It’s a common forest management tool all over the west, but the only federal training center for this complex work is more than 2,000 miles away — in Florida. Efforts are underway to change that.
Prescribed burns are considered valuable tools by many land managers. But they can also be a prescription for disaster. Last year, a Forest Service burn in New Mexico blew up into the biggest wildfire in that state’s history. It burned for five months. 340,000 acres, 900 homes and outbuildings destroyed. The agency canceled all prescribed burns for 90 days.
Fifteen years ago, it happened near Camp Sherman — the Wizard Fire. On September 25, 2008, fire lookouts in the Black Butte Tower spotted a plume of smoke to the north where Forest Service crews had set a fire the day before.
“It became clear that there was a gap in patrol and that the fire had escaped,” said Jim Cornelius, the editor of The Nugget Newspaper in Sisters.
His readers were not happy.
“They were pretty furious about it,” Cornelius said. “And the letters to the editor that we received were pretty hot.”
One person wrote, “A prescribed burn in September near Wizard Falls, the notorious River and Camp Sherman? Are you kidding?”
Another writer referred to the blatant stupidity of seemingly forest experts. “I am outraged.”
Camp Sherman Store owner Roger White and his staff had a front-row seat as the Wizard Fire burned 1,800 acres at a cost of more than $4 million. Campgrounds were evacuated and residents were warned to be ready.
“Everybody’s concerned about it because, you know, you never know. What are we going to take first? Where are we going to take it? You know, that’s where we were at one point,” White said.
It’s complicated, challenging work with hundreds of variables to consider at every step.
“There’s so much planning and preparation and mobilizing of resources and communication that takes place before you even light the torch,” said Emily Curtis of Discover Your Forest.
It doesn’t go wrong often. The U.S. Forest Service reports a success rate of 99.84%. They lose control of about seven per year out of roughly 4,500.
Most prescribed burns take place on state and private land that total nearly 10 million acres a year.
John Bailey, an Oregon State forestry professor specializing in prescribed burning, says training the appropriate workforce to meet future challenges will be important.
“All the Western states realize with climate change and the number of people and ignitions and folks being impacted by wildfire and the amazing amount of fuel we have on the landscape, the need to do thinning and prescribed burning like this kind of location that, yeah, we have to do this work. And part of it is going to be just workforce development,” Bailey said.
And the only federal training site specifically for this job is the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center in Tallahassee, Florida. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and other Western lawmakers would like to change that. They have proposed legislation, the Wildfire Emergency Act, that includes money for a similar facility somewhere in the west.
“This is where God put the trees. And I will be telling those people in Florida the same thing,” Wyden said.
The Pacific Northwest region of the Forest Service does send people to Tallahassee, Florida, to train in prescribed burning. Last year, there were seven. This year, so far, just four.
But there are other opportunities closer to home to learn how to set the forest on fire and do it right. Trex is a two-week program run by the Nature Conservancy. With federal support, they take place all over the country.
At a recent one in Deschutes County, there were classroom sessions on mapping, communications, tactics and outdoor lessons with people from government agencies, private contractors, tribes, and universities from all over the Northwest and Canada taking part.
“A lot of these people are going to go out there, wherever they’re from or if they’re from around here, and utilize a lot of the information that they’re learning this season and into the future,” said Ariel Cowan, Oregon State University Regional Fire Specialist.
Then they go burn the forest — and do it very carefully. For those touched by the Wizard Fire, there can’t be too much of this kind of education. And a federal training facility in the west just seems to make sense.
“It seems to me that if you’re going to use prescribed fire as a management tool that you should be training your personnel to the highest standard possible. And if that means investing in a training center, that’s what you need to do,” Cornelius said.
After all, very few people remember the 99.8% of prescribed Forest Service burns that go right.
Very few forget the ones that go wrong.