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Forest Service plans to thin and burn millions of acres to mitigate more extreme wildfires

Two people use drip torches to light a prescribed burn and watch a snowy hillside on fire.
U.S. Forest Service
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InciWeb
Firefighters from Larimer County Emergency Services joined U.S. Forest Service firefighters on the Bighorn Sheep Prescribed Burn.

The U.S. Forest Service plans a dramatic increase in forest thinning and prescribed burns across the West.

Its recently released 10-year plan includes treating 20 million acres of Forest Service land, and 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal, and private lands. The agency says it has seen such proactive treatments dampen the effects of massive blazes, like in Arizona’s largest blaze, the Wallow Fire, in 2011.

“When the fire reached a treated area, it dropped to the forest floor and started crawling through ground fuels, letting firefighters safely get in and control it. Hundreds of homes were saved,” the plan states.

The agency aims to treat forests at up to four times the current rate.

“I think the Forest Service plan is ambitious and it’s a much-needed step forward,” said Ryan Tompkins, a forest and natural resource advisor for the University of California’s Cooperative Extension.

Tompkins noted, though, that the plan would require more funding beyond recent federal allocations, including the $3.3 billion for wildfire suppression in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Forest Service acknowledges the need for sustained federal investment.

“A paradigm shift in land management calls for a corresponding shift in Federal funding,” the plan states. “Past annual budgets for Federal land management agencies have neither resolved the forest health crisis nor diminished the rising severity of western wildfires. We need an off-budget solution, with reliable Federal funding for the fuels and forest health projects that are highest priority under the wildfire crisis strategy.”

Tompkins agrees.

“I think it’s interesting that the plan is entitled ‘Confronting a Crisis.’ I don’t think we can look at wildfire and drought as a crisis anymore. I think we really need to look at it as a way of life in the West,” he said.

Since the late 20th century, there’s been less land management and far more spent on fighting big blazes, Tompkins said, “and we need to flip that investment.” He points to all the resources – more than $600 million – used to fight Northern California's Dixie Fire for months as it burned nearly a million acres last summer.

“Imagine the work we could do if we had that type of workforce doing this proactive land stewardship – thinning and burning these forests to make them more resistant to fire and more resilient to larger disturbances like drought and climate change,” he said.

Red blotches show areas around the West that the Forest Service has pinpointed as high-risk.
U.S. Forest Service
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Confronting the Wildfire Crisis
"The Forest Service’s wildfire crisis strategy will target the firesheds at highest risk first— the firesheds most capable of generating large wildfire disasters and with the highest probability of fuels reduction success. The map shows the western firesheds at highest risk of community exposure to wildfires originating on all lands."

The Forest Service also picked out areas it wants to treat first. That includes large sections of Colorado and Idaho. But Wyoming doesn’t have a single area identified.

Tompkins says there can be equity issues when you have to prioritize burns, and he’d like there to be plans for forest resiliency on every acre, but “there are so few resources available that we continue to try to address this problem through prioritization. And over decades of prioritization, we've ended up in a situation where we're really in triage.”

And now, he said, we have to start somewhere.

Tompkins co-authored a recent story in The Conversation detailing more of his thoughts on the Forest Service plan. 

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 is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.