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Forest Service unveils plan to reduce wildfires

The multi-agency effort will remove forest fuels that spur bigger fires.

Firefighters monitor the Greenwood fire Aug. 26, 2021
Firefighters monitor a defensive fire on the southwest side of the Greenwood Fire on Aug. 26, 2021. Forest Service officials on Tuesday announced a plan to increase forest thinning to reduce the fuel that spurs big wildfires.
Contributed / Superior National Forest
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Federal land managers on Tuesday announced what they called a comprehensive response to growing wildfire danger across forested areas of the nation.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said they were unveiling a 10-year strategy to significantly increase logging, prescribed burns, thinning and other “forest health treatments” more strategically where needed most and at the scope of the wildfire danger that looms in many areas.

The plan includes treating an additional 20 million acres on national forests over the next 10 years to reduce fire danger and an additional 30 million acres on other federal, state, tribal and private lands over the next decade.

The effort got a kick-start in November with passage of the Biden administration's $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill that includes $3 billion in new money for forest fire reduction work.

Regional foresters across the country will be asked to submit their highest-risk areas along with concrete plans to reduce fuels and fire dangers for those areas to be included in the effort.

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Federal officials conceded that, while they have tried to address the increasing wildfire danger that comes as climate change appears to be spurring increased droughts, “the scale and methods of work on the ground have not matched the need.”

The new plan comes after years of hand-wringing among agencies over the rapidly increasing number and size of forest fires, especially in Western states like California but also in places like Colorado, Texas and northern Minnesota.

In the Northland, the Forest Service manages the Superior and Chippewa forests in Minnesota, the Chequamegon-Nicolet forest in Wisconsin and the Ottawa forest just across the border in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — millions of acres combined.

In August 2021, a lightning-sparked fire amid an historic drought burned across nearly 28,000 acres or 42 square miles in Lake County in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, much of it within the Superior National Forest. Some 14 buildings were destroyed and more than 290 homes and cabins were evacuated at one point. More than 400 firefighters were called to help contain the fire, which smoldered well into October.

READ MORE ABOUT THE GREENWOOD FIRE:
A cohort of Minnesota politicians visited with firefighters working on the Greenwood Fire on Monday.

Forest experts believed the fire grew fast not only because of the extreme drought and strong winds on some days, but also because much of the forest in the area had been damaged by an insect, the spruce budworm, that attacks both balsam fir and spruce trees common in the area. That created more fuel for fires to burn hotter and larger.
“The negative impacts of today’s largest wildfires far outpace the scale of efforts to protect homes, communities and natural resources,” said Vilsack, in a statement. “Our experts expect the trend will only worsen with the effects of a changing climate, so working together toward common goals across boundaries and jurisdictions is essential to the future of these landscapes and the people who live there.”

Greenwood Fire crosses County Highway 2 on Aug. 20, 2021
The Greenwood Fire is shown crossing County Highway 2 in the area of Sand Lake and Stony Lake on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.
Contributed / Superior National Forest

Forest Service officials said they will work with other federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, and with tribes, states, local communities and private landowners to focus efforts to remove so-called forest fuels.

The strategy highlights new research on what Forest Service scientists identified as high-risk firesheds — large, forested landscapes with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose homes, communities, infrastructure and natural resources to wildfire. Firesheds, typically about 250,000 acres in size, are mapped to match the scale of community exposure to wildfire.

The Forest Service will use this risk-based information to engage with partners and create shared priorities for landscape scale work, to equitably and meaningfully change the trajectory of risk for people, communities and natural resources, including areas important for water, carbon and wildlife.

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The strategy calls for the Forest Service to treat up to an additional 20 million acres on national forests and grasslands and support treatment of up to an additional 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal and private lands.

The recently approved infrastructure legislation provides nearly $3 billion to reduce hazardous fuels along with investments in fire-adapted communities and post fire reforestation.

A decade after the Pagami Creek blaze, forest rebirth offers example of wildfire benefits.

In each of 2020, 2017, and 2015, more than 10 million acres burned nationwide, an area more than six times the size of Delaware. In the past 20 years, many states have had record catastrophic wildfires, harming people, communities and natural resources and causing billions of dollars in damage. In 2020, Coloradans saw all three of their largest fires on record. The running five-year average number of structures destroyed by wildfires each year rose from 2,873 in 2014 to 12,255 in 2020 — a fourfold increase in just six years.

That includes the Pagami Creek fire that burned across nearly 100,000 acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 2011, still Minnesota’s largest wildfire since the 1930s

“We already have the tools, the knowledge and the partnerships in place to begin this work in many of our national forests and grasslands, and now we have funding that will allow us to build on the research and the lessons learned to address this wildfire crisis facing many of our communities,” said Moore, in a statement. “We want to thank Congress, the president and the American people for entrusting us to do this important work.”
Landowners and other government agencies that would like to partner with the Forest Service, can go to the National Partnership Office website at fs.usda.gov/working-with-us/partnerships .

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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