Presentation Title

Lessons from 45 Years of Wilderness Fire Management in the Northern Rockies

Authors' Names

Julia Berkey

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Abstract/Artist Statement

Wildfire management is a hotly debated subject in the western United States. When it comes to forest fires and fuel loads, everyone from the president down to the local homeowner has their own opinion on the best management practices. For the large part of the last century, fire management in the American West has defaulted to aggressive suppression of all fire ignitions. Where this has been successful, the result has been denser, more homogenized forest stands and increased risk of uncharacteristically severe wildfire due to high fuel loading. In contrast, in the early 1970s a few wilderness areas began to allow some naturally ignited fires to burn. These landscapes now serve as laboratories for the ecological effects of reintroduced fire, as well as the challenges inherent in implementing such a strategy.

This research is aimed at synthesizing the fire management history from three large northern Rockies wilderness areas. A summary of the program, including its challenges and successes, will inform fire managers and policy makers on the history and lessons learned from over 40 years of wilderness fire management. To accomplish this, a literature review was first conducted to compile the existing papers, reports, and interviews related to wilderness fire. In addition, geospatial fire history data dating back to 1889 were collected to analyze the impact of different management strategies on total area burned. Following initial data collection, interviews were conducted with past and current fire managers and policy makers to fill in the persisting data gaps.

Results from the spatial fire history analysis indicate that the percent of total area burned has returned to or surpassed pre-suppression levels for all three wilderness areas. From both the literature and interviews, an emerging theme is that this success depends on management personnel with a strong wilderness ethic and willingness to accept the risks of long-term fire management. We therefore recommend training and incentive programs to cultivate and encourage the ethic and skills crucial to successful backcountry fire management. However, this reliance on personality over policy leaves the fate of the wilderness fire program up to chance. We conclude that management of wildfire as an ecological process would be more likely to occur if policy were written to better support non-suppression tactics. Ultimately, this research will provide information to both the local fire managers and regional and national policy makers on how to better implement and support the wilderness fire program. Such actions taken to strengthen the program will provide exceptional public benefits, such as millions of dollars saved on firefighting costs and ecological restoration of fire-dependent forest ecosystems.

Mentor Name

Andrew Larson

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Feb 22nd, 10:40 AM Feb 22nd, 10:55 AM

Lessons from 45 Years of Wilderness Fire Management in the Northern Rockies

UC 333

Wildfire management is a hotly debated subject in the western United States. When it comes to forest fires and fuel loads, everyone from the president down to the local homeowner has their own opinion on the best management practices. For the large part of the last century, fire management in the American West has defaulted to aggressive suppression of all fire ignitions. Where this has been successful, the result has been denser, more homogenized forest stands and increased risk of uncharacteristically severe wildfire due to high fuel loading. In contrast, in the early 1970s a few wilderness areas began to allow some naturally ignited fires to burn. These landscapes now serve as laboratories for the ecological effects of reintroduced fire, as well as the challenges inherent in implementing such a strategy.

This research is aimed at synthesizing the fire management history from three large northern Rockies wilderness areas. A summary of the program, including its challenges and successes, will inform fire managers and policy makers on the history and lessons learned from over 40 years of wilderness fire management. To accomplish this, a literature review was first conducted to compile the existing papers, reports, and interviews related to wilderness fire. In addition, geospatial fire history data dating back to 1889 were collected to analyze the impact of different management strategies on total area burned. Following initial data collection, interviews were conducted with past and current fire managers and policy makers to fill in the persisting data gaps.

Results from the spatial fire history analysis indicate that the percent of total area burned has returned to or surpassed pre-suppression levels for all three wilderness areas. From both the literature and interviews, an emerging theme is that this success depends on management personnel with a strong wilderness ethic and willingness to accept the risks of long-term fire management. We therefore recommend training and incentive programs to cultivate and encourage the ethic and skills crucial to successful backcountry fire management. However, this reliance on personality over policy leaves the fate of the wilderness fire program up to chance. We conclude that management of wildfire as an ecological process would be more likely to occur if policy were written to better support non-suppression tactics. Ultimately, this research will provide information to both the local fire managers and regional and national policy makers on how to better implement and support the wilderness fire program. Such actions taken to strengthen the program will provide exceptional public benefits, such as millions of dollars saved on firefighting costs and ecological restoration of fire-dependent forest ecosystems.