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Ecologists say federal wildfire plans are dangerously out of step with climate change

A scorched structure and vehicles stand on a property mostly destroyed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on June 2, near Las Vegas, N.M.
Mario Tama
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Getty Images
A scorched structure and vehicles stand on a property mostly destroyed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on June 2, near Las Vegas, N.M.

The federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) is launching an investigation after U.S. Forest Service-controlled burns that escaped caused the largest wildfire ever recorded in New Mexico.

The GAO is examining controlled burn policies at the Forest Service and other federal land agencies.

On May 20, USFS Chief Randy Moore halted all so-called prescribed fires on its land for a 90-day safety review. The New Mexico fire has burned more than 340,000 acres and is still not fully contained.

But many fire ecologists and forestry experts are concerned that this "pause" is only worsening the wildfire risk. Critics say it's merely masking the agency's dangerously incremental, outdated and problematic approach to intentional burns and fire mitigation, a policy that has failed to adapt to climate change and megadrought.

"A lot of the planning tools that fire managers rely upon for planning prescribed burns were built under a climate that no longer exists," says biologist and professor Matthew Hurteau, who studies the intersection of climate change, wildfire and forest ecosystems at the University of New Mexico. "That's a systemic problem," he says.

Controlled burns are seen by forest ecologists as perhaps the most essential tool for reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire and helping to undo a century of fire suppression policy that has worsened wildfire conditions that now annually wreak havoc across large swaths of the West.

Climate change makes controlled burns more urgent and dangerous

Hurteau and others are concerned that the Forest Service — and other fire agencies — continue to fail to put climate change at the fore of decision-making, despite mounting scientific evidence and the agency's own stated goals about reducing dangerously high levels of built-up fuel in western forests.

"We've seen pretty substantial changes to the climatic conditions, particularly here in the Southwest, but across much of the Western U.S. And we need to address that by developing new tools that account for the fact that we've got these persistent drying trends in a much warmer and much drier atmosphere," Hurteau says.

The Forest Service's recently released internal review of the New Mexico burn only magnifies those criticisms, as it amounts to a stunning admission by the agency that it essentially failed to take climate change into account when conducting an intentional burn during a historic drought.

Numerous sections of the report underscore that point, including noting that prescribed fire officials failed to realize it was set "under much drier conditions than were recognized." And it notes that a better understanding "of long-term drought and climate factors versus short term weather events" would have helped.

"Seems astounding," fire ecologist Timothy Ingalsbee tells NPR's Here and Now. "Never again should we have the excuse that we failed to include climate conditions and climate data in our fire management actions. That's just the era we live in," says the former Forest Service wildland firefighter who now directs the group Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. "I can understand why people are upset. It sounds like the 'dog ate my homework' kind of excuse,' he says.

Human-caused climate change is driving ever drier conditions, extreme weather and megadrought. That's turning live vegetation into fuel even faster and making the forests' old built-up fuel more explosive.

Ingalsbee and other experts in the field say the pace and scale at which the USFS is implementing intentional fire is dangerously insufficient. He hopes the agency uses this 90-day burn pause to start to make good on its stated goal of making a fundamental shift away from prioritizing wildfire suppression.

"If we were to shift those resources and funding into prescribed burning, have as many crews as possible to manage prescribed burning, that would be a big help."

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, is demanding answers from federal agencies on wildfire mitigation, spending and priorities.
Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, is demanding answers from federal agencies on wildfire mitigation, spending and priorities.

Funding to prevent fires, not just fight them

Leading politicians, too, are frustrated. In a letter, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, recently chastised the U.S. secretaries of Interior and Agriculture for not moving fast enough to hire more firefighters amid a staffing crisis and to boost pay. And he implored them to answer basic questions about wildfire mitigation strategy and spending despite a record infusion of new federal money. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed last November, provides some $8 billion for states to help mitigate wildfire risk and $600 million to raise firefighter pay.

"Your departments received this much needed support. Now, more than six months after being given this new flexibility, we are past time for action," Wyden wrote.

