Today, Mark Udall led a letter to Chief Tom Tidwell of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the heads of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, calling on them to review their prescribed fire burn procedures in light of the Lower North Fork fire last month in Colorado. The fire tragically took three lives and burned over 4,000 acres, including 23 homes, in March of this year. On April 13, a review of the Lower North Fork Prescribed Fire was released jointly by the State of Colorado and Colorado State University. While the report focused on Colorado State Forest Service protocol, it included important findings that can be used to review and make any necessary improvements to federal prescribed burn procedures. Senator Michael Bennet also signed the letter.
"This report contains important recommendations for the Colorado State Forest Service to strengthen prescribed fire operations, including long-term patrol and monitoring activities. As the state reexamines their prescribed burn procedures, we request that the USFS review the findings of this report and reexamine its own prescribed burn procedures," the senators wrote in the letter. "It is our responsibility to do everything in our power to learn from this tragic fire so that we can be better prepared in the future."
Wildfire is an understood reality in Colorado, where Colorado State University climatologists estimate 98 percent of the state is currently under drought conditions, but responsible steps can be taken to prevent and mitigate wildfire risk. In the letter, the members acknowledge the importance of prescribed burns as an effective forest management tool while noting that a prudent review will help reassure Coloradans and protect Colorado communities during wildfire season.
Earlier this month, Udall, along with Senator Bennet and Congressman Mike Coffman, called for an after-action review of the Lower North Fork fire. In addition, Udall took several proactive steps to encourage wildfire prevention and mitigation including providing recommendations for residents to be prepared and sending a letter to the USFS voicing his support for updating its aging and diminishing air tanker fleet.
The text of the letter follows:
Dear Chief Tidwell:
We write to highlight the concerns from across our drought-ridden home state about the safety of prescribed burns. Prescribed fire is a vital component of forest management that your agencies have used successfully for many years to reduce wildfire risk and restore healthy forests. However, the tragedy of the Lower North Fork fire - which was ignited from an escaped prescribed burn from the Colorado State Forest Service - raises critical issues about how, when, and under what circumstances this tool should be used.
Last week, the state of Colorado and Colorado State University released a review of the Lower North Fork Prescribed Fire. This report contains important recommendations for the Colorado State Forest Service to strengthen prescribed fire operations, including long-term patrol and monitoring activities. As the state reexamines their prescribed burn procedures, we request that your agency review the findings of this report and reexamine its own prescribed burn procedures. It is our responsibility to do everything in our power to learn from this tragic fire so that we can be better prepared in the future. We know that the agencies are highly professional and utilize the best available science to conduct your operations. However, in light of this recent example and before the wildfire season begins in earnest, we urge you to review the report and consider whether any of your federal rules and procedures could be improved. This close look will help reassure Coloradans and ensure that we are helping keep communities safe.
We continue to believe that prescribed burns can be an essential tool for effective forest management and do not intend this to be a top-down comprehensive agency review. However, we want to be sure that the Department of Interior is learning all available lessons from the Lower North Fork fire and is doing everything in its power to ensure the safety of prescribed burns.