US Forest Service to resume prescribed fires

New requirements are in place

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.

We need every tool to fight today’s wildfires

Wildfire acts as an all-spectrum ecological catalyst. Good prescribed burns will do the same thing.

Hermit's Peak Fire, Jim O'Donnell credit.jpg
Hermit’s Peak Fire, as seen from Holman Hill in Mora County, NM April 30, 2022. Photo by Jim O’Donnell.

By Steve Pyne

We know now that the largest recorded fire in New Mexico history was started by an escaped “prescribed burn,” or rather by two. The Hermit’s Peak fire bolted away on April 6 when unexpectedly gusty winds blew sparks beyond control lines. 

Then the Calf Canyon fire raced off on April 9 when similar winds fanned embers in burn piles first kindled in January. The two fires soon merged. Together, as of June 12, they have scorched 320,333 acres, with two-thirds of the fire perimeter regarded as contained.  

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s reaction was to insist that federal agencies reconsider their policy on spring burns. The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Randy Moore, responded by announcing a halt on prescribed burning for a 90-day review period. 

Inevitably, the blowups invited comparison to the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico that began as a prescribed burn, then blew out of Bandelier National Monument and into Los Alamos. It was the largest chronicled fire in the state’s history until now.

Prescribed fire is not likely to be challenged in principle. Recognition seems widespread that controlled burning is a legitimate source of good fire that can reduce the threat from areas likely to burn. States from Florida to California have even reformed liability law to encourage burning on private lands.  

The real threat to fire management is death by a thousand cuts, each breakdown leading to shutdowns, each partisan group extracting a concession, that together so encumber the practice that it can’t be implemented. There is always something that can cause a prescribed burn to be shuttered. There is no equivalent mechanism to make up the loss.  

It’s not news that the Western fire scene has become complicated. The early 20th century days, when one response extinguish by 10 am the next morning was adequate, are long past. It was a marvelous administrative stroke: No confusion, no compromise, one size fits all. 

But it made the fire scene worse by encouraging ecological rot and an incendiary buildup of fuels. The change in policy was clear and necessary: Fire is inevitable, and we need to manage it.  

Today, all aspects of landscape fire are plural. Fire control does not mean one thing; it embraces many strategies. It might refer to protecting towns or sage grouse habitat. It can resemble urban firefighting, or for reasons of safety, cost and environmental health, it could mean containing fires within broad borders.  

It varies from extinguishing an abandoned campfire to herding mega-fires rolling over the Continental Divide. It might involve bulldozing around municipal watersheds, or working-with-nature firelines in wilderness.  It might mean setting emergency backfires that can resemble a prescribed fire done under urgent conditions..

So, also, with prescribed burning. It might mean burning logging slash or piled cuttings from thinning operations. Or it might refer to broadcast burns that range freely over areas from an acre to a landscape. It can mean burning to improve forage in tallgrass prairie, to prune pine savannas, or to promote habitat for Karner blue butterflies. 

Wildfire acts as an all-spectrum ecological catalyst. Good prescribed burns will do the same thing.

The choice isn’t between one strategy or the other; it’s selecting from a variety of techniques that work in particular settings and seasons. We need them all, not least because each strategy by itself can fail. 

Fires escape initial suppression at a rate of 2-3 percent. Prescribed fires escape at a rate of 1.5 percent for the National Park Service, or less than 1 percent according to Forest Service records. Managing naturally caused fires has a similar rate of failure. When an escape occurs, however, its destructiveness makes news.

Those figures are not likely to drop. We can’t control the setting of a wildland fire as we can a blowtorch. All we can do is juggle strategies so that each strategy’s strengths fill the others’ weaknesses. The 2000 blowout in New Mexico made prescribed burning more difficult but led to a National Fire Plan. Twenty years later, the fire scene has grown bigger, meaner, tougher. The Hermits Peak fire will likely end up an order of magnitude larger than Cerro Grande.  

Inevitably, our future holds a lot of fire. The goal is always to find and employ the right mix of fire for the land. 

Steve Pyne is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a fire historian, urban farmer, and author of The Pyrocene.

