Forest Service to Resume Prescribed Burns After 90-Day Review

Forest Service to Resume Prescribed Burns After 90-Day Review

U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced on September 8 that the agency will resume its prescribed fire program on national forest lands with specific recommendations for individual burns that must be implemented at each location before conducting the prescription. The announcement comes after the agency temporarily halted prescribed fires when treatments burned out of control in the southwest in May. The agency conducted a 90-day National Prescribed Fire Program Review to reassess use of the tool considering the extreme conditions of overgrown forests, climate change, the growing number of homes in the wildland-urban interface, and more than a century of rigorous fire suppression. These changing factors are influencing fire behavior and the program review team provided Chief Moore with findings and recommendations on how to continue to utilize prescribed burns to improve forest health and reduce potential for catastrophic wildfire. The seven specific recommendations are:

  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.

“These recommendations are tactical approaches we can use to account for the multiple factors affecting practitioners’ ability to carry out prescribed burns safely and effectively. 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,” Moore said in the statement.

Prescribed fire is an important tool to keep forest landscapes healthy and resilient and has been effective at reducing the severity of wildfires. “We have decades of experience using prescribed fire. However, what we learned most during this review is that we cannot overly rely on past success. We must continuously learn and adapt to changing conditions so we can be at our best to protect communities and care for the lands and natural resources we manage on behalf of the public,” Moore concluded.

In addition to the tactical recommendations, the Forest Service’s Incident Management Organization will develop a national strategic plan for prescribed fire implementation by December 15. The plan will include implementation timing, implementation command structure, and logistics to prioritize and mobilize resources for both suppression and prescribed burning activities. This plan will include necessary staffing, funding, and monitoring to help shape future system improvements. The agency will also identify a strategy for having crews dedicated to hazardous fuels reduction work across the country by December 15 as well.

Beginning in January 2023 the agency will establish a Western Prescribed Fire Training curriculum with the interagency fire and research community, and partners, to expand the successes of the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center (NIPFTC) headquartered in Tallahassee, Florida. This curriculum will incorporate the knowledge and experience of Tribes, partners, and communities and include a strategy of training and developing skills to build collective capacity to expand the use of prescribed burning on National Forest System and other lands.

September 16, 2022