Citing “a national crisis,” the U.S. Forest Service stated that the agency will focus on fighting fires that threaten communities or infrastructure. The agency needs to safeguard public and firefighter safety above all else, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in an Aug. 2 letter to Forest Service leadership.
At the start of August, more than 70 large fires were burning across the country and 22,000 people were fighting them — almost three times the 10-year average for July. Seventy percent of the west is in drought. The above-normal fire activity is expected to last through October, Moore said.
“The 2021 fire year is different from any before,” Moore said. The country was put on its highest preparedness level on July 14, the third-earliest date for that level of urgency, he said.
Firefighters have also been working nonstop, helping fight fires in Australia last year, assisting with COVID vaccinations, and being hit by the current rise in COVID infections, Moore said.
No ‘let it burn’ policy
In light of all these demands and the finite amount of firefighting resources, the agency is in “triage mode,” meaning fires won’t always get the resources they request, Moore said. That also means the Forest Service won’t use other practices to manage the forest, including prescribed burning, until the crisis abates.
“Let me be clear. This is not a return to the ‘10 a.m. Policy,’” Moore said. That policy was a strategy the Forest Service began using in 1935, in which they aimed to control all fires by 10 a.m. the day after they were discovered — or at least within the first week, according to a history of the agency.
It wasn’t entirely clear why Moore’s announcement would have been construed as a return to that policy, given the limitations on resources and the extreme fire conditions.
“There is a misconception out there that the Forest Service has a ‘let it burn’ policy. We do not. Every fire has a suppression strategy. The agency strives to maintain its historical initial attack success rate of almost 98%,” Forest Service National Press Officer Babete Anderson said in response to questions about Moore’s letter.
“We will commit our fire resources only in instances where they have a high probability of success and they can operate safely and effectively. We will rely on the tested principles of risk management in determining our strategies and tactics. We will have to focus our efforts on fires commensurate with the values at risk. We will respond to all fires, not only the ones immediately threatening communities,” Anderson said.