Federal agency says decision will have minimal impact
By Aedan Hannon Herald Staff Writer | DurangoHarold.com | Tuesday, May 31, 2022 2:02 Updated Tuesday, May. 31, 2022 5:21
Third Congressional District Rep. Lauren Boebert has criticized the U.S. Forest Service for pausing prescribed burns. However, the pause will have little effect on the agency’s prescribed burn operations, which mostly take place between September and May, according to a Forest Service spokesman. (Durango Herald file)
Prescribed burns have been a source of tension this spring, with the U.S. Forest Service attributing the largest wildfire in New Mexico history in part to an escaped burn.
Now, they are central to Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Rep. Lauren Boebert’s criticism of the Forest Service.
Boebert attacked Forest Service Chief Randy Moore’s announcement on May 20 that he was pausing all prescribed burns on National Forest lands, saying the move would exacerbate wildfires and harm Colorado’s communities.
However, the agency says the decision was needed because of the fire risk, and that the pause will have little effect on its wildfire and forest health efforts and the safety of communities.
Moore cited “current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field” when he announced a 90-day pause and review of the Forest Service’s prescribed burn operations ahead of the fall.
“Our primary goal in engaging prescribed fires and wildfires is to ensure the safety of the communities involved,” Moore said in a news release. “Our employees who are engaging in prescribed fire operations are part of these communities across the nation. The communities we serve, and our employees deserve the very best tools and science supporting them as we continue to navigate toward reducing the risk of severe wildfires in the future.”
Boebert took issue with the pause, writing in a May 20 Facebook post: “This bureaucratic decision will only result in more catastrophic wildfires as more fuel and dead timber will remain on the ground. Chief Moore will be hearing from me about this Friday evening policy change!”
Forest Service officials have said two of the agency’s burns were behind the largest forest fire in New Mexico history. In announcing his decision to pause prescribed burns, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore cited “extreme wildfire risk conditions.” However, Rep. Lauren Boebert has said the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to suspend prescribed burns puts rural communities at more risk for catastrophic wildfires. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun file)
In an email to The Durango Herald, Boebert explained her criticism.
“98% of all prescribed burns never have any issues. A 90-day blanket moratorium on prescribed burns in every national forest throughout the country defies science and common sense,” she said in a statement. “… Scientists and forestry experts have long recognized that prescribed burns play an important role in reducing the risk and severity of catastrophic wildfires. Prescribed burns are an important tool in the toolbox, and we need to actively manage our forests in order to protect our communities from devastating wildfires.”
At her Republican primary debate with state Sen. Don Coram last week in Ignacio, Boebert doubled down on her critique of Moore’s decision.
“I called them out for putting bureaucrat politics over the people of Colorado. This is not an actual solution,” Boebert told the audience.
During the Forest Service’s prescribed burn pause, wildfire researchers and representatives from the broader wildland fire community will conduct a review of the agency’s policies and its use of prescribed fire.
They will look at the best available science and consider improvements in both implementation and safety that the agency can make, according to a news release.
With climate change, drought and dry fuels exacerbating wildfires, the review will help the Forest Service as it aims to reduce the risk of severe wildfires, said Wade Muehlhof, deputy national press officer for the Forest Service, in an email to the Herald.
Any changes identified during the review will go into effect before the agency resumes prescribed burns, he said.
The decision to pause and review its use of prescribed fire comes at a tense moment for the Forest Service, as the agency is increasingly under pressure for the unintended consequences of its prescribed burns.
On Friday, the Forest Service announced it was responsible for both the Calf Canyon and the Hermits Peak fires, which merged to form the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. Both were started by agency burns and together have burned more than 315,000 acres and destroyed at least 330 homes.
Forest Service officials have yet to confirm what caused the Simms Fire near Montrose, but they have said a prescribed burn may have sparked the 313-acre blaze that burned one home.
Conditions in Southwest Colorado have been challenging this spring with high winds and dry fuels worsening wildfire risk and making prescribed burns more difficult.
The Bureau of Land Management postponed its nearly 500-acre prescribed burn on Animas City Mountain because of dry and windy conditions.
In a newsletter, Boebert said the Forest Service’s pause of prescribed burns put rural communities at risk and would result in catastrophic wildfires this summer.
Though the Simms Fire may have been started by a prescribed fire, she said in a statement and during the debate that a previous prescribed burn slowed and reduced the intensity of the fire, a fact that was confirmed by Scott Owen, spokesman for San Juan National Forest.
But while Boebert has criticized Moore’s decision and called for the use of prescribed burns, Muehlhof said the pause would not affect the agency’s prescribed fire operations or its forest health efforts.
“The pause Chief Moore announced on Friday will have minimal impact on (the Forest Service’s) objectives in the short- and long-term since the agency conducts more than 90% of its prescribed burn operations between September and May,” Muehlhof said in an email.
Boebert countered the Forest Service.
“Summer prescribed burns in some Western forests are another tool in the toolbox,” she said in a statement.
The Forest Service manages about 4,500 prescribed fire projects per year across more than 1.4 million acres of national forest with 99.84% of them successful and safe, according to a news release.
Amid her attacks, Boebert positioned her role as one of oversight during Thursday’s debate.
“I am absolutely paying attention to what the Forest Service is doing. I am acknowledging and honoring them when they do a good job at taking care of our lands, but I am a strong advocate to make sure they get the job done right,” she said. “If there is a bad move that will result in more wildfires, more damage to our land (and) poor air quality then I will be the first to call them out and demand a change.”