Forest Fires: Their Role, Management, And Survival

Fire has two sides in the North American wildlands; one side is beneficial when fire is under control and serves land management policy goals. The other side is destructive, when fire rages large and out of control and destroys property and resources and threatens lives.

Wildland fire management is tied to forest health. Current U.S. policy recognizes fire as a critical process in many eco-systems and try to balance its use with the reality of a history of fire suppression that resulted in forests that are at great risk of blowing up in large conflagrations.

Classes of Wildland Fires

The three primary classes of wildland fires are surface, crown, and ground. These classifications depend on the types of fuels involved and intensity of a fire.

  • Surface fires typically burn rapidly at a low intensity and consume light fuels while presenting little danger to mature trees and root systems.
  • Crown fires generally result from ground fires and occur in the upper sections of trees, which can cause embers and branches to fall and spread the fire.
  • Ground fires are the most infrequent type of fire and are very intense blazes that destroy all vegetation and organic manner, leaving only bare earth. These largest fires actually create their own winds and weather, increasing the flow of oxygen and “feeding” the fire.

The key consideration is when fires threaten lives and property.

READ MORE: How to start a fire

Fire Agencies

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho is the nation’s support center for wildland firefighting. Seven federal agencies call NIFC home and work together to coordinate and support wildland fire and disaster operations. Among these agencies are: The U.S. Forest Service, The National Park Service, The Bureau of Land Management, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Wildland fire management policy is primarily an issue of land and resource management, and falls under the jurisdiction of the land management agencies responsible for national forests, parks, wilderness areas and other public lands. There are five federal land management agencies with wildfire management responsibilities:

  • U.S. Forest Service (USFS) USFS manages 191 million acres of national forests and grasslands.
  • National Park Service (NPS) NPS administers 80 million acres of national parks, monuments, historic sites, natural areas, and other federal lands.
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM) BLM manages 264 million acres of public lands, provides fire protection for 388 million acres, and is the host agency at NIFC. 
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) FWS manages more than 92 million acres of national wildlife refuges and wetland areas. 
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) BIA provides wildland fire protection for 60 million acres of Indian reservations and other trust lands. 

The U.S. Forest Service is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The other four agencies are within the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

In addition, state agencies, usually within departments of forestry or natural resources, generally are responsible for wildfire management on state-held and privately-held lands. The National Association of Stat Foresters brings together these state agencies. State wildland fire organizations are represented at NIFC through the Forest Service’s Cooperative State and Private Forestry Authorities. [how much public land do these agencies manage; in total and individually?]

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre is an up-to-date resource for Canadian wildland fire information.

Fuel Management

Fuel management is often linked to forest health, since major forest health concerns include excess biomass (i.e., fuel loadings) and catastrophic fires. Fuel management may well reduce fire control costs and damages, but the evidence is largely anecdotal, with few documented estimates of the decline in control costs and/or damages associated with fuel treatments.

The Forest Service began moving into fuel management in the 1960s, to reduce the net cost of wildfires to society. Although numerous techniques can be used, one of the most common is prescribed burning — intentionally setting fires within established control boundaries under prescribed conditions to burn the existing fuels when and where the fire can be contained. Prescribed burning can be an efficient tool for reducing small-diameter fuel at or ground level although it carries the risk of escaping its prescribed boundaries and becoming a wildfire.

Other tools for reducing fuel loadings also exist. Salvage timber operations can also be used to reduce fuel loadings. Pruning, precommercial thinning, and mechanical or chemical release can reduce live biomass and make it more susceptible to elimination, naturally (through decomposition or wildfire) or in prescribed fires. However, these tools are less commonly used because of their relatively high costs.

[Forest Fires and Forest Health, Gorte, Ross W., 1995, Congressional Research Service: Report for Congress]

Fire Control

The preferred technique to evaluate the economics of fire control, and of fuel management, is known as “least-cost-plus-loss.” This approach asserts that fire control is only justified by the damage prevented. Little or no fire control is economically justified for wildfires that are doing little or no damage (the underlying idea for the prescribed natural fire policies) or for wildfires that cannot be controlled (because no damage can be prevented). Similarly, fuel management is justified only when the treatment costs are less than the benefits, either in reduced control expenditures or in reduced damages.

