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US forest chief calls for a pause on prescribed fire operations

FILE - This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the active fire lines of the Hermits Peak wildfire, in Las Vegas, N.M., May 11, 2022. More than 5,000 firefighters are battling multiple wildland blazes in dry, windy weather across the Southwest. Evacuation orders remained in place Thursday, May 19, 2022, for residents near fires in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP, File)
FILE - This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the active fire lines of the Hermits Peak wildfire, in Las Vegas, N.M., May 11, 2022. More than 5,000 firefighters are battling multiple wildland blazes in dry, windy weather across the Southwest. Evacuation orders remained in place Thursday, May 19, 2022, for residents near fires in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP, File)

Federal officials are warning 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., where large fires continued their march across New Mexico on Friday.

Crews also battled blazes in Texas and Colorado, where forecasters issued red flag warnings due to elevated fire danger.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore cited the extreme conditions Friday in announcing a pause on prescribed fire operations on all national forest lands while his agency conducts a 90-day review of protocols, decision-making tools and practices ahead of planned operations this fall.

"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. "The communities we serve, and our employees 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 been facing much criticism for the 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 in the U.S.

Moore said that in 99.84% of cases, prescribed fires go as planned and they remain a valuable tool for reducing the threat of extreme fires by removing dead and down trees and other fuel from overgrown forests.

Wildfires have broken out this spring earlier than usual across 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 nation is far outpacing the 10-year average for the number of square miles burned so far this year.

Nationally, more than 5,700 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.

The largest fire currently burning in the U.S. has blackened more than 474 square miles (1,228 square kilometers) and state officials have said they expect the number of homes and other structures that have burned to rise to more than 1,000 as more assessments are done.

In Texas, the Texas A&M Forestry Service said the fire that has burned more than two dozen structures and forced the temporary evacuation of the historic town of Buffalo Gap was about 25% contained Friday after charring more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers) of juniper and mesquite brush.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.