The Lead

In ‘paradigm shift,’ U.S. Forest Service to use logging, controlled burns to prevent wildfires

By: - January 18, 2022 1:30 pm

GREENOUGH, MT – JUNE 14: Helmville, Montana volunteer fire department firefighter Dean Phillips (R) and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation firefighter Will Wood (L) tell their instructor Jesse Hauer (C) how they will attack a fire during a live fire training at the Lubrecht Forest Camp June 14, 2007 in Greenough, Montana. In preparation for what is expected to be a busy fire season, Montana state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) held its annual week long Interagency Wildland Fire Engine Academy which prepares firefighters for the upcoming fire season with refresher courses in fire attack and fire strategy. Fire crews come from as far as Helena, Montana to participate in the training. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON —  The Biden administration will announce Tuesday it is using $3 billion from last year’s infrastructure law to revamp the federal approach to wildfire management, introducing a 10-year plan to deal with the large swaths of the West scientists consider most at risk of destructive blazes.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, is scheduled to announce the new strategy in Phoenix, Ariz., alongside Forest Service Chief Randy Moore and U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.

The Forest Service will focus on using managed fires to reduce natural fuels — flammable material that can feed fires, including trees, grasses, dead leaves and fallen branches, according to a report the U.S. Forest Service released ahead of the announcement.

In more than a century of management focused on fire suppression, forests have grown denser and fuels have built up, putting forests at greater risk of intense fires.

Carbon buildup in the atmosphere has also made matters worse by acting as natural heat traps. Climate change has reduced snow and rainfall in the West and produced hotter, drier weather, which has increased forest flammability, the report says.

“The negative impacts of today’s largest wildfires far outpace the scale of efforts to protect homes, communities and natural resources,” Vilsack said in a statement. “Our experts expect the trend will only worsen with the effects of a changing climate.”

The report calls for a “paradigm shift” in preventing fires, shifting away from fire suppression and toward a combination of logging to reduce forest density and prescribed, controlled burns.

“We need to thin western forests and return low-intensity fire to western landscapes in the form of both prescribed and natural fire, working to ensure that forest lands and communities are resilient in the face of the wildland fire that fire-adapted landscapes need,” the report said.

Under the plan, the Forest Service could treat an additional 20 million acres of national forest area, plus 30 million acres of other federal, state and tribal lands over the next 10 years, according to the report.

The first two years of the plan will focus on key “firesheds,” areas of 250,000 acres at risk of large-scale fires.

Planned projects to address risks in several Western firesheds — including in Arizona, Colorado and Oregon — are ready for work to begin and need only funding, according to the report.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.