Fire suppression flip-flop

 

Last May, the Forest Service made news by announcing it was going to suppress all fires burning on its lands. The memo, issued by James Hubbard, Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, instructed fire-line officers to get approval from their supervisors before doing anything but full suppression—effectively discouraging the practice of letting some fires burn for ecological reasons. The idea was to keep small fires from growing out of control, destroying thousands of acres of forest, threatening homes and communities and draining the Forest Service’s budget.

The decision was a reversal of a 17-year-old "let it burn" policy that recognized fires as a healthy part of many forest ecosystems, and acknowledged that the Forest Service’s previous efforts to stomp out every wildfire could have caused more harm than good. The temporary suspension of the policy drew criticism from scientists and foresters around the country, who thought it was a step backwards (a Forest Service spokesman says Hubbard's memo was not actually a change in wildland fire policy, which hasn't changed since 1995, but a response to conditions on the ground).

Now, the agency appears to have doubled back, and will allow fire management officers to again “use wildland fire as an essential ecological process and natural change agent.”

A 2000 wildfire on the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, Montana

Jonathan Oppenheimer, senior conservation associate at the Idaho Conservation League, praised the move, telling Public Service News that plenty of science and economics backed the decision. "Putting out every single fire is not good for firefighter safety, it's not good for the environment, and it's not good for the bottom line and the taxpayers," he said.

Even Hubbard himself acknowledged last year's policy shift was not ideal, and suggested that the change was in response to the severity of the 2012 fire season and would hopefully be lifted in the future.“I acknowledge this is not a desirable approach in the long-run,” he wrote in the 2012 memo.

But some are criticizing the latest policy directive as light on details. The new memo, which came from Tom Tidwell, the man at the very top of the Forest Service food chain, gives fire-line officers permission to "consider" using fire to meet "restoration objectives" in areas previously identified as having "low threats to values to be protected." How's that for bureaucratic vaguery? From OnEarth:

Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, interprets Tidwell’s new protocols as a return to a more progressive firefighting policy -- even if the Forest Service doesn’t want to come right out and say it. “I’d say they’re being strategically vague,” he said. “They get all kinds of money and praise from Congress for just blindly attacking fire, and no credit for managing it wisely.”

Phil Sammon, the spokesman for the Forest Service’s Montana office, told OnEarth he was waiting for more details from Washington regarding when to allow fires to burn and where. “They haven’t really spelled out for us what this means beyond the chief’s letter,” he told OnEarth. “It does look like there’s going to be a shift from last year.”

It's important for agencies to have clear expectations regarding fire suppression -- especially in the midst of a big blaze. Last year, the National Park Service -- which did not adopt the Forest Service's temporary full suppression policy -- allowed a fire in California's Lassen Volcanic National Park to burn, but it ended up spreading outside park boundaries into Forest Service land. Each agency had a different approach to fire suppression, which caused confusion on the fire line.

Eric Hensel, a fire management officer with Lassen, said the fire taught him a lesson about the importance of communicating expectations. "Even with USFS going a little bit further toward (allowing fires to burn), we can't assume anything," he told the Associated Press. "Now we've got some common ground here in terms of our approach, but let's be up front about where we are and work together."

Let’s be clear: a return to “let it burn” means the Forest Service will still extinguish 97 to 99 percent of all wildfires -- a marginal improvement over 100 percent. Still, returning to those slightly lower rates of full suppression should come as a relief to those who worried that last summer’s directive would become permanent. After all, the conditions that led to the temporary change -- like drought, hot weather and budget shortfalls --weren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

It’s unclear how effective full suppression of all fires last year even was at meeting the agency’s goal of saving money: The Forest Service still overspent its 2012 fire fighting budget by $400 million for a total of $1.3 billion. And thanks to sequestration, the agency is looking at a fire budget that’s $134 million less than last year, meaning it will be doing less thinning to remove dense vegetation from around communities and other high-risk areas. Let's hope that doesn't worsen what could be another year of disastrous fires.

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user catherinetodd2 and USFS employee John McColgan

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...