Investigators determine Calf Canyon Fire caused by holdover from prescribed fire

It later merged with the Hermits Peak Fire northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico

Calf Canyon Fire
An April 8, 2022 map showing the Calf Canyon Fire before it grew large, another heat source nearby, and the Hermits Peak Fire.

The US Forest Service announced today that the Calf Canyon Fire northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico was caused by piles that were still burning more than two months after they were ignited near the end of January, 2022. The heat remained after having been at times under snow when it was detected on April 9. The piles were comprised of vegetation and debris remaining after a fuel treatment project.

A statement released by the Santa Fe National Forest indicated that crews constructed a fireline around the 1.5-acre blaze on April 9 and “…continued to monitor the fire over the next couple of days to ensure there were no signs of heat or flames near the edge. Ten days later,” the statement continued, “on April 19 the Calf Canyon Fire reignited and escaped containment lines. A wind event on April 22 caused significant fire spread, and the Calf Canyon Fire merged with the Hermits Peak Fire, which was caused by an escaped prescribed burn.”

(Wildfire Today first covered the escape of the broadcast prescribed fire that created the Hermits Peak Fire on April 9. On May 13 we described the burning of the piles now confirmed to be the origin on the Calf Canyon Fire.)

The term “reignited” is misleading. The burning piles were never completely put out. Wildfire Today found records showing that on April 8 fixed wing aircraft with thermal heat sensors began mapping the Hermits Peak Fire nearly every night the rest of the month. From imagery on April 8 at 9:30 p.m. MDT the Infrared Analyst noted two small heat sources both about 4 miles from the fire, one to the northwest and another almost due west which later became the Calf Canyon Fire. The heat to the northwest, 2.7 miles north of the Calf Canyon Fire, was not detected in subsequent mapping flights, indicating that it went out on its own or was successfully suppressed by firefighters.

Map Calf Cyn Hermits Peak Fire 1 a.m. May 20, 2022
Map of the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fires at 1 a.m. April 20, 2022 by the Incident Management Team. The red arrow, added by Wildfire Today, points to the Calf Canyon Fire which may have spotted, or there was an additional burn pile that spread.

Here are the results, related to what became the Calf Canyon Fire, of the Hermits Peak Fire aerial fire mapping from April 8 through April 21, 2022 (times are CDT):

  • 8 @ 9:30 p.m.: heat noted at the pile burning site
  • 9: (firefighters constructed line around a 1.5-acre fire spreading at the pile burning site)
  • 10 @ 3 a.m.: heat noted
  • 10 @ 10 p.m.: mapping mission unable to be filled (UTF)
  • 11 @ 8:45: heat noted
  • 13 @ 2 a.m.: not noted
  • 13 @ 7:30 p.m.: not noted
  • 14 @ 8:15 p.m.: not noted
  • 15 @ 7:30 p.m.: not noted
  • 16 @ 10 p.m.: UTF
  • 18 @ 1:45 a.m.: not noted
  • 18 @ 10 p.m.: UTF
  • 20 @ 1 a.m.: intense heat noted at two locations at the pile burning site which were separately mapped by the Infrared Analyst. (See the map above. Either the fire spotted about 0.4 miles out ahead, or a second area in the pile burning project began spreading)
  • 21 @ 1:30 a.m.: had grown to about 220 acres; was approximately half a mile wide and one mile long)

It is unknown if the mapping mission each night included the pile burning site four miles west of the Hermits Peak Fire, or if the Infrared Analyst was careful to examine the imagery for small detections of heat at the pile burning site.

After April 20 the Calf Canyon Fire was large and merged with the Hermits Peak Fire on the 22nd when both fires blew up. At that time the Hermits Peak fire was nearly contained and had been relatively quiet for several days, but pushed by very strong winds both fires ran 11 miles to the northwest in narrow parallel footprints until the wind speed decreased, allowing the flanks of both fires to spread laterally until they merged. The winds monitored at a weather station that day near Las Vegas, NM recorded sustained speeds of 40 to 50 mph with gusts up to 67 while the relative humidity dropped as low as 6 percent.

“We don’t have enough resources to do everything we want to do at one time so we have to prioritize the resources we have at the right location,” said Incident Commander Carl Schwope in a briefing on April 23.