[Forest Fires and Forest Health, Gorte, Ross W., 1995, Congressional Research Service: Report for Congress]

Wildfire Effects

Wildfires can damage lands and resources. Timber is burned, although some may be salvageable. Existing forage, for livestock and wildlife, is destroyed. The reduced vegetation can increase erosion; in severe situations the results can be mudslides when the wet season returns. And burned areas are not pretty.

Damages of wildfires on lands and resources are often overstated, for two reasons. First, fires are patchy, leaving unburned areas within the fire perimeter. Thus, reports of acres burned, typically calculated from the perimeter, overstate the actual acres burned by 10 to 15 percent.

Damages are also overstated, because fires do not destroy every living thing within the burned areas. Mature conifers often survive even when their entire crowns are scorched. Grasses and other plants are often benefited by wildfire, because fire quickly decomposes organic matter into its mineral components, and the flush of nutrients accelerates plant growth for a few growing seasons. Few animals are killed by even the most severe wildfires and erosion is typically far worse along the fire lines than from the broad burned areas.

[Forest Fires and Forest Health, Gorte, Ross W., 1995, Congressional Research Service: Report for Congress]

Wildland Fire Policy History

North American native peoples saw fire as an ally and were proactive in its use as a management tool. They used fire to drive game, eliminate pests, communicate, and to clear land for settlements, travel, and agriculture. Today fire is one of the many tools foresters use to manage forests. Fire serves the forest by controlling or eliminating pests, removing undesirable plants, adding nutrients to the soil, removing undergrowth, and clearing congestion. In addition, many forest ecosystems are fire dependent. Fire is needed to control competitive species, prevent overstocking, open cones, and to prepare the soil for natural seeding. Fire dependent species have developed thick bark to withstand the periodic low intensity burns common to these ecosystems.

[Wildlands Fire Management: Federal Policies and Their Implications for Local Fire Departments, U.S. Fire Administration]

In 1910, after catastrophic blazes burned more than five million acres and killed 79 firefighters in the Southern Rockies, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a clear, single fire management philosophy that declared “the moral equivalent of war” on forest fires. This philosophy was to guide its policy for the next 50 years. The policy was simple: stress fire prevention and control all fires as quickly as possible. Fire was seen as a disruption of natural processes in the wilderness and should be stopped. During this time, U.S. foresters saw their jobs largely in terms of stopping fires, and success in fire management was measured by how many fires were extinguished. The area with the fewest fires was considered the best managed.

The Tillamook Burn and the “10 a.m. Policy”

The Tillamook burn of 1933, which destroyed three million acres of essentially virgin timberland in the Northwest, had a profound effect on Forest Service fire policy. The experience led the USFS to adopt an even more rigid form of its basic “no bum” policy. All fires were to be controlled as quickly as possible, preferably during the first duty shift after detection. If that wasn’t possible, fires were to be controlled by 10 a.m. of the following day.

This “10 a.m.” policy was made possible with the availability of labor through the newly-established Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and with the emergence of organized emergency fire crews, the management of organized fire suppression forces, and the development of formal line construction methods. The 10 a.m. policy was consistent with the cost-plus-loss economic-based objective established in 1926.This policy survived until the early 1970s.

The “Leopold Report”: The Role of Natural Fire and Use of Prescribed Burns in the Park Service

Two events — the issuance of the “Leopold Report” in 1963 and the subsequent enactment of the “Wilderness Act of 1964” — challenged the principles which had guided U.S. wildland fire policy since its beginnings, led to a new view of the role of natural fire in wilderness and inaugurated a slow transformation of fire policy.

