Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Investigation finds 43 US wildfires started as prescribed burns

Photo of mountains with a visible wildfire across a large portion of it, smoke filling up the sky.
Malachi Brooks

An independent investigation found that 43 prescribed burns by the U.S. Forest Service turned into wildfires in a 10-year period.

The investigation, done by the Government Accountability Office and made public on Monday, was requested by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District after a controlled burn in 2022 turned into New Mexico’s largest and most destructive wildfire on record, the Hermit's Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, prescribed burns reduce hazardous fuels to protect communities from extreme fires, minimize the spread of pest insects and disease, promote the growth of trees and other plants, and recycle nutrients back to the soil.

The Forest Service also plans to increase the number of prescribed burn operations over the next 10 years with federal infrastructure and inflation reduction funding.

Sometimes, however, controlled burns don’t stay controlled. Of 50,000 prescribed fire projects from 2012 to 2021, 43 became wildfires, including in Utah, Idaho, North Carolina, and the California-Nevada border.

One such fire is currently burning in Utah — the Little Twist Fire in Beaver County, which has burned 5,000 acres of national forest land since June 13 and is 40% contained.

The investigation did find that the Forest Service has taken steps towards implementing recommended changes following the Hermit's Peak-Calf Canyon Fire but said that “important gaps remain.”

A 2023 Associated Press review also found that federal land managers have fallen behind on some projects, and some highly-at-risk communities have been skipped over for less threatened ones.

The Government Accountability Office recommended the Forest Service develop a plan for implementing reforms, set goals, establish a way to measure progress, and ensure enough resources are dedicated to day-to-day management of reform efforts.

In a response to the report, the U.S. Forest Service said it generally agrees with the findings and is making progress. They noted that last year was a record year for treating hazardous fuels on forest lands and the agency is on track to build up crews to specialize in prescribe burns.

In agency documents, the Forest Service recognized that needed reforms will require major changes to practices and culture.

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.