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S. 3395, Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2016

Floor Situation

On­­­­ Monday, December 5, 2016, the House will consider S. 3395, the Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2016, under suspension of the rules. S. 3395 was introduced on September 27, 2016, by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and was referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, which discharged the bill by unanimous consent on November 17, 2016. The Senate passed S.3395 without amendment by unanimous consent on November 17, 2016, and the bill was subsequently referred to the House Committee on Agriculture.


Summary

S. 3395 prohibits the Department of Agriculture (USDA), via the Forest Service, from authorizing a prescribed burn on Forest Service land if the national fire danger rating system indicates an extreme fire danger level for the applicable county or contiguous county in which such targeted land is located, unless the Forest Service coordinates with State government and local officials. Furthermore, this bill would require the Forest Service to submit a report that details the number and locations of all prescribed burns for each fiscal year.


Background

Fire has always upheld a critical role in influencing vegetation and the future lifecycles of trees and plant communities worldwide; many living species and ecosystems are dependent on fire for survival. Nonetheless, as recent incidents in the United States have shown, wildfires can pose significant threats to both public health and general safety, as well as to air quality. In fact, since 2001, an average of 72,400 wildfires burned an average of 6.8 million acres every year.[1]

The historic suppression of fire and flame-related incidents has resulted in a lack of periodic, or otherwise natural, fires in our Nation’s forests. Consequently, the absence of periodic, low intensity fires has increased the risk of larger and more dangerous fires that adversely impact the health of forests and nearby communities. Because these larger fires are uncontrolled, they often exhaust significant areas of fertile land, destroy public and private property, and often threaten the safety of firefighters and general public.[2]

The federal government is responsible for managing wildfires that begin on federal lands, and the wildfires that begin on federal lands tend to be much larger - particularly in the Western United States. In an ongoing effort to mitigate the destruction and loss created by wildfires each year, the USDA’s Forest Service implements controlled burning tactics. Controlled burning is “any fire intentionally ignited to meet specific land management objectives, such as to reduce flammable fuels, restore ecosystem health, recycle nutrients, or prepare an area for new trees or vegetation.” Specifically, controlled or prescribed burning is a management tool that when used under specifically controlled conditions will help land stewards manage forests and nearby rangelands for long-term usage.[3]

When executed correctly, prescribed burns can be effective in mitigating the risk of large, uncontrolled fires. However, on April 3rd, 2013, the Forest Service conducted a controlled burn on the Dakota Prairie National Grassland that escaped its boundary and burned approximately 16,000 acres, later known as the Pautre fire. The plan for a controlled burn of 130 acres resulted in millions of dollars in damage to private lands in South Dakota, with ranchers loosing valuable pasture, hay, and fence. Sadly, following the Pautre fire, the Forest Service, Office of General Council failed to acknowledge any negligence and no reactive policy changes were enacted.

With these risks in mind and assuming there is no extreme fire danger level identified, the Forest Service has made it a priority to reintroduce controlled fires into fire dependent ecosystems as a means to help promote long-term sustainability.[4] According to the Forest Service, “due to our successful prevention and suppression efforts, fire patterns were markedly altered during the past century.” Continued controlled burning efforts, when authorized, will help the Forest Service improve long-term forest and rangeland health and will help mitigate the threat of large, lethal fire events in the United States.[5]


Cost

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate for this bill is currently unavailable.


Staff Contact

For questions or further information please contact John Wilson with the House Republican Policy Committee by email or at 6-1811.

 

[1] See CRS Report on Wildfire Suppression Spending.
[2] See USDA Forest Service Report on “Controlled Burning.”
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.

114th Congress