The U.S. Forest Service is considering allowing some naturally caused wildfires to burn in remote areas of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The goal is to improve forest health while reducing the potential for catastrophic fires in the long term, forest supervisor Scott Conroy said in a prepared statement.
Experts say large fires in the West in recent summers are in part the result of forests overgrown from decades of fire suppression.
The proposed change comes as the agency is updating forest management plans created in the 1990s.
"Land managers throughout the West have learned over the last 40 years that there are ecological benefits of having fire on the landscape as it can provide for a renewal of the forest," Conroy said. "It is a natural cycle of life in a forest."
The agency is seeking public comments on the proposed changes by April 4.
Even if the changes are approved, aggressive fire suppression would still occur when life, private property or natural resources were threatened, officials stressed.
"We would still be in the business of fighting fires," said forest spokeswoman Patty Burel. "This does not mean we won't be fighting fires in the future."
The let-burn policy would be implemented only in strictly defined areas and if rigid conditions were met, she said.
"It would have to be on the right topography, the right kind of weather, right time of year," she said, noting land managers also would consider fire danger and the potential for the fire to spread beyond its isolated location.
"Any human-caused fires we would still aggressively put out," she said, referring to fires caused by accident or arson.
A limited let-burn policy in wilderness areas was in effect in the Siskiyou portion of the forest but not in the Rogue River portion. The two forests were combined administratively in 2004.
"Where appropriate, a land manager could let a fire go beyond a wilderness area," she said of proposed changes that would allow some wildfires to burn.
"We recognize that a lot of wildfires across the nation have been larger, more intense," she said. "This is one of the options we would have in our tool box that we could use, but only under the right conditions."
Before completing an environmental assessment of the revised plans, which is expected in May, the agency would review all public comments, she indicated.
Comments on the proposed changes should be sent to Rob Budge, deputy fire staff — fuels, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, P.O. Box 520, Medford, Oregon 97501.
They can also be sent via fax at 779-3098 or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. "Appropriate Management Response" should be included in the subject line.
For further information or questions, contact Budge by phone at 858-2434 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.