US Forest Service Chief says prescribed fire must remain tool to combat wildfires, but climate change making burns less safe; USFS conducting 90-day review of national prescribed fire program after prescribed burn sparked Hermit's Peak Fire in New Mexico

Sample article from our Forestry & Timberland

WASHINGTON , June 23, 2022 (press release) –

On May 10, 2022, I established a Chief’s Review of the Hermit’s Peak Fire (Santa Fe National Forest, NM), which was a result of an escaped prescribed fire (Las Dispensas).  The devastating impact of this fire to the communities and livelihoods of those affected in New Mexico demanded this level of review to ensure we understand how this tragic event unfolded. I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals.  In the most tragic events, people have lost their lives and it grieves us as agency employees who live and work in these communities. 
 
Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered.  We know these conditions are leading to more frequent and intense wildfires. Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions and unpredictable weather changes are challenging our ability to use prescribed fire as a tool to combat destructive fires.  This spring in New Mexico, a pile burn of hazardous logs that started in January, smoldered underground for months, persisting through multiple snowstorms and freezing temperatures, before resurfacing as a wildfire. That type of event was nearly unheard of until recently in the century-plus of experience the Forest Service has in working on these landscapes. Fires are outpacing our models and, as the final report notes, we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground. We must learn from this event and ensure our decision-making processes, tools, and procedures reflect these changed conditions.   
 
The Forest Service takes its role to respond to and prevent wildfires seriously. The safety of the communities and firefighters involved is our primary goal.  Wildfire mitigation, wildland firefighting, and many other land management activities we perform are inherently dangerous. When that work does not go as planned, it is imperative that we learn from those experiences. And we do. This review, which is available on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website, includes an analysis of the conditions on the ground, the planning process and design, an assessment of the decisions leading up to the prescribed fire implementation, a summary of contributing factors, and key findings, lessons learned and recommendations. 
 
On May 20th I temporarily ceased all Forest Service prescribed burning nationwide as an immediate safety precaution due to continued extreme conditions. We are conducting a 90-day learning review of the agency’s national prescribed fire program.  Representatives from across the wildland fire and research community are evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation. Wildfires are threatening more communities than they ever have.  Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them.  Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely.  This Chief’s Review of the Hermit’s Peak Fire, and the results of the 90-day prescribed burn program review, will help us learn what needs to change to be able to continue to safely use this tool in today’s fire environment. 
 
I hope you will read the entire report to truly understand how this fire went from a prescribed fire, in which the employees involved followed all procedures and policies, to a fire that escaped its containment lines and became the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history.  I want to thank our review team for their dedication to this work and their thorough, forthright, and detailed analysis.  This Chief’s Review is an example of how the Forest Service, as a learning organization, must account for its actions and move forward to continue to deliver our critical mission of protecting forests and communities from wildfires.

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Dan Rivard
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