The U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire have different approaches when it comes to facing wildfire, yielding national frustration and reportedly, at times, a contentious frontline.
The federal agency seeks to let low-intensity fires burn in some situations — part of an effort to protect the longevity of forests and wildlands across California; while the state department aims for immediate suppression of flames, citing a priority of bringing safety to structures and lives here and now.
Locally, this division between the two agencies became apparent to the public last year after an opinion piece in Moonshine Ink laid the blame of struggling wildfire containment at the feet of the forest service. The piece was hot on the heels of the Tamarack Fire, a lightning strike-induced fire which for 13 days was monitored by the USFS before blowing up in size, burning 68,637 acres, and destroying 15 structures near Markleeville. The forest service was in the hot seat.
But the USFS points to science supporting the necessity for friendly fire on the landscapes; it’s a matter of thinking long-term rather than short-term.
With catastrophic wildfire increasingly a threat to human communities, some critics aim to curtail the forest service’s let-burn strategy altogether. Earlier this year, legislation requiring the federal agency to attack all wildfire with 24 hours was proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Tahoe-area counties, agencies, communities, and beyond are supportive.
From both sides of the line in the sand is a mutual understanding that fire on a landscape — low-intensity fire — is good.
Both Cal Fire and the USFS encourage the application of fire to forests and wildlands in a planned and controlled process. This prescribed burning reduces hazardous and excessive fuels, minimizes the spread of pests, recycles nutrients into the soil, and more.
“Prescribed burning is specifically geared toward reducing that surface fuel load,” said Malcolm North, a top research ecologist with the USFS whose focus is on forests and fires in the western United States. “And in the fire situation, what really drives wildfires is the surface fuel loads [grasses, shrubs, etc. on the ground].”
To enact a prescribed burn takes a detailed planning process that includes: identifying an area, coordinating with landowners, going through an environmental review, selecting appropriate treatments, and hiring contractors. Sometimes mechanically thinning a forest satisfies the need; other times a burn is necessary, and a burn prescription is created.
“When it comes time to burn, the day of the burn, we have a go/no-go checklist,” explained Mike Blankenheim, fire chief of Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit. “… Is the wind direction what we want; is the temperature where we want it; is the fuel moisture where we want it? Do we have the resources we said we would need; do we have the right amount of fire engines and bulldozers and hand crews and all those things available to do to the burn?”
The time period between identifying a location in need of forest treatment to using a drip torch to light a prescribed fire, Blankenheim said, can take a year or longer.
Because of the detailed factors, the safest times for these burns to take place are small windows: about five or six weeks during the spring and five or six during the fall, by Blankenheim’s guess. He adds, “To find those windows where all those things line up is getting harder and harder.”
Yet it remains a mutually recognized need. This past August, the USFS and Cal Fire leadership signed a memorandum of understanding over shared stewardship of California’s forest and rangelands. The MOU establishes a partnership to maintain and restore California lands in ways that “reduce public safety risks, protect natural and built infrastructure, and enhance ecological habitat and biological diversity.”
Included in the agreement are plans for both agencies to treat 500,000 acres of forest and wildland each year in California.
Ideally, North says, California would see 600,000 acres treated per year in the Sierra Nevada alone — similar to what burned naturally prior to Europeans’ arrival. This goal is detailed in a paper, Pyrosilviculture Needed for Landscape Resilience of Dry Western United States Forests, published in May 2021 by North and other authors. The last decade has seen an average of 60,000 to 90,000 acres treated annually — “Maybe 10% to 15% of where we would want to be,” North said.
Suppression versus let burn
The schism over when friendly fire should be allowed reflects the differing fundamental roles of each agency.
“Cal Fire and the forest service agree on what should be done,” North explained. “They’ve read enough of the science; they know what’s going on. Where the big difference is … is the context of the land that you’re working in. Cal Fire does not have much wiggle room — they’re often working right against homes.”
Cal Fire’s jurisdiction is known as state responsibility areas — acreage in California where Cal Fire serves as the primary emergency response for fire suppression and prevention. This acreage, colored yellow in the maps above, accounts for state and private lands and tends to be close to urban areas. The land on which Cal Fire suppresses flames is not its own, but others’.
