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From the Chief's Desk: Reviewing our prescribed fire program

A picture of Forest Service Chief Randy Moore.
Chief Randy Moore

We are already facing a difficult fire year. We saw the Southwestern Region hit preparedness level 4 the earliest it ever has, and there are currently 15 uncontained large fires nationwide. Many of you are facing those fires—some of you as firefighters, others providing crucial support and some of you living in their paths.

I’m sure you all have seen the stories in the news about recent prescribed burn escapes. These, as well as isolated incidents on other national forests in recent years, have made it imperative that we pause to review our processes. That’s why I am temporarily halting all prescribed burns on National Forest System lands and creating a review team consisting of representatives from the wildland fire and research community. The team will review prescribed fire protocols, decision support tools, and practices.

I am asking representatives from across the wildland fire and research community to conduct the national review and evaluate the entire prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation. Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning. I expect this to take about 90 days. 

Prescribed fire plays an important role in forest management. These burns are intended to reduce hazardous fuel loads caused by debris that has built up in the forest understory, thereby reducing wildfire risk. And they top the list of essential tools managers need to use for improving forest conditions. 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.

We must do more prescribed burning to improve the health and resilience of our forests and grasslands. That work is vital to reducing the potential for catastrophic wildfires that are devastating to people, infrastructure and landscape health. Simultaneously, we must minimize impacts to communities and businesses when we do that work, as well as ensure our employees and partners have the best support and tools available to be successful.

Let me be clear. Prescribed fire is an important tool, and we conduct an average of 4,500 prescribed fire projects annually: 99.84% go according to plan. That equals slightly more than one escape per every 1,000 prescribed fires, or about six escapes per year. But we can always improve.

Our 10-year strategy to confront the wildfire crisis includes prescribed fire and, in fact, increases its use, as well as other treatments, by up to four times the current treatment levels in the West. This temporary cease in prescribed burning should have minimal impact on these objectives in the short- and long-term because we conduct more than 90% of our prescribed burning outside of June, July and August.

I know the Forest Service is home to hard-working, dedicated employees. As always, you continue to do your best work with the tools you have available. And you do so while facing unexpected challenges. Please know that each of you has my deepest respect, as well as my full support.

Thank you for all you do.