Says historian Stephen Pyne, “Fire control in itself was now considered inadequate — indeed ruinous — as a program of resource management.” The Leopold Report stressed the importance of letting fire play its natural role in the ecosystems and cited experiments in controlled burning in the Everglades. It recommended the controlled use of fire as one of the most natural as well as least expensive and most easily applied methods of manipulating vegetation in wilderness areas and urged that the Park Service institute a research program to guide its resource management objectives. Soon thereafter the National Academy of Sciences also recommended that the Park Service institute a research branch.

Natural Fire and Use of Prescribed Burns by the Forest Service

In 1971, the Forest Service reexamined its “10 a.m. policy,” primarily because of three concerns. First, there was a concern that the long history of prompt suppression had caused an increasing buildup of fuels in wilderness areas. Second, the 10 a.m. policy was not allowing lightning-caused fires to play their natural role. Third, the quick suppression policy was too expensive and did not allow forest managers the flexibility to weigh the cost of taking immediate suppression action against the resource values at risk. As a result of the 1971 re-examination, the Forest Service adopted a major modification of its policy by allowing lightning-caused fires to bum under specified conditions in Congressionally-designated wilderness areas having au approved fire management plan. These were designated natural “prescribed fires.” All other fires, including all human-caused fires, were considered wildfires and were to be immediately suppressed. The 10-acre suppression policy was incorporated as a presuppression planning objective.

In 1978,the Forest Service again made a significant revision in its fire management policy. The objective of wildfire suppression was changed from one of control of all wildfires by 10 a.m. to one of managing fire suppression costs and damages, consistent with land and resource management objectives. Prescribed fire to protect, maintain and enhance National Forest resources was reaffirmed as an approved management practice.

Canada’s Wildland Fire Policy

Canadian policy calling for suppression of 85 to 90 percent of forest fires as soon as they are detected. According to David Lohnes, Director of Natural Resources for the Canadian Parks Service, Canada’s policy of immediately suppressing most forest fires is not based on a disagreement with the U.S. view of the role of natural fire. In a New York Times story, Lohnes explained that Canada fights almost all of the fires in its national parks because of their proximity to the valuable timberlands that support the country’s large lumber industry. In fact, after the U.S. adopted its so-called “let bum ” policy, Canadians debated adopting a similar position. In 1979 they modified their approach by allowing some safe and ecologically helpful fires to bum.

Lohnes, who favors a more liberalized policy allowing natural fires to bum in Canada’s park lands, said that American forest management is considered the most advanced in the world. He pointed out that despite its policy of suppressing most natural fires, Canada, too, has experienced devastating natural fires. The worst year was 1981,when a total of 1.7 million acres of Canada’s park land was consumed by fire, including 238,000 in its largest park, the Wood Buffalo National Park.

The Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Problem

The wildland/urban interface refers to the area where relatively untouched wildlands and residential areas meet. At one time the distinction between the two was relatively clear, but changing residential patterns in recent years have seen increasing numbers of people building homes in and around wildland areas in all regions of the nation. U.S. Census figures indicate that the population in rural areas grew faster than urban areas during the 197Os, although the trend has slowed somewhat since then. Population in areas near national forests grew 23.4 percent between 1970 and 1980,according to the U.S. Forest Service.

This trend toward rural living has enormous implications for firefighting. The strategies and techniques that are effective in fighting wildland fires are very different from those employed for the protection of lives and structures in residential areas. Because wildland firefighting and structural firefighting have been separate from each other, firefighters have not traditionally been cross-trained to handle the unique problems associated with each. Protecting structures in sparsely populated areas not only involves special logistical problems, it often stretches limited firefighting resources to the limit and may preclude those fighting the wildfire from taking the most effective fire suppression approach.

Fire is a paradox: good if it is under control, and usually bad if it is wild and out of control. Wildfires have devastated millions of acres of forest land, however, together with Smokey Bear, we’ve achieved a great deal of success in fire prevention. Now we’re beginning to realize that we need to reintroduce fire to many ecosystems. It’s often an essential management tool needed to maintain stands of fire dependent species in a healthy condition. It’s important to recognize the two roles that fire plays.

U.S. Wildland Fire Policy

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