fire escape.

        The take-home lesson is that prescribed burning during a prolonged drought in a season (Spring) when high winds are commonplace is a bad idea.

        1. Unfortunately the best season to burn in the SW is later summer through the fall after monsoon mositure, this also coincides with PL4/5 which means burns can’t be implemented due to the resource drawdown with NR/PNW/R5 activity. Until we support Rx fire during the fall regardless of PL level we will either lose spring burns or accomplish no large objectives.

      2. Bill,

        I believe the article also mentioned that the late spring and early summer is a very bad time to do prescribed burns in the Southwest. Moisture levels tend to bottom out in the April-May-June period and it’s also during that time of year where dry cold fronts hit the Southwest producing hot, dry winds that blow ahead of the fronts.

        Unfortunately, I don’t have the article in front of me at the time being. Did anyone else see it?

        1. I ask you to please be sure you are posting accurate information. If you’re not sure, research it first, and then come back.

          1. Thank you Mr Gabbert for actively watching over these comment sessions.
            I also appreciate the several others reading these sessions for calling on or calling out others to speak from real facts and not opinion, innuendo or conspiracy theories as they leave their mark on these pages.
            Ken Kerr

      3. Bill, I read your comment several times and it still does not make clear what you are trying to say. First of all you state, “Red Flag Waring was not headlined for Forecast Zone 103 in the FWF or FWS”. Would it have not been better for you to show the reader “Forecast Zone 103 in the FWF” so we could follow what you are discussing? You go on to say that “Red Flag Warnings were in effect for other fire weather zones”. Again, is there a map of fire weather zones that can be reviewed? Is the term “Spot Weather Forecast (FWS)” really pertaining to the Fire Weather Station (FWS) as explained on the acronyms? Thank you for your efforts and work on writing these articles.

  2. Looks to me there is a great need for much higher resolution fire danger rating model that both the fire boss, the fire behavior analyst, and the NWS spot forecaster can use and collaborate on. The current NFDR model just doesn’t cut it.

  3. We have asked for a digital copy of the actual prescribed burn plan the burn boss had in his possession that day with his notes, check marks, and observations. They have only supplied a “corrected” clean copy of the original plan. The post fire effects continue to devastate local communities. We had a community meeting in Rociada, NM, last night with 16 landowners, many of whom lost homes or forestland or both. The fire footprint is unraveling every month. Flooding killed three members of one family in Tecolote, NM. People are angry and afraid. Our ICs and AAs simply must factor in post-fire impacts in WFDSS development. The aftermath often has a greater impact on values at risk than the actual fire. It’s not just about the fire in front of us. It’s what we leave behind that really counts.

    1. Excellent comment Frank. Your last sentence says it all: “It’s not just about the fire in front of us. It’s what we leave behind that really counts”. I cannot even begin to fathom how these landowners feel for those who lost homes and the family that lost three members due to the flooding post-fire. For the USDA Forest Service to move forward to “conditionally resume the Forest Service’s prescribed fire program nationwide” is putting the cart before the horse and not clearly knowing what is going to be left behind. No amount of current modeling can know or do this.

  4. The immediate steps to be taken, according to the Review, are mostly procedural. They are clearly very important steps. However, there is a large internal contradiction in this document.

    It states “In response (to rising wildfire risk,) the Forest Service has embraced a 10-year Wildfire Crisis Strategy (Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests) for rising to the challenge of addressing the threat to our national forests. The strategy articulates the need for a new land management paradigm: stepping up the pace and scale of fuels and forest health treatments to match the scale of rising wildfire risks across western landscapes. The strategy calls for treating up to an additional 20 million acres of National Forest System (NFS) lands; treating up to an additional 30 million acres of other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands; and developing a plan for long-term maintenance beyond 10 years.”

    The Review outlines a number of issues that need remedying, and they are not small things. They include major shifts in the Forest Service culture, lack of agency capacity, lack of equipment and contingency resources, and the need to improve the prescribed fire program. Also a need to develop and implement better training programs. This will take a lot of time and resources.

    All of this seems very necessary, and should be well in place before prescribed burning is resumed, yet it is being conditionally resumed now. The Forest Service has not been able to safely (enough) administer the current level of prescribed burns, and now they intend to greatly increase the amount of burning. This should not even be considered until both the short-term and longer-term improvements to their culture, capacity, equipment and program have been implemented.

    Most NFs are currently abysmally understaffed and lack enough appropriately-trained personnel to increase the amount of burning. Where are these trained people going to come from? There is a serious lack of equipment, including fire fighting air tankers. No matter how well-intentioned this reform of the prescribed burn program is, the contradiction between not having the capacity to burn with a sufficient level of safety now, and the intention to great increase prescribed burning over our forests, can only ultimately lead to a worsening of the safety record of prescribed burns and more catastrophes. I think the USFS needs to get realistic in its intentions, and set an achievable goal. That goal can gradually change if they do succeed in really improving their program and capacity.

