Note: Frank Carroll contributed the following article to Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.
Forest Service supervisors in Utah are enforcing a moratorium on “managed wildfires” in 2020, this terrible year of the pandemic “wildfire” that so affects all aspects of our lives. The thinking is that Covid19 is putting enough pressure on hard working firefighters without worrying about extra firefighting duty. Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen told supervisors this year not to exacerbate an already difficult management picture by letting any fires burn to meet natural resource management objectives like reducing fuels or improving wildlife habitat.
The moratorium on “using unplanned fire in the right place at the right time” or “managed wildfires” actually began in 2019 with a dramatic drop in the total number of acres burned throughout the state compared to 2018, even as the number of fires caused by humans rose to the highest levels in ten years. This was due in part to the decision to not allow any “managed fires” to burn in 2019 after the traumatic “managed fires” of 2018.
In 2019, 1,050 different wildfires burned 137 square miles for a total of 88,058 acres, according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands. That’s less than one-fifth of the 485,989 acres burned in 2018, in which two fires — the Goose Creek and Pole Creek/Bald Mountain fires —scorched more land than all of the 2019 fires combined. Pole Creek, Bald Mountain, and Coal Hollow fires were all “managed fires” that were allowed to burn to meet natural resource management objectives. The three fires totaled over 150,000 acres, almost twice the total in 2019. “Managed fires” in 2018 have resulted in almost $40 million in pending tort claims from property owners whose properties were damaged in the fires.
Michael T. Rains, a leading Forest Service expert and a retired agency veteran with almost 50 years in leadership at all levels, said this week that managed fires are off the table this year, as far as he can tell. Rains said the annual policy from the Chief’s Letter of Intent” that “every Chief of the Forest Service sends out right before the fire season…was less than clear about “managed fire.” Rains believes that a lack of clarity among firefighters about managed fire status combined with unclear direction, a skill-set that is less than required to manage large complex fires, a train wreck of COVID-19, and a predicted severe 2020 fire season, may end badly. “I pleaded with the Chief to say: “…The concept of managed fires must be taken off the table this year; no exceptions,” he said. Senior Forest Service fire leaders subsequently told Rains that “managed fires” were off the table for 2020.
“Within the confines of the current conditions of America’s forests and the impacts of a changing climate, “managed fire” is for now just an intellectual argument,” Rains said. “Currently, especially in the west, “managed fires” quickly become “escaped fires.” It takes great skill to [manage unplanned fires for natural resource benefits]. Very few can do it well. Combined with existing forest conditions and current weather patterns, allowing [wild]fires to “improve the landscape” is a folly,” Rains said.
Forest Supervisors and firefighters alike are searching for ways to fight fire aggressively without contributing to the century of fire suppression that resulted in overly dense forests and unhealthy grasslands across the West. Agency leaders have tried, with varying degrees of success, to replicate 19th century fire regimes by using prescribed fires in the spring and fall to reintroduce fire to fire-dependent ecosystems. State air quality regulations and the public’s aversion to prescribed fires, which sometimes escape control, have yielded limited results.
Managing wildfires by letting wildfires like Pole Creek burn to achieve landscape improvements, have been tried across the West and are proving even more problematic. Managed fires are expensive to control and are doing unprecedented damage to public and private lands even though some managed fires are showing resource benefits.
What isn’t clear is whether the managed fire moratorium will translate into fewer acres burned. Human caused fires are already up in 2020 although acres burned are down from the past few years. Litigation in Utah and elsewhere will shape whether managed fires will remain a viable firefighting option in the future.