The U.S. Forest Service is not temporarily abandoning its policy of letting small fires burn in isolated areas, despite reports to the contrary.
Instead, letting the small fires burn as part of a “resource management” tool will need the approval of the regional forester in addition to the individual forest supervisor.
“In recent years, we’ve recognized that wildfires are part of the ecological process and use it as part of our restoration objectives,” said Joe Walsh, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington. “This year, everything is tinder right now so we want to be very careful with those small fires.
“This isn’t a change in policy; the regional forester just has a better idea of what’s going on strategically and what (firefighting) resources are available.”
Dozens of wildfires are burning in the West, including the Elbow Pass Complex southwest of Augusta.
For years, the policy has been that supervisors on Forest Service land can opt to let fires burn if they start naturally, usually by lightning strikes, and are not a threat to nearby homes or other assets. Scientists view fires as a natural part of forest regeneration, making room for new growth and also diminishing future threat of larger fires by clearing areas of fuel sources.
But that decision can go wrong. Last August, in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a fire that burned slowly at first under the supervision of Superior National Forest managers gained unexpected strength thanks to a blast of hot, windy weather in early September.
The Pagami Creek fire quickly grew out of control, burning about 145 square miles and costing $23 million to fight. It took another month to extinguish, with help from nearly 1,000 firefighters.
Last year, the Forest Service spent a record $48 million for recovery work alone on burned areas. By the end of July, the agency had already spent $28 million on recovery and is on track for another possible record.
The number of fires and total acres burned this year in the West is within range of the last decade’s average, but the fires have been bigger and have burned with more severity. They have also intruded into areas where the potential impact is greater.
“We will continue to do safe, aggressive initial attack as often as possible, when the best suppression strategy is to keep fires small and costs down,” Walsh said.
Phil Sammon, the Forest Service’s media coordinator in Missoula, added that in wilderness areas where there are few structures and accessibility is difficult, chances are that fires there will be allowed to burn.
“If it’s something in the Bob, and the forest supervisor can make a case to the regional forester that it is not a potential hazard to structures and hard to get to, depending on the fire level they could just keep an eye on it,” Sammon said. “In previous years, the decision was more local and they could make that decision on the scene. Now they need to bump it up one level.”
Reporter Eve Byron:447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/IR_EveByron