By Nichola Groom
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The U.S. Forest Service has suspended controlled burns on public lands in wildfire-prone California because of the coronavirus pandemic, upsetting officials who see the program as key to preventing seasonal infernos like those that devastated parts of the state in 2018.
The decision comes as forecasters predict yet another above-average year for wildfires in parts of the state because of dry conditions, and follows President Donald Trump’s repeated criticism of California’s own forest management work following the 2018 fires.
“Safety of the public and our wildland fire responders is priority number one,” said Jonathan Groveman, a spokesman for the Forest Service in California, whose office suspended controlled burns at the end of March.
He did not say when the work would resume. The Forest Service controls about 60 percent of California’s 33 million acres (13.4 million hectares) of forests.
John Giller, fire director for the U.S. Forest Service region in Washington and Oregon, confirmed controlled burns were suspended in those states as well, and said the agency’s “focus this spring is on the immediate decisions we can make to help communities face this pandemic.”
Suspending the work allows Forest Service employees to stay home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and ensures that smoke from controlled burns does not make people in nearby communities more vulnerable to the symptoms of the deadly respiratory illness, said Kaari Carpenter, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Washington.
Decisions about whether to suspend burns are at the discretion of regional offices, the USFS said.
California officials said they disagreed with the decisions and were continuing their own forest management work on state lands through the pandemic.
“I have no understanding as to why they made that decision,” said Thom Porter, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. “We’re very much in support of continuing our fuel-management projects. We see those as critical to protecting lives and property.”
In 2018, the state experienced its deadliest and most destructive fire season ever as 1.67 million acres (676,000 hectares) burned, killing dozens of people.
Trump has since repeatedly blamed California’s fires on the state’s supposed mishandling of its forests. In 2018, Trump also signed an executive order to speed projects to reduce “hazardous fuels” on federal lands through forest thinning, burning and timber sales.
The U.S. Forest Service treated some 223,000 acres (90,245 hectares) in California last year using prescribed fires and other methods, according to spokesman Nathan Judy.
Cal Fire is planning to burn about 25,000 acres (10,120 hectares) this year on state and private lands, similar to what it did in 2019. It wants to more than double that amount in the next six years, Porter said.
(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Peter Cooney)