Durango Herald: New law requires feds to coordinate for prescribed burns

The following was published by the Durango Herald on December 17, 2016.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bill signed into law last week by President Barack Obama aims to reduce the chances of a prescribed wildfire going haywire.

Under the Prescribed Burn Approval Act, the U.S. Forest Service is required to consult with local and state fire officials before authorizing a controlled burn if the fire danger on that land, or land nearby, is rated “extreme.” It does not mandate that local officials approve the burn – that final authority still rests with the Secretary of Agriculture, acting through the chief of the Fire Service.

“No one is going to have a better grasp of the conditions on the ground than the men and women who travel the land every day,” said Congressman Scott Tipton, R-Colo., who supported the bill in its journey through the House in early December. “More coordination between federal and local officials will help prevent prescribed burns from growing out of control.”

The new law applies to land owned by the Forest Service, which includes almost half of Colorado’s forests, and the San Juan National Forest accounts for more than a tenth of that area on its own.

Lawrence Lujan, regional press officer for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region, says his agency had no objections to the bill, recommended its signature, and will fully comply with its provisions.

“On average, we conduct about 4,500 prescribed burns per year to accomplish a variety of objectives, such as enhancing natural ecosystems and, most importantly, decreasing wildfire risks by eliminating the fuel needed for fires to grow,” Lujan said, stating that safety remains the agency’s top priority.

Lujan explained that although the Forest Service regularly coordinates with other fire authorities, the law makes it easier for officials to communicate in cases where “cooperators may have a particular concern either with the project itself or potential impacts to surrounding non-federal land.”

Federal agencies in Colorado are required to seek approval from state air pollution authorities before carrying out a controlled burn on federal land, according to Will Allison, director of the Department of Public Health and Environment’s air pollution division.

“Controlled burns in Colorado are subject to oversight, and permit conditions are designed to minimize smoke impacts to the general public and maintain air quality,” said Allison. “The responsible agency must take mitigating steps, such as favorable forecasted weather conditions and public signage, to increase awareness and minimize potential public exposure.”

It’s not unheard of for controlled burns to jump fire lines, especially during dry conditions – one agricultural fire on private land in La Plata County spread to threaten homes in June.

“One of the big impediments to prescribed burns is the perceived threat to what if we lose control of a prescribed burn,” state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, told the Herald after a hearing on the matter in 2014. “We have learned some horrible painful steps from past experiences.”

The law also requires the Secretary of Agriculture to submit to Congress a report detailing the number and locations of prescribed burns at the end of every fiscal year. “This will require some changes to current reporting practices but should be achievable once those changes are implemented,” Lujan said.