U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore has temporarily suspended a strategy that encourages some lightning-caused fires to play a natural role in the environment and clamped down on the use of prescribed fire.
Instead, he said all firefighting resources will be steered toward protecting communities and infrastructure and be prioritized based on where “they have a high probability of success and they can operate safely and effectively.”
Moore, who was appointed chief in June after overseeing federal forests in California, wrote a letter to Forest Service brass Monday saying the number of fires burning in the western United States combined with widespread drought and related shortages of firefighting personnel and equipment is placing unprecedented strain on the agency.
“In short, we are in a national crisis,” he said in the letter. “At times like these, we must anchor to our core values, particularly safety.”
With that in mind, he said the strategy known as managing fires for resource benefit will be suspended. The practice where natural fires are monitored closely but otherwise allowed to burn acknowledges the crucial role fire plays in many forest ecosystems. It is most often used in remote wilderness or roadless areas where fires can grow without threatening homes or private property. Although such fires are closely watched by firefighters, they don’t require as intensive or as expensive deployments as do suppression fires.
On the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, the practice has been used in past years to improve elk and other wildlife habitat in places like the upper North Fork of the Clearwater River basin or in places like the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area.
The strategy is often suspended in bad fire years and 2021 qualifies. Moore noted there are more than 70,000 large fires burning in the West and about 22,000 people assigned to them.
However, such conditions frequently mean that some fires in remote areas are monitored but otherwise allowed to burn — not as a strategy to improve habitat but because scarce firefighting personnel are concentrating on blazes threatening communities.
There are several remote fires on the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest where fire managers are working to protect things like campgrounds, lookout towers or pack bridges but are not actively attempting to suppress them.
“We are in ‘triage mode’ where our primary focus must be on fires that threaten communities and infrastructure,” Moore said. “There is a finite amount of firefighting resources available that must be prioritized and fires will not always get the resources that might be requested.”
Moore said prescribed fires can only be used in areas where fire danger is lower and resources are available to implement it. The agency often uses prescribed fire to either reduce fuel loads or to improve wildlife habitat. Many fire researchers have said more prescribed fire is critically needed to reduce fuel loads and have noted the agency often falls short of its implementation goals.
Media reports earlier this week that relied on second-hand quotes attributed to Moore indicated he had ordered that all fires be immediately suppressed. Some had likened that as a return to a Forest Service policy implemented following the Great Fire of 1910 in which the agency strived to suppress all new fires by 10 a.m. the next day.
Many people view that policy and the resulting widespread fire suppression as responsible for an unhealthy accumulation of fuels decades in the making.
“Let me be clear. This is not a return to the ‘10 a.m. Policy.’ This is the prudent course of action now in a situation that is dynamic and fluid,” Moore wrote. “When western fire activity abates, we will resume using all the tools in our toolbox, including wildfire and prescribed fire in the right places and at the right time.”
Officials on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest closed the Saddle Camp Road on Tuesday because of the nearby Lonesome Fire. The road provides access from U.S. Highway 12 along the Lochsa River to the Lolo Motorway, and the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce National historic trails. The motorway, also known as the 500 Road, was previously closed because of the Lonesome and other fires that are part of the Storm Theatre Complex.
A Type 1 Incident Command Team took over management of the Granite Pass Complex near Lolo Pass. The fires have burned more than 5,700 acres and are 4 percent contained.
The Dixie-Jumbo Fires have covered more than 43,000 acres and are 12 percent contained. The fires are burning near Dixie and along the Salmon River.
The Snake River Complex and Lick Creek Fire south and southwest of the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley are both 90 percent contained. The Snake River Complex covered more than 109,000 acres and the Lick Creek Fire has burned more than 80,000 acres.
The nearly 23,000-acre Elbow Creek Fire southwest of Troy, Ore., is 95 percent contained.
Some areas of the Umatilla National Forest will reopen today. The entire forest was closed last month because of a rash of wildfires, including the Lick Creek Fire. Recent rain and fewer new fires prompted Forest Supervisor Eric Watrud to reopen the Heppner and John Day ranger district and parts of the Walla Walla Ranger District. The Pomeroy Ranger District and the northern portions of the Walla Walla Ranger District will remain closed.
Firefighters on the Red River District of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest were able to snuff out a new fire about 20 miles east of Elk City. However, the nearby Lynx Fire has burned 4,600 acres.
More information about fires on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest is available at bit.ly/3kVP7As.
Barker may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.
COVID-19 taking a toll on supply of firefighters
U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said rising COVID-19 infections across much of the country are depleting the ranks of wildland firefighters.
Moore said in a letter to subordinates that firefighters are tired. In addition to working on the dozens of large fires and hundres of smaller blazes burning throughout the West, he noted that many of the nation’s wildland firefighting personnel have been working with few breaks since January 2020, when they assisted with fire suppression efforts in Australia. Following that, they returned home to what was a record-breaking fire year in many Western states and some were then called upon this spring to assist with COVID-19 vaccinations.
“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.”