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The Forest Service's ban on controlled burns has come to a close


This past spring, the U.S. Forest Service issued a 90-day ban on controlled fires, which are set intentionally to help reduce wildfire dangers. The ban recently expired, but there's been debate about the risks and benefits of these intentional burns, and the Forest Service still hasn't said how it's going to handle them going forward. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In May, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced an unusual 90-day pause of all controlled burning on national forests after a controlled fire got out of control and started the biggest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history. The Forest Service is investigating its own protocols that led to that burn being lit after an extremely dry winter. Well, that 90-day pause has now come and gone, and a decision about whether to lift it or keep the burn ban in place could come this week. Andrew Sanchez Meador runs a forest restoration think tank at Northern Arizona University.

ANDREW SANCHEZ MEADOR: Those are difficult decisions, and I don't envy the chief of the Forest Service.

SIEGLER: With climate change and forests overgrown from a century of the U.S. Forest Service stopping naturally burning wildfires, he says controlled burns can get dicey no matter what time of year it is. Chief Moore insisted his pause would have minimal impact on wildfire prevention and mitigation projects because generally federal land managers wouldn't be doing burns in the height of summer. Well, now there's pressure to lift the burn ban for the fall, at least in some areas where heavy monsoon rains hit.

Rich Fairbanks spent most of his career fighting fires for the Forest Service. He says the whole issue of controlled burns gets political real quick.

RICH FAIRBANKS: You got to admit, it's a very risky thing to ask some senior land manager to light a fire in the winter when, if it gets away, it's on him, than to fight a wildfire where you're a hero no matter what happens.

SIEGLER: Still, foresters like Fairbanks are seeing a slow evolution within the Forest Service and the public - an acceptance that fire is a critical part of the ecosystem and it needs to be brought back if we're ever going to make some of these modern, extreme wildfires even just manageable again. In the Democrats' new infrastructure and inflation laws, tens of millions of dollars are going to preventative projects like tree thinning and controlled burning.

MEADOR: So we're seeing that discussion happening.

SIEGLER: Again, Andrew Sanchez Meador.

MEADOR: It takes a while to change the policy. It takes a while to kind of implement those. But unfortunately, you know, we're also working against a clock.

SIEGLER: He means there's a backlog of millions of acres of forest that need treatment now. And every time we suppress another wildfire, that just leaves more fuel on the ground and problems for next year. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.