Prescribed Fires

Changing the way we see fire

In the 1960’s forest managers began to view fire differently. New research showed that fire was beneficial to the management of national parks and national forests . The shift towards embracing fire as an essential natural event was first raised in a 1963 government report called the Leopold Report.  The report advocated for the use of fire as “the most ‘natural’ and much the cheapest and easiest” way of controlling vegetation within parks.

By 1978, the US Forest Service had accepted the use of fire in forest management. Since the 1970’s,  prescribed burns have become more prominent across the United States as a management tool for sustaining habitats.  Both State and Federal agencies prescribe fires for a variety of reasons, such as reducing the amount of fuel around developed areas, maintaining natural landscapes, and maintaining historic landscapes such as battlefields. To see a timeline of United States fire history, visit this National Park Service site.

The difference between wildfires and prescribed burns

Unlike prescribed burns, wildfires are unplanned and are caused either by natural events, such as lightning strikes, or by human activity. These fires can provide ecological benefits in the same way that prescribed burns do, but also pose significant risks. In areas where there is an unnaturally high buildup of trees and other plant material, wildfires can be detrimental to the ecosystem. These high intensity fires are difficult to manage and contain, and can threaten nearby communities. For example, wildfires near Oakland, CA in 1991 were responsible for $1.5 billion in damage to property, 25 deaths, and 150 injuries. Fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988 raged for an entire summer after decades of fire suppression, burning 30% of the Park’s total area, causing campsites to be evacuated, and costing over $120 million dollars to fight.

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Aftermath of a wildfire, photo courtesy of the Jackson National Guard

In contrast, prescribed burns are planned, controlled fires which are undertaken with specific conservation and ecological goals in mind.  They are scheduled for times when weather conditions help ensure that the fires won’t race out of control, and therefore are intended to affect only the area that managers want to burn.

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Aftermath of a prescribed fire, photo courtesy of the Jackson National Guard

These fires are managed by trained professionals, and should only ever be conducted by trained professionals. People who unlawfully start fires face harsh punishment.