A mix of rain and sun came down over a dirt road in the Albion Mountains in southern Idaho, and Stacy Tyler scanned a patch of forest.
“If we burn this hot enough, it could come back aspen and lodgepole,” said Tyler, a fuels planner with the Forest Service and Sawtooth National Forest.
Tyler pointed out swaths of the forest slated for prescribed burning — they’re not small.
“This one's a couple of thousand acres. The one just down the hill is only a couple of hundred acres,” she said.
That’s nearly 3.5 square miles in total.
Tyler said the area likely hasn’t burned in about 100 years, possibly longer. It’s hard to say in these subalpine fir and aspen stands since the trees don’t get very old, unlike redwood or ponderosa pine stands.
Federal and state firefighters religiously put out blazes around the West for decades. But now, unburned forests combined with warmer temperatures drying out brush are fueling unprecedented extreme fire behavior. That includes unpredictable blazes that create their own weather.
Fires lit in cool, controlled conditions in the fall could fend off or slow down destructive ones down the line.
Prescribed burns can also help regenerate ecosystems that evolved with fire.
Tyler pointed to a stand of trees that were mostly green with pockets of bright yellow and orange. The green was subalpine fir trees which, over time, had started crowding out the tall, thin aspens now decked out in fall colors.
“Without repeated disturbance — meaning most likely fire events, or some sort of insect or disease that would kill the subalpine fir — the aspen are eventually going to go away,” she said.
These firs are made to burn, and Tyler said many will grow back. They’re shade tolerant, so they can even grow back if trees like aspens shoot up all over the hillside.
Aspens have an underground root system that will survive even if the limbs above ground burn.
While some trees technically could be cut for timber, there aren't many roads through that stand, and Tyler said timber companies don’t think these subalpine fir trees are worth much.
“My understanding is, it's not a good tree to make a board with,” she said.
While she said some mostly dead trees will be cut down and given to locals for firewood, the rest of the area is slated to burn. Some patches likely won’t burn completely, but when the rest go up in flame, it’ll give aspens a chance and provide better habitat for certain species like mule deer.
But the area is bordered by ranchers, many of whom graze cattle on this Forest Service land. Prescribed burns like this one have the potential to stoke a historical distrust between ranchers and federal agencies.
Tom Ottley is one of the public land grazing permittees who sat down with the Forest Service and other stakeholders to talk about the burn plan. At the first meeting, he said some things were a bit heated.
“There (were) some permittees I felt were probably a little overstepping their bounds as far as respectfulness to the Forest Service,” he said. “That first time, the ranger that came to the hearing, he was all burn, and ‘we can just send you guys home’... Everybody got a little bristled up.”
He said the immediate reaction from many was that they didn’t want a fire.
“There's just no way we can have a fire because we'll be off for three years,” he said.
That is, three years when cattle couldn't graze there.
And he was also concerned about things going wrong. Only an estimated 1-2% of managed forest fires escape their intended burn area, but Ottley had his reservations — until the second meeting when he talked with someone he felt listened to him and explained the science well.
“I felt when I came out of there that they were trying to resolve both sides of the situation, and I think they do need to do some management of some sort to reduce fuels,” he said. “They explained that the grasses would increase in that area, and I'm sure they will by getting some of that timber out of the way.”
Ottley said this kind of exchange is important. Ranchers and the Forest Service found a way forward that limits the time his cows are off public land, even if they didn’t agree on every little thing.
He said ranchers are often perceived as not being good stewards of public lands, so this was also an opportunity to support restoration projects.
“You know, when it's presented as an improvement project, I think most ranchers in general think, you know, we can get behind this, even if it does cost us a little bit along the way, too,” he said.
Of course, he’s also happy the prescribed burns could reduce the potential for a destructive wildfire. And if this burn goes well, he said he knows of other areas that could benefit from it, too.
Heather Heward is a senior instructor at the University of Idaho who teaches about forests and fires. She said it’s not just federal land we need to be thinning and burning, it’s private land, too.
“We have a real lack of (prescribed burn) practitioners, specifically on the private land side, that are able to do this work because – we're scared, honestly. We are scared that something will go wrong and that someone will sue us. I'm scared of that,” she said.
She said burns can be challenging to plan, and it’s easier not to do. But she said it’s still necessary. So she helped create Idaho’s first “prescribed fire council” in late 2020.
Heward said those councils, which originally formed in southeastern states, are a place where fire practitioners – public and private – can collaborate, share resources and identify barriers to burning in a state.
“We can organize people and make people aware of the conditions of the state that they need to be keeping in mind if they're going to use prescribed fire as a tool,” she said. “If there are specific conditions in that state that make prescribed fire hard, then we can perhaps organize a way to make it easier."