The USFS, meanwhile, is responsible for wildland fire protection on federal responsibility areas, identified in green in the accompanying maps and accounting for 57% of California’s 33 million acres of forests. Alongside the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, the USFS owns this land.
The forest service is a land management agency with the goal of sustaining forests and grasslands across the country for current and future generations. The agency’s work with fire comprises only one piece of the pie.
Because the federal agency owns its land, because large swaths of the land are unpopulated, and because the agency is focused more long-term on preservation of wildlands and forests, immediate suppression of wildfire is not always utilized.
North told Moonshine Ink that due to the inevitability of fire, not addressing the fuel-crowded forests across the Sierra Nevada and all of California with low-intensity fires whenever possible will yield even more dangerous wildfires in the future. He added that 98% to 99% of the science community is on board with the approach of letting fire burn under the right conditions.
“If we can get people — and particularly I’m talking about in the agencies and leadership — to realize that fire is going to happen one way or another, and the choice is between continuing to do what we’re doing now [suppression], which is kind of a disaster, versus trying to get out in front of it,” North said. “To me, it’s pretty clear that that would make a compelling way of trying to re-shift this whole dynamic, because right now we’re not doing very well.”
A 27-year veteran with the USFS, North says seven to eight years back, the idea began percolating up to the highest ranks of the forest service that wildfire needed to be worked with instead of suppressed.
“It’s a zero-sum game,” North said. “Every time we play it entirely cautious, it doesn’t make the fire go away. In fact, we kick the can down the road and when the fire does come, it’s even worse because you have more years of fuel building up and you have it escape during extreme weather conditions when it’s really going to go nuts.”
It’s not a decision made lightly, and it’s not one made near homes, although sometimes a fire that’s being monitored can get out of control, like the Tamarack Fire. More recently, the Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico is a USFS-prescribed-burn-gone-bad — admitted by and apologized for by the forest service, as reported by KRQE News in early April.
The percentages of these rogue burns are low. A statement from USFS Chief Randy Moore on May 20 shared that 99.84% of the agency’s 4,500 annual prescribed burns go according to plan. In that same statement, though, Moore asked for a pause on such burns due to the large fires nationwide.
Moore wrote that he’s “creating a review team consisting of representatives from the wildland fire and research community. The team will review prescribed fire protocols, decision support tools, and practices.” His expectation is that the review will take about 90 days.
North says the pressure on Moore to pause prescribed burns won’t be helpful in the long run.
“At some point, if we’re going to do things differently and we’re really going to make some progress on pace and scale, we’re going to have to be able to have an approach where some of the pressure on these people is either backed up ahead of time or provide some cover for being able to make these hard decisions,” he said. “Because right now it’s very difficult when you’ve got a bunch of senators and congressmen breathing down your neck.”
While the federal agency explores balancing safety concerns with long-term scientific benefits of friendly fire, Cal Fire’s MO is much clearer cut: It is a fire protection agency.
“We don’t manage public land, we protect private land,” said Cal Fire Chief Brian Estes, who oversees the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit. “The only way that we approach the suppression of a fire is 100% initial attack. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a roadside start or something with a lot of energy, we launch a robust resource order on it with ground resources and aviation resources. That’s been like that for 100 years; that’s the way our department has always operated.”
The state agency seeks to contain 95% of fires started on state lands at 10 acres or less. Last year, the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit was 97.8% effective with that goal.
Divided we fall
While leadership for both the forest service and Cal Fire maintain there is no animosity between the two agencies despite the different philosophies of battling blazes, third parties have witnessed contention.
A municipal firefighter working in the Tahoe area told Moonshine Ink he’s been on about 25 major wildfires, working under both Cal Fire and USFS leadership.
“The U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire could not be more different agencies in terms of how they run incidents to how their personnel operate,” he said, asking to remain anonymous given the divisive topic and potential backlash. “Their outlook and mantras are different.”