The two merged fires, both the result of escaped prescribed fires and now called Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire, are now 17 miles wide, 45 miles long, and have burned more than 312,000 acres, about 1/3 the size of Rhode Island. If you were driving from the south end of the fire at Las Vegas, NM on Highway 518 going north, it would take about an hour to reach the north edge of the fire near Angostura.

Map Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Map Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire, 12:20 a.m. MDT May 27, 2022

The article was edited May 31, 2022 to add the time that the fire was mapped each night.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jay and Karen.

US Forest Service pauses all prescribed fire operations

A 90-day review of practices is being conducted

Morning briefing on the Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Morning briefing May 8, 2022 on the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire as firefighters break out into Divisions. The Hermits Peak Fire started from an escaped prescribed fire on April 6, 2022. USFS photo.

The US Forest Service announced May 20 in a press release that a “pause” is in effect for all prescribed fire operations on National Forest System lands. The reason given for the pause is “because of the current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field…while we conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools, and practices ahead of planned operations this fall,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in the statement released late Friday afternoon.

The public statement from Chief Moore does not actually say in clear text why the review is being conducted, but the unmentioned elephant in the press release is the hundreds of thousands of acres burning and the weeks-long evacuation orders in New Mexico, some of it attributed to an escaped prescribed fire. However in an email sent to FS employees, the Chief wrote, “I’m sure you all have seen the stories in the news about recent prescribed burn escapes. These, as well as isolated incidents on other national forests in recent years, have made it imperative that we pause to review our processes. That’s why I am temporarily halting all prescribed burns on National Forest System lands and creating a review team consisting of representatives from the wildland fire and research community.”

At least two prescribed fires escaped in New Mexico in April. The Hermits Peak Fire escaped from the Las Dispensas prescribed fire northwest of Las Vegas on April 6. On April 22 it merged with the Calf Canyon Fire which was reported April 19 in the general area where another prescribed fire was ignited about three months earlier. Now a month after the Calf Canyon Fire was reported the FS is saying its cause is still under investigation.

The combined Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon Fire is still spreading. It has burned more than 303,000 acres and destroyed 347 homes and 287 other structures. Another 16,316 structures are threatened and evacuations are still in effect. An estimated $95 million has been spent so far on suppression of the fire.

On April 7 a prescribed fire being conducted by the Bureau of Land Management about 10 miles southeast of Roswell, NM escaped and burned 1,900 acres.

On the Dixie National Forest in Utah the Left Fork Fire was reported May 9. On May 10 the Forest Service said it ignited from material still burning from a prescribed fire conducted April 7, 2022.  On May 11, 12, and 13 the daily updates on the wildfire posted by the Dixie National Forest stated it was “human caused.” The escaped fire burned 97 acres.

Left Fork Fire escaped prescribed fire
Firefighters construct fireline on the Left Fork Fire in Utah which was caused by an escaped prescribed fire. Posted by the Dixie NF, May 12, 2022. Photo by Mervin Garcia, Engine 322.

On May 16 the Uncompahgre & Gunnison National Forests ignited the Simms Mesa prescribed fire, expected to treat 200 acres about 11 miles south of Montrose, Colorado. On May 19 a wildfire was reported in the area which was was given the name “Simms Fire”. Officially the cause is under investigation, but the Forest Service on May 19 wrote about the fire on Facebook, “Earlier in the week a prescribed burn was conducted in the vicinity which was monitored daily. The cause of the fire is under investigation.” Fire officials report that at least one home has been destroyed. Evacuations are in effect and Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team 1 has been mobilized. Friday morning it had burned 371 acres.

“In 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned,” the statement from Chief Moore said. “In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires. The review I am announcing today will task representatives from across the wildland fire and research community with conducting the national review and evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation. Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning.”

The FS safely conducts about 4,500 prescribed fire projects each year on average, treating more than 1.4 million acres. Since most prescribed fires are conducted between September and May, the Forest Service expects the pause will have “minimal impact” on their goal of increasing fuels treatments by up to four times the current levels in the West, including using prescribed burning as well as mechanical and other treatments.

