Western Caucus, Natural Resources Republicans Demand Transparency on Prescribed Fires Ban
Members urge active forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfires
Washington, June 27, 2022 | Elizabeth Daniels (202-280-8720)
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Chairman Dan Newhouse (WA-04) and Vice Chair Bruce Westerman (AR-04) led 25 Western Caucus and House Natural Resources Members in sending a letter to U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Randy Moore urging more active management of federal forests in order to prevent catastrophic wildfires and to demand information surrounding the Biden Administration’s 90-day review of prescribed fire protocols and the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.
“Decades of mismanagement have left our forests overgrown and fire-prone, and it is vital that we use essential tools – including prescribed burns – safely and effectively to restore these landscapes to natural fire intervals,” wrote the lawmakers. “This work must be done carefully and with the confidence that these burns will not cause the very catastrophic wildfires they seek to prevent.”
The Biden Administration imposed a 90-day pause on the use of prescribed fire in order to review protocols, tools, and practices after a poorly-conducted USFS prescribed fire resulted in the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s state history.
The lawmakers continued, “It is clear the Forest Service has damaged the public’s trust and must set in place procedures that will restore confidence in the agency to appropriately utilize prescribed burns, manage our fire-prone federal lands, and ensure communities are protected.”
The letter – signed by Chairman Dan Newhouse (WA-04), Vice Chairs Bruce Westerman (AR-04), Yvette Herrell (NM-02), Pete Stauber (MN-08), Doug Lamborn (CO-05), Doug LaMalfa (CA-01), Chris Stewart (UT-02), Garret Graves (LA-06), and Lauren Boebert (CO-03); and Reps. Russ Fulcher (ID-01), Blake Moore (UT-01), Cliff Bentz (OR-02), Jay Obernolte (CA-08), Tom McClintock (CA-04), Bob Gibbs (OH-07), Dave Joyce (OH-14), Markwayne Mullin (OK-02), Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (AS-AL), David Rouzer (NC-07), David Valadao (CA-21), Tom Tiffany (WI-07), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-02), Burgess Owens (OH-04), Matt Rosendale (MT-AL), and Louie Gohmert (TX-01) – urges the Administration to conduct the review of prescribed fire operations as expeditiously as possible so that land managers can resume use of this essential wildfire prevention tool.
Full text of the letter can be found here and below:
Dear Chief Moore,
We write to strongly urge the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of desperately needed forest management activities. Restoring the public’s trust in the safety and efficacy of forest management activities on National Forest System lands is particularly important given the drought conditions currently afflicting the western United States. Alarmingly, as of June 15, 2022, over 2.7 million acres in the United States has burned, outpacing every fire season of the last decade. Unfortunately, a substantial portion of this acreage burned as a result of escaped prescribed burns initiated by the Forest Service. Decades of mismanagement have left our forests overgrown and fire-prone, and it is vital that we use essential tools – including prescribed burns – safely and effectively to restore these landscapes to natural fire intervals. This work must be done carefully and with the confidence that these burns will not cause the very catastrophic wildfires they seek to prevent.
On May 20, 2022, less than six months after announcing an aggressive new strategy to reduce wildfire risk on federal lands, the Forest Service announced a pause on prescribed fire operations on all National Forest System lands in order to conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools, and practices. This unilateral pause came after the news that the colossal 325,340-acre Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico, which merged with the nearby Calf Canyon Fire, became the largest and most destructive fire in state history due to a poorly executed prescribed fire conducted by the Santa Fe National Forest. This fire has already destroyed 903 structures and accumulated $227 million in suppression costs. Concerningly, the Forest Service greenlit the prescribed burn that sparked this fire despite ongoing severe drought conditions, several red flag warnings issued in the days leading up to the fire, and forecasts of 25 mile-per-hour winds and nine percent humidity on the day of the fire. Additionally, fire investigators recently determined that the Calf Canyon Fire was also started by a Forest Service pile burn originally conducted in January 2022 that reignited and spread quickly due to high winds. In Colorado, a similar situation occurred in May 2022 when the Forest Service conducted a prescribed burn despite extremely dry and windy conditions, resulting in a fire that destroyed one family’s home and an estimated $1.6 million in suppression costs.
Combined with the consistent lack of appropriate forest management, the unprecedented drought facing the West has further weakened our national forests and left them extremely vulnerable to wildfire. The West is currently suffering through the most extreme drought on record with over 76 percent of the land under severe drought conditions or worse. Further, recent research demonstrated that portions of our nation are facing the driest conditions in 1,200 years. This reality must inform not only our firefighting approach, but also the types of forest management treatments that are utilized during this time of extreme volatility.
When used correctly, prescribed burns are an essential forest management tool used by the Forest Service, local managers, and private landowners to thin overgrown forest lands and reduce the threat of wildfires for communities across the United States. Prescribed fires are supported by extensive scientific research, but they must be used judiciously during drought conditions and based on a thorough assessment of risk factors before they are initiated. We agree that a rigorous review must be conducted in order to assess the failures of Forest Service’s prescribed fire operations. With this mandated nationwide pause, however, land managers across the country are now deprived of a critical tool that – when used safely – could currently be aiding efforts to reduce wildfire risk, restore forest health, and create resilient landscapes. With communities throughout the West already amidst a record-breaking wildfire season, we cannot afford to be losing any tools that can help prevent catastrophic fires during this wildfire season and in the future.
Due to the imposed pause on prescribed burns, it is now more important than ever that the agency fully – and immediately – utilize other tools, such as mechanical thinning, to continue treating the millions of acres of forest land at risk of experiencing catastrophic wildfires. The importance of increased forest restoration thinning cannot be overstated, as scientists have shown it significantly improves drought resiliency in our forests by increasing both canopy moisture content and allowing for more snow accumulation on the ground in the winter. Expanded mechanical thinning is also consistent with the agency’s own findings in the “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis” strategy, which stated:
“Using fire and thinning together, however, provides the best opportunity for reducing risk and moderating fire behavior. With a risk-informed approach, a forest thinning is often needed first to reduce the number of trees to something approaching the historical level a century ago. Then a low-intensity surface fire can follow—what professionals call a prescribed fire.”
Mechanical thinning remains an indispensable tool in the agency’s toolbox. Because prescribed fires are not currently available for local land managers to utilize due to the mandated pause, we must accelerate thinning on forest lands to reduce the risk of wildfire and improve forest health.
It is clear the Forest Service has damaged the public’s trust and must set in place procedures that will restore confidence in the agency to appropriately utilize prescribed burns, manage our fire-prone federal lands, and ensure communities are protected. The Forest Service must complete a comprehensive review of the misuse of prescribed fire in these cases and address program shortcomings as expeditiously as possible. Given the severity of the ongoing wildfire catastrophe, we also seek to understand the Forest Service’s prescribed fire operations in greater detail and request a briefing on the 90-day review as well as the following documents. Please provide these documents as soon as possible, but no later than 5:00 p.m. July 11, 2022.
Please contact the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Minority staff at HNRR.Oversight@mail.house.gov with any questions about this request and to coordinate the delivery of your response to room 1329 of the Longworth House Office Building. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter and we look forward to continued coordination as we work together to responsibly restore health and resiliency to our forests through active forest management.