Questions about prescribed burns like the one blazing out of control in New Mexico have interrupted the equivalent of spring cleaning in some of the West’s most wildfire-prone forests.
When the Clinton administration announced a 30-day suspension Friday of nearly all prescribed burns in 11 Western states, it took away a tool land managers use to reduce catastrophic fire risk by burning away brush and other undergrowth in controlled conditions.
Some fear the restrictions could lead to big fires later in the season, when forest conditions will be drier and fuel loads higher.
“There’s always that risk when you have untreated fuel lying out there,” said Ralph Sampson Jr., a Bureau of Indian Affairs fire manager on the Yakama Indian Reservation in southern Washington, where about 600 acres were to be burned over the next few weeks.
The suspension was imposed after a prescribed burn near Los Alamos, N.M., got out of control in high winds and dry conditions. Thousands of acres and scores of homes have been burned. Another controlled burn exceeded its boundaries in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park.
Investigators are expected to release preliminary findings on the New Mexico blaze Thursday.
“We’re in a search for answers here,” said John Wright, a Washington, D.C.-based Interior Department spokesman. “This is a way to step back and make sure we have sound policies on the books.”
About one out of every 100 prescribed burns on federal lands goes beyond its boundaries, Wright said.
Federal officials had no figures on how many prescribed burns or total acreage would be affected by the suspension, which covers 11 Western states and smaller parts of six others. They acknowledged, however, that postponing burns now may increase the risk.
“Any time we plan to treat fuels and we don’t get around to doing it, the risk is there because the elevated fuels are still there,” said Byron Bonney, a fire specialist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula, Mont.-based Northern Region. “If there is a fire started by lightning, yes, there is going to be more of a risk.”
Prescribed burns are conducted in both the spring and fall. Spring is the preferred season in many northern areas because the soil holds more moisture from melted snow than in the fall.
In northern Idaho’s Panhandle National Forests, 3,000 acres have been burned so far this year without incident. Additional burns were planned before the suspension.
“This week is a perfect burn window for us,” said Peggy Polichio, fire program manager on the Panhandle, where precipitation has been slightly above normal this year. “Without this suspension, we would be burning thousands of acres more.”
Exceptions for special circumstances are permitted under the temporary policy, although criteria were still being drawn up Tuesday, Wright said.
Land managers typically set targets for how much prescribed burning they hope to accomplish in a year, but the amount burned depends on funding, weather conditions and availability of fire crews.
“Because of that, this suspension is not a total shock to our fire program,” said Paul Hart, a spokesman for the Wenatchee and Okanogan national forests in central Washington. “It’s just a new direction, and we’ll have to deal with it.”