Forest Service may let more wildfires burn

  • FILE - In this file photo taken Saturday, June 9, 2012, smoke billows from the Little Bear fire in southeastern New Mexico near Ruidoso, NM. When lightning sparks a wildfire deep in remote wilderness, U.S. Forest Service firefighters in recent years have been under orders to respond immediately, often trekking miles through steep, dense terrain with heavy gear to extinguish the blaze as quickly as possible. The agency’s policy to kill all fires, no matter how small or remote, was meant to decrease the threat of a spreading catastrophe in an increasingly parched, drought-stricken Western landscape. But in 2012 the forest service spent hundreds of millions over its budget, leading to a new approach to wildfire management in 2013. (AP Photo/Roswell Daily Record, Mark Wilson, File)

SAN FRANCISCO — After coming in $400 million over budget following last year's busy fire season, the Forest Service is altering its approach and may let more fires burn instead of attacking every one.

The move, quietly made in a letter late last month by Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, brings the agency more in line with the National Parks Service and back to what it had done until last year. It also answers critics who said the agency wasted money and endangered firefighters by battling fires in remote areas that posed little or no danger to property or critical habitat.

Tidwell played down the change, saying it's simply an "evolution of the science and the expertise" that has led to more emphasis on pre-fire planning and managed burns, which involve purposely setting fires to eliminate dead trees and other fuels that could help a wildfire quickly spread.

"We have to be able to structure (fire management) this way to help all of us," Tidwell told The Associated Press. "So that we're thinking about the right things when we make these decisions."

The more aggressive approach instituted last year was prompted by fears that fires left unchecked would quickly devour large swaths of the drought-stricken West, Tidwell said. New Mexico and Colorado reported record fire seasons in 2012, and with dry conditions remaining in much of the region 2013 could be another bad year in the West.

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