The Idaho Prescribed Fire Council only met once in-person before the pandemic, and have had remote meetings ever since. She said many people were also out helping with wildfire suppression this summer, which made meetings difficult.
“As we get off of the fireline and back into the office, the hope is to pull together resources so that when people look at their land and decide what they would like to do with it ... they can hopefully turn to our website and get some resources,” she said.
But all this starts with having conversations about how burns can benefit public and private property, not only to rejuvenate the land but to mitigate extreme wildfires, and how that can be done safely.
“When I hear questions about ‘How do you talk to people?’ I'm like, it's pretty straightforward. Go talk to people!” said Sarah McCaffrey, laughing.
McCaffrey works for the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station. She’s worked with Forest Service employees who don’t know how to approach skeptical members of the public.
"It's actually just showing up and explaining what you're doing, but also listening,” she said. “'Oh, you have a child with asthma? So you're really worried about the smoke. Well, let me tell you about how we manage smoke with a prescribed fire. And would you like us to put you on a list so we notify you ahead of time?'"
And fire might be more palatable to the public than some might believe.
McCaffrey’s research using data from the late 90s found the vast majority of people were actually OK with prescribed burns.
“And most surveys since then in many different locations across the United States, the findings are very similar. There are 80% (who) say prescribed fire is an acceptable management tool,” she said.
But she said sometimes, with groups wary of the federal government or those who’ve been near escaped burns, it can require more conversations and relationship-building.
That’s something the new Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said he plans to do more of.
“We have to spend some of our effort, our energy and time talking about fuel treatments,” he said.
Alongside more timber markets for communities at risk of burning, Moore wants more prescribed burns going forward. A lot more.
“Our goal is to increase prescribed burning threefold, if not even more. But we have to create the conditions so we can take advantage of the windows when we have them to do prescribed burning,” he said.
Moore paused prescribed burns nationally this past summer. It was a controversial move he explained in an August letter, citing a lack of resources and extremely dry conditions in areas around the West.
“The reality at the time was that resources were just stretched thin,” he said.
Moore said his letter was also a policy clarification: During that period of drought and limited resources, the agency would more aggressively attack and put out fires in the backcountry.
“Every little fire has the potential to go big, and if we wanted to give our firefighters the best chance of being successful, we wanted to limit or stop all fires,” he said.
Shortly before the policy came out, California Gov. Gavin Newsom had asked the Biden administration to crack down on fires. Newsom pointed to the Tamarack fire that lightning started along the Nevada-California border. Officials didn’t put it out immediately, pointing to limited resources, crew safety hazards and a relatively remote location.
But it still grew out of control and reportedly destroyed more than a dozen structures.
The L.A. Times reported that, after visiting the fire, Newsom said, “You can’t just walk away, not with this climate, not with this drought ...This is life and death, and we can’t just fight fires the way we did 20, 30, 40 years ago anymore.”
Backcountry burns and prescribed burns are separate discussions, but they both affect how Forest Service fire plans are perceived. Are they viewed as viable overall, or not?
Moore's decision to pause prescribed burns certainly had its critics.
The pushback included a letter from 41 scientists. Matthew Hurteau, an ecology professor at the University of New Mexico, led the drafting of that letter.
“We're in a position where we need a lot more of the right kinds of fire on the landscape,” he said. “And this is a large country, geographically speaking, and just because wildland fire risk is high in a particular geographic location doesn't mean that's the case everywhere.”
Hurteau argues that local forest managers should have had more say instead of having this top-down directive to stop prescribed burns. Even when federal resources are sparse, he said trained non-federal employees are available to help with prescribed burns when conditions are right – if Moore gives local managers the flexibility to use them.
“These folks are not making themselves available for fire suppression, right?” he said. “Their ability to participate in a prescribed burn does not detract from fire suppression efforts in another part of the country.”
For his part, Moore said he did make special allowances for some limited burns in the Southwest this summer, when they had the right conditions and the resources available.
Regardless, most fire science shows that we need more prescribed fire, and lots of it. There’s been a call for agencies and landowners to stop being reactive to fire seasons and become more proactive with burns.
Without them, ecologists largely agree that we’ll likely face even more intense smoke and much larger, hotter and more extreme wildfires all around the West.
Back in Southern Idaho, Stacy Tyler watched as a light rain turned to a brief downpour. She said the ground was now too wet to burn for at least a day. They wanted rain before they decided to light a fire, but if it keeps coming, they might have to put this burn off yet another year.
“Sometimes when the precipitation starts in the fall, it doesn't stop,” she said. “We’re kind of at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.