Every year, land managers intentionally set millions of acres on fire across the United States. Last month, one of those prescribed fires in Eastern Oregon’s Grant County had the rare distinction of making news headlines.
On Oct. 19, Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley arrested Ricky Snodgrass, the leader of a U.S. Forest Service crew conducting a prescribed burn in the Malheur National Forest.
The sheriff charged Snodgrass with reckless burning after the fire crept onto about 20 acres of private land beyond the national forest boundary.
The incident was a potential flash point in a long-simmering conflict between rural Western sheriffs and the federal government. At the same time, some prescribed fire advocates worry the arrest could be another setback in efforts to use more fire in forest management.
“The sheriff felt like he was protecting the community and restoring justice, and I think it’s just the opposite,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a fire ecologist and director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, or FUSEE. “One of the intentions of that prescribed fire was to make the community safer in the event of a future wildfire.”
Fire as a tool
Forests in Oregon and across the American West evolved across millennia to withstand and benefit from periodic fires.
Fire burns through leaves, twigs and other fine fuels that line the forest floor faster than they can rot. It creates wildlife habitat and hunting grounds. Smoke from fires can actually keep rivers and streams cooler for fish.
But for most of the 20th century, land managers in the U.S. instead worked to exclude all fire from the landscape. That left forests stocked with fuels, ushering in an era of megafires.
“We’ve created a real problem,” said Rich Fairbanks, a forest landowner in Jackson County and a longtime firefighter. “The basic idea is if you get rid of low-severity fire, you get high-severity fire. You get rid of controlled burning, all you really lose is the control.”
Intentionally lighting low-severity fires is a way to reap the ecological benefits of fire under much more manageable conditions than in a wildfire. Crews burn small sections of forest and constantly monitor weather and winds to make sure the flames do their job without getting out of hand.
“The trees around here, they don’t even notice it when we run a little one-foot flame around the base of them,” Fairbanks said. “They’ve been surviving fires for millions of years … low-severity fire is our friend.”
Escapes are rare
The vast majority of prescribed burns are completed without incident. Less than half a percent of the prescribed burns carried out by the Forest Service escape containment. That’s about one escape for every thousand prescribed fires the agency sets.
Ingalsbee said an even smaller number of those escapes do any property damage.
“It’s an almost infinitesimally small risk that prescribed burning is going to escape control and cause massive damage,” he said. “But it only takes one, and that causes managers and leaders in agencies to fear for their careers.”
One of those high-profile escapes came earlier this year when a prescribed burn in New Mexico became the Hermits Peak Fire, later merging with the Calf Canyon Fire to become the largest wildfire in the state’s history.
The Forest Service drew harsh criticism from elected officials in New Mexico for conducting the burn in poor conditions using outdated plans.
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore ordered his agency to halt all prescribed burning on national forestland after the onset of Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon and convened a task force to “review prescribed fire protocols, decision support tools, and practices.”
That team concluded its work in August and the agency resumed prescribed fire operations in September with new guidelines for fire practitioners. But some fire scientists and foresters fear incidents like the New Mexico escape and Oregon’s Grant County arrest might reinforce negative impressions of prescribed burning. And that could ultimately hurt recruitment of burn bosses, a highly skilled and mostly thankless job.
Moore decried the Oregon arrest in a public statement, calling it “highly inappropriate.”
“I will not stand idly by without fully defending the Burn Boss and all employees carrying out their official duties as federal employees,” Moore said. “This employee should not have been singled out, and we are working to address these unfortunate circumstances on their behalf.”
More fire coming
Federal, state and tribal land managers burned more than 6 million acres with prescribed fire in 2019, according to the most recent data available from the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s more than triple the amount of acres burned in prescribed fires two decades prior.
The Forest Service’s 10-year wildfire risk reduction plan includes up to four times the amount of prescribed fire on national forestland as there is today. The federal government has already doled out millions of dollars to start this work in firesheds across the American West, including the Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon.
It’s a big step forward in wildfire policy, but it also requires flipping a widely held public perception that all fire is bad fire and that fighting fire under the worst conditions is preferable to lighting them under the best conditions.
Ingalsbee said there is no “fire-free option” for forests and that neglecting prescribed burning only sets the stage for larger, more severe wildfires.
“Fire has been part of terrestrial ecosystems for the last 420 million years,” he said. “It’s not a choice between fire or no fire. It’s really a choice between prescribed fire and wildfire.”