What’s changed in national fire policy and why it matters

Areas of the Prescott National Forest in Arizona are getting a long overdue visitor called fire. Normally, this wouldn’t be news — the type of ponderosa pine forests that make up places like the Prescott are naturally thinned out and tidied up by low-intensity fires every five years or so. It’s like nature’s maid service.

On the Prescott, though, the Forest Service has spent much of the last hundred years keeping the housekeeper away. However, thanks to new guidelines — shaped last year with the input of The Wilderness Society — fire is beginning to resume its natural role.

This guidance gives fire managers the tools that they need to better protect communities and manage ecosystems for their benefits, and save taxpayer dollars.

Although the importance of allowing some wildfires to safely run their course has been noted in fire management circles for a few decades, the practice of using wildfire to protect communities and restore forests has existed more in theory than practice. A major hurdle to such strategic use of wildfire was policy guidance, issued in 2003, that was intended to help fire managers apply abstract policies to on-the-ground situations.

A centerpiece of that document was a policy requiring federal agencies to choose between completely suppressing any given wildland fire and simply allowing it to burn. There was no middle ground: They really clamped down on the ability of fire managers to use natural fire. It tied the hands of some of the more progressive firefighters in the ranks.

This meant agency fire managers were not allowed to put out the dangerous parts of the fire while managing the rest of it. Furthermore, firefighters couldn’t shift their strategy from aggressive suppression to less aggressive and more cost-effective responses on a given fire. The Government Accountability Office and the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General cited these policies as contributing to the skyrocketing yearly costs of firefighting.

Last year, a cadre of fire managers within the Forest Service and Department of the Interior wanted to review and revise these policies. In the spirit of collaboration, they brought in some non-governmental figures including myself to help shape the process. We really rolled up our sleeves. We thought, “What kinds of changes are necessary in order to get fire management right?”

The most important change was the move away from the requirement to classify every fire as either a “wildfire” (which could only be suppressed) or a “wildland fire use incident” (in which a fire would be managed to benefit the environment). A wildfire is a wildfire. You monitor it to make sure it’s meeting objectives, and when it’s not you work to suppress it when it’s threatening.

We’re not “out of the woods” yet, but I believe we have entered a new era in fire management. Early indications are that managers are using the flexibility inherent in the new policy to encourage the right kind of fire. With time, places like the Prescott should see the frequent return of this critical natural process — to the benefit of community safety and ecosystem health.