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Forest Service Hits Reverse on Firefighting Policy

PHOTO: The U.S. Forest Service is returning to its decades-old policy of letting some backcountry fires burn naturally, instead of "fighting all fires." Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith
PHOTO: The U.S. Forest Service is returning to its decades-old policy of letting some backcountry fires burn naturally, instead of "fighting all fires." Photo credit: Deborah C. Smith
March 6, 2013

BOISE, Idaho - For decades, the U.S. Forest Service let small fires in remote areas burn naturally in recognition that fire was part of the natural landscape - and that by letting some fires burn, future large fires could be prevented. Last year, however, every fire was battled unless granted special status.

That's been recognized as part of the reason the Forest Service spent more than $1 billion fighting fires in 2012.

Now, the agency is taking the "fight all fires" directive off the books.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, senior conservation associate at the Idaho Conservation League, said plenty of science and economic sense are behind the decision.

"Putting out every single fire is not good for firefighter safety, it's not good for the environment, and it's not good for the bottom line and the taxpayers," he said.

The forest official who required that all fires be suppressed in 2012 had a goal of keeping all fires small.

Oppenheimer said the history of letting some fires burn got its start in Idaho with a fire in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness being allowed to burn in 1972 - the first time the Forest Service had made such a decision. The Gem State is home to millions of acres of backcountry.

"We've got a huge 4 1/2 million, 5 million-acre wildland complex in central Idaho," he said, "where it simply doesn't make sense to be putting firefighters' lives at risk to go and put out small fires."

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell issued the decision on the policy shift for the upcoming fire season.

Deborah Courson Smith/Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - ID