May 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy

U.S. Forest Service halts prescribed fires amid extreme fire danger

A firefighter putting out a hotspot from a wildfire near Mora, New Mexico, on May 13.

A firefighter putting out a hotspot from a wildfire near Mora, New Mexico, on May 13. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore suspended all prescribed fires on land owned by the federal government on Friday, citing extreme fire danger, recent burn escapes and a need to review the service's prescribed fire protocols.

Why it matters: The Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico in part caused by a prescribed burn escaping containment amid gusty winds in early April and joining with a separate wildfire.

  • The two grew into the largest fire in New Mexico's history. The blaze is currently the largest uncontained fire nationwide at more than 300,000 acres.
  • It has displaced thousands and is one of several significant fires burning in the Southwest this spring, Axios' Andrew Freedman reports.

Prescribed fires are a valuable tool for protecting communities from extreme fire danger on a large scale, as they burn off dead or excess trees and other plants, reducing the total fuel available for future wildfires.

  • Moore said 99.84% of prescribed fires go according to plan and stay within their containment line, though that equals one escape per every 1,000 prescribed fires — about six escapes per year.

What they're saying: In addition to pausing prescribed burns, Moore said he will create a team to review the service's prescribed fire program and implement improvements before resuming prescribed burnings, which he expects will take 90 days.

  • "Prescribed fire plays an important role in forest management," Moore said. "Yet climate change, drought, dry fuels throughout the country and other factors have led to increasingly extreme wildfires, so we must change the way we make decisions about when and where to burn."
  • "It is imperative not only to understand what happened in relation to recent prescribed fire escapes, but also to ensure that our prescribed burn program nationwide is anchored in the most contemporary science, policies, practices and decision-making processes."

The big picture: A severe wildfire season is expected across the West because of a severe and expanding drought driven in part by climate change.

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