California, USA — The U.S. Forest Service is again allowing controlled fires in California, after a ban last month in response to air quality concerns and personnel limitations.
The ban on such fires, revealed by The Bee two weeks ago, drew criticism from groups representing Forest Service professionals.
Critics said the ban effectively required that every fire be aggressively extinguished, forsaking a new policy that encourages some fires to burn in order to thin overgrown forests. They also feared it would subject firefighters to unnecessary risks by requiring suppression in every case.
In a new memo to federal forest managers dated Aug. 15, Regional Forester Randy Moore announced he would again consider approving such fires because “fire activity and air quality conditions have generally improved since July 9.”
Controlled fires go by two names: “wildland fire use,” where naturally caused wildfires are monitored and allowed to burn under certain conditions; and prescribed burns fires intentionally set to minimize a future threat.
“This is wonderful news,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. “Wildland fire use, hands down, is safer for firefighters, less costly for taxpayers and less damaging to the land,” he added. “Every fire should be examined for the opportunity to manage for social and ecological benefits.”
Moore banned both types of fires last month throughout California’s federal forests, citing a “preparedness level” rating system that indicated fire crews were stretched thin.
Ingalsbee and other critics called the decision ironic, since full suppression requires more personnel.
“Rather than require local units to wait until the preparedness level has been reduced,” Moore wrote, “I have decided to again consider (controlled fires) on a case-by-case basis.”
Forest Service spokesman John Heil said California faced an “epic” fire situation after June 21, when lightning storms triggered thousands of fires. This spread crews thin and made smoke a health concern in many communities.
Moore originally said he would reconsider the ban if conditions changed. Heil said Moore’s latest directive reflects that change since many fires have been contained and smoky conditions have lifted.
“We have a lot fewer fires going on right now than we did back on July 9,” Heil said. “So, a lot of things have improved at this point.”