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NGOs help light prescribed fires on public lands

Firefighters light grasses on fire in southwest Idaho
U.S. Department of Interior
Neal Herbert
A hand crew uses drip torches to burn vegetation along a control line on the Bureau of Land Management's Trout Springs Prescribed Fire in southwest Idaho.

Federal agencies aim to conduct more prescribed burns in the years ahead to reduce fuels that feed extreme wildfires and restore landscapes that depend on fire. But with so many of their resources used to protect communities from fires, private organizations are stepping in to help.

That includes the Idaho branch of the Nature Conservancy. The nonprofit partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and, in October, sent its own five-person team out to the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.

Those Nature Conservancy employees helped thin brush and light prescribed fires on more than 150 acres of those public lands.

Matthew Ward is the resilient forest strategy manager with the Nature Conservancy. He said help outside the government is needed, “especially now as our suppression fire seasons are lasting so much longer and the Forest Service’s staff is getting tapped out.”

Beyond that, he said TNC workers aren’t part of the federal pool of firefighters who can be called off prescribed projects to help suppress dangerous wildfires.

“Since they were trained fire professionals employed by the Nature Conservancy, they did not have to be assigned to suppression efforts,” he said.

While this Idaho program is fairly new, it’s just one of many similar public-private partnerships now operating across the West. In New Mexico, for example, TNC, the Rio Grande Water Fund and the Forest Stewards Guild created the All-Hands All-Lands Burn Team "to add capacity to existing efforts and to serve as a stand-alone organization that can complete burns with insured and qualified burn bosses."

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore has said he wants to tripleprescribed burns across the U.S., but also temporarily halted all prescribed burns during a particularly hot, dry part of this summer. He cited the brutal conditions and limited federal resources as major reasons.

“Our firefighters are fatigued, especially after more than a year of almost constant deployments, beginning with helping Australia in January 2020, and continuing through a difficult 2020 fire year and then supporting the vaccination effort in early 2021,” he wrote in a letter in August.

At the same time, critics of Moore’s policy have said dry conditions are likely to persist, and point to public-private partnerships as a reason that prescribed burns ought to be allowed year-round, even when federal resources are strained.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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