Issuing a press release late on a Friday afternoon at the end of the work week is a tactic sometimes chosen in hopes that the timing of the unfavorable information will minimize its negative impact.

Inciweb currently lists nine prescribed fire projects on Forest Service lands in various stages of planning or execution; there are likely more, since not all are entered at the website.

Calf Canyon -Hermits Peak fire
Firefighters attempt to hold the Calf Canyon -Hermits Peak Fire at Highway 434, May 10, 2022. Inciweb.

From the evils of fire, to using and living with fire

Truck and projector
A truck with a movie projector visited rural communities to teach people about the evils of wildfire. PBS.

A PBS program, “The future of Fire,” takes us from the 1920s when trucks visited rural communities in the Southeast and used a projector to show a movie on the side of barns about the evils of fire, to today when modeling tools help fire managers make better decisions about using and managing fire.

"Her vision is that she'd be able to sit on her front porch and just watch the fire go by and be completely unconcerned because the conditions around her home were such that she would be confident that she had done her work and her neighbors had done their work and it was safe to actually have fire play an active role in restoring the landscape. And that we don't look at all smoke as bad, that we be really working toward seeing smoke and have that be a positive experience, that it's like, oh, the forest is under renewal right now." 

Anne Bradley, Forest Program Director, The Nature Conservancy, paraphrasing someone she knows who lives in the forest.

Executive Order to inventory and protect old-growth forests

In a two year period 13 to 19 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire

burned Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP
Sequoia grove in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, November, 2021. NPS photo by Daniel Jeffcoach.

Today, on Earth Day, President Biden will sign an Executive Order to conduct the first-ever inventory of mature and old-growth forests on federal lands. This will be completed and made publicly available in a year with the objective of establishing consistent definitions and accounting for regional and ecological variation. The agencies will then analyze threats facing these forests, including from wildfires and other climate impacts.

After completing the inventory, the Departments of Interior and Agriculture will develop new policies, after public comment, to institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies that address the threats facing mature and old-growth forests on federal lands.

We are losing thousands of giant sequoia trees that can live for 3,000 years

Nowhere is the need for protecting old growth forests more obvious than in the giant sequoia groves in California. In a two year period 13 to 19 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years. In 2020, 10 to 14 percent of the entire Sierra Nevada population of giant sequoia trees over 4 feet in diameter were killed in the Castle Fire. Early estimates after two fires the following year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire, 2,261 to 3,637 sequoias over four feet in diameter were killed or will die within the next three to five years. These losses make up an estimated additional 3-5% of the entire Sierra Nevada sequoia population over four feet in diameter.

Three Fires, giant sequoia trees
Three fires in two years that killed giant sequoia trees. The darker green areas represent groves of giant sequoias.

Under normal conditions giant sequoia trees can live for more than 3,000 years, which is 38 times the life expectancy of a human in the United States. The multi-year drought and higher temperatures have led to extremely dry fuel moistures which is causing wildfires in California and other areas to burn with unusual intensity, making even some of the giant sequoias with bark up to a foot thick susceptible to wildfires burning under these conditions.

It is probably safe to assume that when large fires are burning most of the priorities of the Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups for allocating scarce resources are decided by individuals with a history of on the ground firefighting. They may have a bias toward allocating more fire personnel to protect buildings, rather than fires where 3,000-year old trees 300 feet tall and 20 feet in diameter are being destroyed.

Since only approximately 100,000 of these mammoth trees are left that are larger than four feet in diameter, government employees allocating firefighting resources need to strongly consider the value of these treasures to the nation and the world, and that some of them have been living for thousands of years. It is disheartening to see hundreds of them destroyed in a matter of hours, especially if due in part to sending resources, instead, to protect structures that have not been hardened to FireSafe standards or constructed under reasonable county and city building codes.

The giant sequoias have already been inventoried. We know where they are. What NEEDS to be done is to ramp up the management of the fuels beneath these big trees, and greatly increase the prescribed fire programs around them on lands managed by the National Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Firefighter on the Windy Fire burning giant sequoia tree
Firefighter on the Windy Fire applies water on a burning giant sequoia tree. Photo uploaded to InciWeb Oct. 11, 2021.