Forest Service policy changes

Policy for fighting wildfires reversed from 2012 allowing some to burn

March 12, 2013


Forest Service policy on wildfires changes

In 2012, nearly 10 million acres of U.S. land were burned in what ended up being one of the most destructive, as well as costliest wildfire seasons in the nation’s history.

Last wildfire season, the Forest Service, which manages nearly 200 million acres of public land, reversed nearly two decades of national policy and ordered an “aggressive initial attack” on all fires within the agency’s jurisdiction, no matter how small or remote.

The more aggressive approach instituted in 2012 was prompted by fears that fires would devour large swaths of the West affected by record drought. New Mexico and Colorado reported record fire seasons last year. Dry conditions remain in much of the region for 2013.

In a letter from Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell last month, it was announced that the U.S. Forest Service is reversing its policy to aggressively fight all wildfires. The change in policy answers critics who said the agency wasted money as well as endangered firefighters by fighting fires in remote areas that posed little danger to property.

Timothy Ingalsbee is Executive Director of Eugene-based Firefighters United for Safety Ethics and Ecology. He says fires are actually good for the forest. He says, “We’ve had decades in advancing research in the beneficial ecological role of wildfire.”

The policy change is moving back towards what ecologists and fire scientists have considered best practices for almost 40 years. It’s felt that fires in remote wilderness should be allowed to burn, since fire is a natural part of the environment and good for the ecosystem. Some essential animal and plant species thrive in fire-ravaged areas. By thinning out excess timber and dry underbrush, small forest fires can help prevent larger blazes.

But letting fires burn also has its dangers, even in remote areas.

Last year, a half-acre blaze in remote Lasses Volcanic National Park in Northern California ended up charring 42 square miles as it spread. Eventually it spread beyond the park’s boundaries to lands managed by the Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire damaged the region’s timber industry and cost an estimated $15 million to put out.

The Forest Service is expecting another difficult year. Already an unusually large winter fire has burned in the hills east of Los Angeles. Drought and hot temperatures are expected to continue across the West again this summer.

On top of that, the agency is expecting a $212 million hit from federal sequestration cuts, including $134 million less for fighting wildfires.


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