National Prescribed Fire Program Review released [VIDEO]
On May 20, 2022, I temporarily paused prescribed burning on National Forest System lands nationwide for 90 days to conduct a national review of our prescribed fire program. Although prescribed fire is one of the most effective ways to reduce wildfire risk, this was a necessary decision in light of recent prescribed fire escapes that had devastating impacts on communities and natural resources. The decision also reflected the growing recognition that extreme conditions resulting from drought, weather, dry fuels and other climate change effects were influencing fire behavior in ways we had never seen before.
The public expects us to care for the land and meet the needs of people the right way, to the best of our ability. We must expect that of ourselves every day as global leaders in conservation. We must use important management tools such as prescribed fire to do that.
Based on the thorough review, findings, and recommendations provided by the National Review Team, I have decided to conditionally resume the Forest Service’s prescribed fire program nationwide with the requirement that all seven tactical recommendations identified are followed and implemented immediately by all Forest Service units across the country. 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.
On average, the Forest Service ignites about 4,500 prescribed fires each year, treating about 1.3 million acres across the National Forest System. Almost all prescribed fires—99.84%—go according to plan. However, we cannot underestimate how destructive prescribed fire escapes can be.
We are a global leader in the use of prescribed fire as a key management tool that is necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improve the resiliency of forests. As leaders, 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. That is exactly why I directed this pause and review.
We can never guarantee that prescribed fires won’t escape because there are risks when we use this tool. It’s a trade-off we have to take seriously together with communities. The alternative is more large and destructive wildfires like we have seen the past several decades—a result of the combination of overgrown forests, climate change, a growing number of homes in the wildland-urban interface and more than a century of fire suppression.
What we can and will do is learn from them to minimize the risks of escapes and remain committed to doing this work safely and effectively. We must also be upfront with the public about why and where we do prescribed burns and coordinate with Tribes, partners, and communities in planning and implementation to ensure we incorporate their knowledge and build shared understanding, capacity and support. We must also fully support employees who implement this difficult work by providing them all the tools and resources they need to be successful.
I want to thank the national review team for their comprehensive, thorough and expeditious work. I am confident that participation from the interagency fire and research community resulted in an objective hard look at our program and bolstered the quality of the review. I ask that you read the Final Report to understand this comprehensive review and associated recommendations and considerations.
In addition to the seven immediate actions identified to resume safe and effective prescribed burning operations, I have also decided it is important to undertake additional steps to ensure prescribed fire practitioners have the tools and resources they need to be successful on the ground. This will improve the success of our prescribed fire program and help us implement the 10-year Wildfire Crisis Strategy alongside partners and communities.
Therefore, we will begin moving forward on the following actions:
By Jan. 1, 2023, we 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 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 together so we can build collective capacity to expand the use of prescribed burning on National Forest System and other lands. We will identify and provide the additional staffing needed to support this action.
By Dec. 15, 2022, our Incident Management Organization will develop a national strategic plan for prescribed fire implementation. 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.
By Dec. 15, 2022, we will identify a strategy, in collaboration with partners, for having crews that can be dedicated to hazardous fuels work and mobilized across the country to support the highest priority hazardous fuels reduction work.
We will continue investing in potential operational delineations and ensure that they are used as a tool for both wildfire response and vegetative/fuels management planning.
For clarity and consistency, we will use a standardized approach for declared wildfire reviews and improve current systems for tracking findings and recommendations for continuous learning.
I want to thank the public and our dedicated employees for their patience and understanding as we conducted this important review. I extend my heartfelt thanks to our review team leaders and every team member for their dedication to this work; for their thorough, forthright, and detailed analysis; and for their outstanding contributions to improving our prescribed fire program. Their work is an example of how we strive to hold ourselves accountable at the Forest Service, learn from our successes and mistakes, and find better ways to serve the American people and steward the lands entrusted to our care, for the benefit of current and future generations.
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