By Mark Buckbee, CHF Education Director
In late May 2023, a US Forest Service prescribed (managed) burn on the Willamette National Forest jumped control lines, making news throughout western Oregon. The project was planned as a 65-acre managed burn to reduce fuels in a thinned stand of trees. According to the Forest Service, the fuels and weather were within prescription when the burn was initiated, but gusty winds picked up and led to spot fires adjacent to the 65-acre burn unit. The fire grew to around 120 acres before a Fire Suppression Team controlled the fire.
Anytime fire is used on the forested landscape, there is some risk of escapement, and these have ranged from small escapements such as this one to large escapements such as the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico that burned 43,000 acres. Prescribed burning is typically conducted in the spring and fall when the weather is cool, the moisture content of large fuels is high, the risk of escape is low, and any escapements can be easily suppressed.
These escapements have sometimes led to pauses in the use of prescribed fire, and re-evaluation of federal prescribed fire programs and policies. But improved protocols, new fire science and better local weather forecasting are making prescribed burning safer and more effective. Additionally, fire managers are becoming more skilled over time as they perform more managed burns.
The Forest Service has identified millions of national forest acres throughout the western USA that have unnaturally heavy fuel loads and are in need of treatment, which will principally involve thinning and/or prescribed burning. If these forests are not treated, most will eventually burn during hot and dry summer weather, damaging forest resources, costing millions for suppression, and pouring smoke into the atmosphere and our communities.
Prescribed fire is already being used extensively and successfully in Oregon. It’s just that a successful fuel treatment isn’t viewed as “newsworthy” as an escapement! For example, the Fremont-Winema National Forest in south-central Oregon performs tens of thousands of acres of prescribed burns annually. And the Deschutes National Forest conducted nearly five thousand acres this past year.
This is not the time to be “hitting the brakes” on the use of prescribed fire. It is better to endure the infrequent escapement, than suffer the guaranteed damages and costs of summer wildfires.
Mark Buckbee is a retired Federal forester who had a 34-year career with the Bureau of Land Management in western Oregon. He holds a Bachelors degree in Forest Resources Management from SUNY-Syracuse and a Masters degree in Forest Science from Utah State University.