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Forest Service charts new course for fire prevention

The agency will aggressively treat high-risk wilderness by logging and prescribed burns

Trees scorched by the Caldor Fire smolder in the Eldorado National Forest in California on Sept. 3, 2021. Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong, file

Forest Service charts new course for fire prevention

The Biden administration this week announced a new strategy to fight massive wildfires like those that have devastated communities in the U.S. West in recent years. The Forest Service will launch a 10-year effort to prevent large fires through strategic thinning and prescribed burns—a philosophical shift for an agency that has for decades focused mostly on extinguishing wildfires once they begin.

The $50 billion plan will address millions of acres of land that pose the biggest wildfire risk to developed communities. A series of costly and highly destructive wildfire seasons in California, Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere have gutted forests and leveled neighborhoods. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement at an event in Phoenix on Tuesday with Forest Service Chief Randy Moore.

“You’re going to have forest fires. The question is how catastrophic do those fires have to be?” Vilsack said. “The time to act is now if we want to ultimately over time change the trajectory of these fires.”

The Forest Service acknowledged the new approach as a “paradigm shift.” Its strategy, outlined in a document titled “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis,” will more than double the amount of controlled burns and logging, focusing on “hotspot” regions where wilderness and urban areas meet. Although these regions—constituting about 80,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Idaho—make up only about 10 percent of fire-prone areas in the United States, they represent some 80 percent of fire risk to communities, according to the Forest Service.

Tuesday’s announcement didn’t list out specific projects in detail, and it wasn’t immediately clear how the administration would pay for all of them. The Agriculture Department says it will cost $20 billion over 10 years to manage national forest property, and another $30 billion for remaining land held by federal or state governments, Native tribes, and private owners. The federal infrastructure bill, passed in November, made available about $3 billion that will enable the Forest Service to get started. Previously, from 2016 to 2020, the federal government spent only $1.9 billion per year on fire suppression.

Wildfire management in the United States has long focused mostly on fire suppression. Forestry officials seek to eliminate all sources of ignition, and when flames do break out, firefighters launch massive campaigns to extinguish them, dropping retardant from airplanes or beating back the flames using ground teams. The goal is to extinguish or contain the fire before it reaches homes or businesses.

But years of forest growth, warm temperatures, and chronic drought has made much of the American West a tinderbox, with fires increasing in their intensity and destruction. According to the Forest Service, the number of structures destroyed by wildfires each year, on a five-year average, rose from 2,873 in 2014 to 12,255 in 2020.

Colorado experienced all three of its biggest wildfires on record in 2020. A recent winter fire in the state on Dec. 30 swept through a suburban area, burning more than 1,000 buildings and resulting in at least one death, with a second person missing. Last year’s Dixie fire in California was the second largest in the state’s history, burning nearly 1 million acres. In Oregon, last year’s large Bootleg fire burned 400,000 acres.

Many forestry experts have argued for years that forest thinning and controlled burns are needed to prevent the problem from worsening. John Bailey, a professor of forest engineering, resources, and management at Oregon State University, noted that regular fires are a natural part of the forest cycle. Prescribed burns reduce fine surface fuels such as pine needles, grass, shrubs, and small branches that fuel the intensity of wildfires and aren’t easily removed by other means.

“On a hot, dry, windy day, that’s where the fire just roars—not up in the trees,” he said. “Fire itself, it’s just a great tool for treating that part of the forest bed.”

Eliminating surface fuel reduces the intensity of later wildfires, slowing their progress and buying firefighters additional time to contain their spread. In 2020, former President Donald Trump spoke about wildfires in California, saying, “You’ve got to clean your floors. … Maybe we’re just going to have to make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us.”

In return, then-candidate Joe Biden slammed Trump for pinning the problem on Californians, instead suggesting climate change was a major contributor.

During last summer’s large Caldor Fire in the Sierra Nevada, thinned forests were credited for slowing the advance of the blaze near Lake Tahoe. The fire still burned nearly 800 homes and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents and tourists.

Opposition to prescribed burns and forest thinning often comes from locals concerned about smoke or how cutting down trees could affect the landscape. Environmental regulations and concerns about liability also discourage private landowners from conducting controlled burns. And environmental groups criticize logging’s effect on wildlife.

“The U.S. Forest Service simply cannot log its way out of the climate crisis,” said Adam Rissien of WildEarth Guardians in a statement criticizing the Biden administration’s plan. The environmental group called for a narrower approach on the “home ignition zone,” the area 100-200 feet from a home.

But Vilsack said the new strategy would be healthier for forests in the long run while minimizing the destructive impact of wildfires on communities.

“We know this works,” he said. “It’s removing some of the timber, in a very scientific and thoughtful way, so that at the end of the day fires don’t continue to hop from treetop to treetop but eventually come to ground, where we can put them out.”

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is editor of WORLD Magazine. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former science and technology reporter. Daniel resides in Indiana.


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