He witnessed clashes between the two agencies on the front line, saying staff from each would “butt heads because of their [differing] philosophies.” He also specifically questioned the use of fire by forest service firefighters during last year’s Dixie Fire, on which he was working.
There are benefits to both agencies, the firefighter added: better food with Cal Fire incidents, but good, low-intensity fire on the ground with the USFS; laid-back attitudes at forest service camps, more structure at Cal Fire’s.
His municipal agency and others like it are small fish compared to the two: “All the small departments are on the same page [with wildfire strategy], but until you get buy-in from [Cal Fire and the forest service], nothing will change,” he said.
An effort to force such buy-in — to get agencies on the same page in terms of addressing wildfire — is happening congressionally.
On March 2, Congressman Tom McClintock, representing California District 4 (which covers Truckee and Tahoe), introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives requiring the secretary of agriculture to carry out wildfire suppression on National Forest System lands within the first 24 hours of detection. Congressman Doug LaMalfa, a Republican representing California District 1, co-sponsored the bill.
The bill, HR 6903, was referred to the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry on March 8, where it sits as of publication. Rocky Deal, chief of staff for Republican McClintock’s office, told Moonshine Ink that his office is doing everything possible to get the bill up before the natural resources committee, “but a realist would say, no, the committee will not take it up” due to a hesitancy by Democrats to manage forests at a larger scale.
“What we want to see by this bill is we cannot go into another fire season — and it happens every season — where we have a fire that begins on federal land, U.S. National Forest land, that is allowed to burn and then gets away,” Deal said.
“The conditions that these forests are in now, you cannot wait and you must use all available resources,” he continued. “… The counter has been, well, a thunderstorm or thunder-lightning front comes through and there’ll be multiple fires and you can’t expect them to put ‘em all out. No, that’s not the point. The point is you continue to attack every one of those fires that you can with the resources that you can muster until they’re out.”
To date, jurisdictions, individuals, and organizations that’ve publicly supported HR 6903 include Placer, Nevada, and El Dorado counties, the Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District, State Senator Brian Dahle, and the Sierra Forest Action Coalition. (See the full list on the facing page.)
Cal Fire’s Blankenheim added that based on conversations with fire chiefs around the Tahoe Basin, he says that they agree with HR 6903.
“The sole purpose of [the bill] is public awareness and demonstrating to the forest service that those who represent a lot of people are saying, yes, you need to do this,” Deal said.
Chief Estes mentioned a misconception he’s heard in response to the bill — that flexibility for federal agencies to manage their land and use fire appropriately would be taken away.
“I don’t think it really does that,” he said. “I think really what it’s doing is enforcing that philosophy that under certain circumstances and in certain geographical areas, full suppression needs to be the mission of the day.”
Cal Fire as an agency in general, Estes added, isn’t taking an official position on the legislation, “but there’s nothing in that bill that we do not already do and support every single day of the year.”
Conversely, North describes the legislation as a short-term attempt to maintain political power. “The science is very consistent and what the politicians sometimes push is a short-term desired outcome,” he furthered. “But in the end, it’s not going to change the fundamentals that the problem’s going to get worse and worse.”
As of May 26, the following jurisdictions, individuals, and organizations have publicized support of HR 6903:
Alpine County; Amador County; Placer County; Nevada County; El Dorado County; Tuolumne County chair and vice chair; Tuolumne County Utility District; California State Sheriffs’ Association; Mountain County Water Agency (made up of 35 water districts); Placer County Water Agency; City of Auburn; City of Roseville; City of Rocklin; City of Lincoln; City of Colfax; Town of Loomis; American Loggers Association; Associated California Loggers; Placer County Business Alliance; South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce; South Lake Tahoe Lodging Association; Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District; Tahoe Douglas Fire Chief Scott Lindgren; assembly persons Frank Bigelow, Kevin Kiley, Megan Dahle, and James Gallagher; senators Jim Nielsen, Brian Dahle, Scott Wilk, Pat Bates, Andreas Borges, Shannon Grove, Brian Jones, Melissa Melendez, and Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh; and Sierra Forest Action Coalition.