    There is no discussion of a real cost/benefit analysis, which might consider issues like burning in the spring in the windy southwest. Not only can the winds kick up a burn into a wildfire, after early spring is a long period of hot and dry weather, where a wildfire can burn and burn, until the monsoons come — like what did happen with the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire. Maybe burning in the spring is truly not viable in much of the SW. Maybe the safer window of opportunities for burning has decreased enough due to a warmer climate and dryer forests, that the amount of burning needs to be decreased, not increased.

    The USFS needs to understand the probability and effects of escaped burns in any landscape that they are carried out in. I believe they need to go back to basics.

    I realize many see the need to burn as virtually an emergency, but in our warming climate there isn’t necessarily enough evidence that the benefits outweigh the risks. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but the USFS does not know as they clearly have not done a genuine cost/benefit analysis utilizing a range of the best available science.

    1. Wow, Sarah, your comment was well throughout and clearly presented. The strategy calls for treating up to an additional 20 million acres of National Forest System (NFS) lands; an additional 30 million acres of other lands. That is 50 million acres of landscape. Due to extremely poor forest management over the last 200 years, does the chief of the Forest Service really believe that treated 50 million acres of Rx fire can be accomplished not knowing the cost/benefit analysis the consequences might be left behind. Doesn’t the Forest Service need to clearly understand what the real consequences of the New Mexico wildfire did to the community? I do realize it is and will not be an easy task to move forward with Rx fire but a genuine cost/benefit analysis needs to be completed. The question is how does it get accomplished? Not by the political committee that is seven months behind schedule.

  5. There is no end to the scientific process; it is in the nature of the process to question its own conclusions as well as those that lack a scientific foundation and state suppositions as facts in the “popular” press. Just because something is published is no guarantee of its accuracy or validity; correct observations can be interpreted (and printed) with incorrect conclusions. In general, researchers at institutions emphasize findings of fact and eschew questionable conclusions, but a few use their positions to anoint the latter with questionable “authority.”

    That’s why a disciplined scientist takes care to be clear with respect to the limits warranted by actual evidence and replication of results and is open to peer review and questions from those who take the time to digest their published work.

    “Arguing from authority” is widely recognize among scholars as fallacious.

    That’s why I WELCOME thoughtful criticism rather than protestations based on personal (or crowd-) biased beliefs.

    I appreciate Bill’s insistence on facts rather than even widely-endorsed sacred cows. In fact, I would welcome more participation by Bill, even if it means goring some egos.

  6. Lets face it we’re not in good shape here. For years we have known, and been told, the cliche’ “we’re not going to chainsaw our way out of this”. Well, we are not going to Rx burn our way out either!!!!! The time to have treated big acres with Rx was in the 60,’, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s when a “megafire” was 10k acres and the climate was more moderate. We missed those golden windows and they are not coming back. Now in addition to the forests being downright wooly, they’re popcorn dry! Now is not the time to be trying to set them on fire with an understaffed workforce and the brain drain happening. Wildfire is outpacing Rx at an exponential rate. It’s all going to burn, it’s just going to be a wildfire that takes it. Thank our predecessors for leaving us with this poop sandwich. I’m getting rid of ALL my Rx qualls, asap!

    1. Fuel treatments in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s might not have helped us much now. Much of that time was fairly wet. Trees and understory would be growing back by now, and more dead and downed on the ground.

      If it turns out to be true that prescribed burning, at least at the level it’s being done now, is no longer beneficial in the cost/benefit analysis, then we still have options for reducing human-caused ignitions.

      The forests are not all going to burn at once. I think we should do everything in our power to reduce the rate our forests burn at, so when some forests burns, other forests will have burned long ago and be well into their recovery.

      That may mean, in addition to not starting intentional fires in forests under risky conditions, to require more maintenance of power lines in forested areas, and to establish requirements to bury new lines whenever possible. Maybe much more limitation on forest use during hot, dry and windy weather. It could mean much longer forest closures during times of high fire risk. Limitations on campfires and smoking in forests.

      Clearly our forests are in a great reset, but I hope we can keep it from moving into some kind of regeneration failure, or major impacts we can’t even foresee, because so much has burned so fast. I think we can still have some input on this.

      But it’s going to be painful.

  7. It’s time for a US Fire Management Agency! An agency dedicated to proving the state and federal land management organizations resources to adequately maintain and manage fire on the landscape. I don’t think the future is in the state forestry agencies and USFS taking the lead in pulling us out of this mess.

