Managed Fire Has a Role in Reducing Wildfire Severity in the U.S.

Sep 18, 2015
Paper in Science Magazine argues that prescribed fires or managed wildfires should be accepted options.

A paper published in the September 18 issue of Science Magazine calls for greater public support of managed wildfires as an important and cost-effective but rarely used option for reducing the costs and severity of wildfire in the United States

Authors of the paper include Malcolm North of the U.S. Forest Service and Greg Aplet of The Wilderness Society.  The paper notes that:

  • Accumulated fuels in dry forests need to be reduced so that when fire occurs it is more likely to burn along the surface at low or moderate intensity, consuming many small trees and restoring forest resilience to drought and future fires.
  • Mechanical thinning (cutting down trees and brush) can reduce tree density and some fuels but is often limited by policy, operational and cost constraints.
  • Managed fire can be used to reduce vegetation that fuels fire with intentional (prescribed) burns or with opportunistic burns (letting a natural ignition burn as “managed wildfire”) – if they occur under moderate weather conditions. Although these burns are much less precise than mechanical thinning, in remote locations, these fires are usually more efficient, cost-effective, and ecologically beneficial than mechanical treatments.
  • Management reform in the United States has failed, not because of policy, but owing to lack of coordinated pressure sufficient to overcome entrenched agency disincentives to working with fire. Responding to established research, official agency policy now supports a more flexible response to fire than ever before.
  • During the most recent decade when data were collected (ending in 2008), only 0.4% of ignitions were allowed to burn as managed wildfires.
  • The core problem has been the lack of a public constituency that advocates for reform of fire-use practices.  Public support for expanded fire use could thus be directed toward revision of National Forest plans, which provide standards and guidelines for management decisions.
  • Forest plans can divide the landscape into zones for different fire management strategies. These forest plans could zone areas close to homes (wildland-urban interface) as an area where fuels reduction relies more on mechanical thinning and fires are suppressed. Beyond this could be an intermediate area where prescribed fire and mechanical treatment are used to optimize fuels reduction.  More remote forests could be intentionally burned with prescribed fire, or lightning ignitions allowed to burn as managed wildfires under moderate weather conditions.


The Wilderness Society is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Founded in 1935, and now with more than 700,000 members and supporters, TWS has led the effort to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands.

CONTACT: Michael Reinemer, michael_reinemer@tws,org, 202-429-3949