The people who fight wildfires are often the same ones doing the controlled burns. So there are growing calls for the Forest Service to do more to help develop a dedicated, prescribed fire workforce with training academies and recruiting. Experts have long called for creation of a professional corps dedicated to expanding prescribed fire — experts who can move swiftly across geographic and political boundaries the same way wildfires always do.

"What we need to do as a society is make a fairly substantial investment in training and developing a professionalized fire management workforce," says the University of New Mexico's Hurteau. "And, you know, that's going to take some structural changes to our federal land management agencies."

"For the United States Forest Service to say they followed their policies and procedures does not take into account that those policies and procedures themselves were flawed," says New Mexico Democratic Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, who pushed for the Government Accountability Office investigation. Large parts of her district were devastated by the historic fire.

Fernandez says she is frustrated "when I read the Forest Service kind of hiding behind that they followed their burn plan without saying 'our burn plan was flawed and we need to completely rethink how we do our prescribed burns.' That's why I want an independent investigation, because we need to regain the trust in the Forest Service," she says.

The GAO probe, she says, will examine policies and procedures and come up with recommendations lawmakers might turn into action.

Forest fuel levels are now at "crisis proportions"

The Forest Service is well aware that fuel levels, as it states in its own reports, are now at "crisis proportions." The agency's blueprint "Confronting the Wildfire Crisis" concedes that "the scale of work on the ground has not matched the need, and it will take nothing less than a paradigm shift to protect the Nation's western communities."

In announcing the intentional burn pause, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore wrote that it's "imperative for the Forest Service and partners to work together to increase fuels treatments by up to four times current levels in the West, including using prescribed burning as well as mechanical and other treatments."

But many in the field are simply fed up with the agency's minor, incremental approach to change while the climate crisis routinizes megafires that are devastating lives, property and livestock and altering the Western landscape.

"We all know federal agency agencies turn at the speed of an aircraft carrier, they're just incredibly slow," fire expert Barbara Satink-Wolfson says. "Yes, we have to be patient. But at the same time, we're all impatient because we know that we really need to make this change quickly."

The federal agency says that at least 234 million acres of forest are at a high risk of dangerous wildfire. But in the last decade, controlled burns have treated less than 1% of that total.

For those reasons and others, experts worry that the agency's prescribed fire "pause" is little more than political window dressing that tapes over those ongoing, glaring gaps between rhetoric and reality. Hurteau notes that just about all of the peer reviewed research on the issue as well as the Forest Service's own plans for reducing hazardous forest fuels call for a historic scaling-up of prescribed burns.

"The question remains: Is the agency ready to make changes to the point that it will create conditions where the personnel, their personnel can do that effectively and that they're well supported and well-resourced in order to accomplish those goals?"

Trees stand after being scorched by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire amid exceptional drought conditions in the area on June 2, near Mora, N.M.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Trees stand after being scorched by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire amid exceptional drought conditions in the area on June 2, near Mora, N.M.

As the New Mexico megafire clearly shows, prescribed fire can be risky. But prescribed fire "escapes" are still very rare — fewer than 1%. And the vast majority of those are contained relatively quickly and without widespread damage.

In an open letter to Chief Moore, dozens of forest experts with the Association for Fire Ecology recently urged him to reverse course and not make intentional burn pause nationwide. Doing so, they argued, will only make fire conditions worse in places that are not too dry to burn.

"There's basically a small window in which they can conduct the prescribed burn," says Satink-Wolfson, one of the letter signers and a fire adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension on the Central Coast. "I think other places in the country could have continued. And we definitely missed opportunities."

In addition, the Forest Service assists or coordinates with many other federal and state agencies on prescribed burns, so the pause has a much wider national ripple effect, Satink-Wolfson says. "Projects that are collaborative with the Forest Service — and there are a lot of them — those will also be held up."

USFS Chief Moore repeatedly declined NPR's interview requests. Spokesman E. Wade Muehlhof, who also declined to be interviewed, wrote in an email that the agency's burn pause will be used to assess and improve safety protocols. Muehlhof added, "The devastation caused by Las Dispenses escaped prescribed fire in New Mexico is tragic and causes enormous grief within the agency."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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