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'Good' Fires Can Help Slow Wildfires, But The Forest Service Is Too Busy To Use Them


There are so many wildfires burning across the western U.S. right now that the U.S. Forest Service says they're in triage mode. The agency will shift its resources to stopping all fires on federal lands, even the so-called good fires like the ones set intentionally to clear overgrown forests. And that change is alarming to some scientists. Joining now to explain is Lauren Sommer from NPR's climate team.

Hey, Lauren.


CHANG: OK, wait. So what I don't get is, aren't firefighters already working nonstop to contain all the fires that are burning right now? What would this announcement actually change?

SOMMER: Yeah, so what this does is it suspends two of the tools that are used to prevent really extreme fires. So the first is prescribed burns. You know, many forests in the west, the trees and the brush are overgrown because fires have been put out for more than a century. So to clear them out, the Forest Service sets a low intensity fire. And then the second tool is what's called managed wildfire, where you have a naturally caused fire in a remote area - you know, maybe it was started by lightning - that the Forest Service, it doesn't put it out right away. It burns a little bit. But this is only done when the fire is not a risk to people.

CHANG: OK, I think I get it. The Forest Service is taking those tools off the table for this summer. What exactly are the reasons for that?

SOMMER: Yeah, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said the agency is just overextended fighting fires right now, and it needs to prioritize that over fire prevention. But there's also been political pressure. In early July, the Tamarack Fire started in a remote part of the Sierra Nevada. The Forest Service said the fire was too remote to safely put fire crews on it. But unfortunately, it exploded due to high winds and destroyed 14 homes. That led California Governor Gavin Newsom to push President Biden on how fires are handled on federal land.


GAVIN NEWSOM: We need your help to change the culture in terms of the suppression strategies in this climate, literally and figuratively, to be more aggressive on these federal fires.

SOMMER: And to be clear, the Tamarack Fire wasn't being managed as a good fire, but Newsom still called for that policy to be stopped.

CHANG: OK. So if controlled burns aren't happening this summer, I'm just curious, how much does that set efforts back in terms of preparing for the next fire season?

SOMMER: Right. A number of fire scientists I spoke to are concerned about that. You know, in some places, the spring and the fall is when prescribed fire happens because it's cooler then, so this may not have much of an effect. But in some Western states, conditions might be OK to use good fire right now, like where the monsoon rains are hitting. Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of California, Merced says this blanket order doesn't take that into account.

CRYSTAL KOLDEN: If we're going to stop managed wildfire now, then we're kicking the can down the road for those fuels to burn. And they may burn under even hotter and drier conditions. Politicians look for short-term solutions that get them reelected, but the people who manage the land have to be looking at the long term.

CHANG: The thing is, Lauren, I mean, we keep hearing over and over again fire seasons are getting longer. They're getting more extreme. Do you think we're going to see prescribed fires being limited more often in the future?

SOMMER: Yeah, that's the tricky part of this. Climate change is creating conditions for wildfires to be more extreme, so that makes it more urgent to clear out flammable vegetation. But those same hotter and drier conditions mean that firefighting crews are too busy to do that because they're fighting extreme fires. It's - we're really caught here.

CHANG: That is NPR's Lauren Sommer.

Thank you, Lauren.

SOMMER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.