    1. If dedicated fire resources are pulled out of the land management agencies, less Rx fire and other fuels management will occur on federal land, not more. Your moniker is “Southern Torch Master,” so I assume you’re from the south. As you know, while there’s a lot of militia in R8, they can’t do it without dedicated fire personnel to fill out the crews. You also know that, while the south burns more than anywhere else in the country, they – like elsewhere – prioritize money to suppression, not fuels management. A federal fire agency will follow the money (just like NPS, USDA FS, BLM, etc.), and the money is in suppression, not Rx fire. BIL won’t change that. Increasing fuels management requires both fire and non-fire resources dedicating time and money together, not further segregating them.

      1. If we’re going to implement fire at scale, we need to nearly quadruple our current capacity. I’m not suggesting we tease out fire resources from the land management agencies. I’m suggesting we have an agency that is solely dedicated to fire management and can provide fire resources to the agencies. Jurisdictional boundaries would remain the same, resources would be plentiful. If you’re not fighting fire, you’re lighting fire!!

        1. Just as the USDA FS has no jurisdictional authority over NPS, and NPS has none over BLM, the land management agencies would have no authority over a separate agency “solely dedicated to fire management.” It would have its own enabling legislation and policies, distinct from those other agencies. Further, it’s people and budget would come from the land management agencies, reducing their ability to manage their resources. This idea doesn’t make the pie any bigger, it just shifts who has how much pie. Finally – and anyone who works for the Feds should know this – RO and HQ people chase money. There’s more money in suppression then in fuels management (it’s been that way as long as anyone on this thread has been alive), so that’s where the leadership of a US Fire Agency will focus its efforts. Thus, fuels management will decline, not increase. The land management agencies would no longer have the capacity, and the fire agency wouldn’t have the interest.

  8. Whether or not prescribed burns work is not the issue here. The issue is why do prescribed burns get out of control. The report stated that “the approved prescribed fire plan was followed for most but not all of the parameters. The people on the ground felt they were close to or within the prescription limits but fuel moistures were lower than realized and increased heavy fuel loading after fire line preparation contributed to increasing the risk of fire escape.” Why were they not aware of the actual fuel moistures and the heavy fuel loading? I suggest that the NFDR models they use to gauge those parameters do not have enough resolution, or need better equations. Looks to me there is a great need for much higher resolution fire danger rating model that both the fire boss, the fire behavior analyst, and the NWS spot forecaster can use and collaborate on. The current NFDR model just doesn’t cut it.

      1. Tedmackechnie has some good points. Your focusing on his use of old school terminology is a digression that serves no purpose. Stay on topic.

      2. Robert… The Firing Boss leads ground and/or aerial ignition operations and coordinates with holding resources on prescribed fire and wildfire incidents. The FIRB supervises assigned firing resources and reports to a Burn Boss, Strike Team/Task Force Leader, or other assigned supervisor. The term used in the report was Burn Boss. No sense in getting sarcastic over semantics. Your use of “fire field” is rather loose in itself. The common terms are fire science or fire service field. I am a retired NWS fire weather meteorologist. Any other questions?

      3. Robert. At this website, EVERYONE is welcome to participate no matter what “field” they are in, and even if they don’t use the jargon approved by the big green machine. If you have something valuable to contribute, we’d like to hear it.

        From our rules: ” ‘Flaming’ of other writers is not allowed. Neither are crude, rude, mean-spirited comments, hate, or personal attacks that fail to add to the overall discourse.” And, “Be on topic, accurate, and helpful.”

    1. I think your criticism of NFDRS is off base. I think proper criticism would be placed on maintaining the weather stations used for NFDRS. Read the report for the Escaped RX fire that became Hermits Peak fire. Weather stations were not being maintained and/or were offline for significant periods so that they were unusable for determining accurate fuel moistures. They ended up using a Special Interest Group (combination of weather stations) with missing data to calculate NFDRS! In other words, made up data from poor data.

      One thing that should have come out of this report was the need to properly maintain RAWS stations so that they are indeed usable for NFDRS.

      1. Stu… it was not a criticism, it was a suggestion to improve it. Your idea to improve it with better maintained and more weather RAWS stations is also a great idea. We are both “on base”.

  9. Lot of great comments and points have been made. A couple of other constraints we face often that haven’t been brought up are smoke management and NEPA. I say this on the broader scale in that we constantly fall short of what we think/know should be done only to be shut down by red tape. The red tape is there for a reason but definitely another hurdle. Additionally RX took a hit during Covid combined with busy 2020/21 fire seasons, so the pressure has been there to hit target. Not making excuses just pointing out some other factors that probably contributed to this outcome.

