ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore cited extreme fire danger and unfavorable weather conditions Friday in announcing a suspension of all planned fire burning operations to clear brush and small trees on all national forest lands while his agency conducts a review of protocols and practices ahead of planned operations this fall.
His decision came as federal forecasters warned that expanding drought conditions coupled with hot and dry weather, extreme wind and unstable atmospheric conditions have led to explosive fire behavior in the southwestern U.S. The fires that are set on purpose are called prescribed burns or fires.
“Our primary goal in engaging prescribed fires and wildfires is to ensure the safety of the communities involved. Our employees who are engaging in prescribed fire operations are part of these communities across the nation,” Moore said in a statement.
He said they “deserve the very best tools and science supporting them as we continue to navigate toward reducing the risk of severe wildfires in the future.”
The U.S. Forest Service has faced heavy criticism for a prescribed fire in New Mexico that escaped its containment lines in April and joined with another blaze to form what is now the largest fire burning nationally.
Moore said that in 99.84% of cases, prescribed fires go as planned and are a valuable tool for reducing the threat of extreme fires by removing dead and down trees and other vegetation that serves as fuel in overgrown forests.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who praised the temporary suspension of intentionally set fires, said it's clear that well-managed prescribed burns can help reduce wildfire risks.
But "it is critical that federal agencies update and modernize these practices in response to a changing climate, as what used to be considered extreme conditions are now much more common,” she said in a statement.
“The situation unfolding in New Mexico right now demonstrates without a doubt the grave consequences of neglecting to do so," she said.
Wildfires have broken out this spring in multiple states in the western U.S., where climate change and an enduring drought are fanning the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires. The number of square miles burned so far this year is far above the 10-year national average.
Nationally, nearly 6,000 wildland firefighters were battling 16 uncontained large fires that had charred over a half-million acres (2,025 square kilometers) of dry forest and grassland, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
A California fire that started Friday in a building and spread to vegetation in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada about 80 miles (129 kilometers) north of Sacramento forced evacuations and closed a state highway.
In Texas, firefighters made progress against a wildfire near Abilene that destroyed at least 27 structures. Evacuations were lifted.
The biggest U.S. fire has blackened more than 474 square miles (1,228 square kilometers) of northern New Mexico's forested Rocky Mountain foothills. State officials expect the number of homes and other structures that have burned to rise to more than 1,000 as more assessments are done.
The winds on Friday prevented some aircraft from flying and dumping retardant and water, but ground crews managed to turn back flames and reinforce fire lines threatened by gusts exceeding 40 mph (64 kph).
“Crews did a really incredible job today,” said Jayson Coil, one of the fire operations chiefs.
And forecasters said cooler, moister conditions beginning Saturday should provide relief from the relentless winds and low humidity that have fueled the spring wildfires.
Associated Press writers Terry Wallace in Dallas and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report