    1. You are right that smoke management is a constraint. In the Santa Fe area, many people’s health are severely impacted by as much prescribed burning as we typically have in the area. It did slow down in recent years do to the Mexican Spotted Owl judgement and then Covid. However the USFS did start burning again even while Covid was going strong, against the recommendation of the CDC.

      The highly detrimental effects of the heavy smoke on a fairly densely populated area should be a part of the cost/benefit analysis, but it was not. The public health considerations in the environmental assessment were very disingenuous.

      The EA never addressed the actual health impacts local people were experiencing, and the effects on their daily lives. The USFS recommends those who are impacted to just stay inside with an air filter, but that is not realistic when you have a job, kids, or just a life. Burns can go on for days.

      The EA utilized very faulty baseline assumptions. When they “analyzed” the amounts and effects of pollutants from prescribed burns, the two baselines that they analyzed (for a 10 year period) were 1) if they do not do the Santa Fe Mountains Project Proposed Action, then the entire project area (which is two discontinuous areas) would burn entirely, 100% 2) if they do the Santa Fe Mountains Project Proposed Action, there would be no fires in the project area at all.

      Neither case will ever happen. Why were they even analyzing those impossibly extreme possibilities? Why not analyze possible reality?

      Nevertheless, they never focused in on actual health impacts on the public. How many people are impaired during the heavy smoke from prescribed burns, how many have to go to the doctor with asthma, headaches, sinus issues, generalized illness, etc. I can tell you, it’s a lot of people. Citizens have written letters to the editor about it, gone in and testified to both the County Commission and the City Council about it, and it was a focus during project comment periods.

      This is a part of the cost/benefit analysis that is not seriously done. There may be some levels of prescribed burns that are justifiable, even if public health is impacted, but there is a limit. The USFS has to be willing to even try to understand what the real impacts are on the public in order to add public health into the cost/benefit analysis.

      Now the USFS intends to greatly increase prescribed burning, up to 4X current levels. Many people in the Santa Fe area will simply not be able to tolerate the health impacts. I personally know three people who have moved to get away from it. I consider it myself.

  10. Re: Smoke management – so let me get this straight. The south has a higher population density with more smoke sensitive targets, and a climate (higher humidity) more conducive to smog, yet they burn multiple times the acreage of anywhere else in the country. But here we are saying it’s not possible to increase burning in these other regions? A 4X increase in the SW still wouldn’t equal what the SE does. Just FL burns over 2 million acres/year. GA is over 1 million/year. Yes, smoke management doesn’t always go right, and there are problems, sometimes serious ones. That said, the fire community in the south figures out how to fix the problems and get it done. Surely other regions can, as well.

    1. As you stated, “That said, the fire community in the south figures out how to fix the problems and get it done. Surely other regions can, as well”. No, the other regions such as the California has extremely strict air quality requirements, seemingly no matter what part of the state. With the orders of magnitude population growth in AZ and NM, I am sure they too now have major concerns with smoke issues and concerns and will eventually have regulations in place especially for people who have major health issues. People have relocated to areas to get away from the smog and smoke issues.

  11. If the Forest Service was proposing targeted, limited and strategic treatments, in key areas to protect values, no one would be complaining. Even the most smoke sensitive person could handle a limited amount of smoke. When i moved to the southwest in the 1990’s, it seemed like burning occurred perhaps a total of two weeks per year, and in much smaller amounts. It was not pleasant, but tolerable. Now it’s totally out-of-hand and out-of-control.

    Once you start fuel treatments, you have to come back and re-burn at regular intervals. All this creates the horrible prescribed burn smoke smog we have had in Santa Fe, increasing by the year (except for the past few years due to the MSO injunction and Covid.) Also the forests treated in that way look barren and ecologically broken.

    If we were burning like the Native Americans…….well OK, but just be careful. Back then the Native Americans weren’t dealing with climate change.

    1. Central California resident here. The last 5 summers here we’ve either had smoke thick like tule fog for months or least a heavy haze and in 2020 when we started to clear up a little in late August and early September the creek fire started. We are not going burn, log, graze , or forest thin our way out of this. We need to do all of it but we can’t and won’t, the usfs doesn’t have the staffing and budget, the general public doesn’t presently have the will to agree on anything, the logging industry doesn’t have the infrastructure and isn’t willing to take the financial risk on something that could change before or after the next cycle, and cows don’t eat big plants.

  12. “…Burning like the Native Americans, well ok, but be careful”

    … may have just single handedly fixed the American West.

  13. “It is a well know fact that Prescribed fire cures hangover, cancers and can even prevent shark attacks off the coast of Florida.” – U.S. Forest Service

What do you think?