Fire Management

The Fire Management toolbox contains resources for managing fire in wilderness. It provides information on agency policy and strategies, wilderness fire planning, fire resource advisor training, research, and other references. Contact us to suggest new materials for inclusion.

Basis in the Wilderness Act and Subsequent Wilderness Legislation

The following information was extracted from the Carhart Online Course: Managing Special Provisions: Fire in Wilderness.

For further information please take the online course: Managing Special Provisions: Fire in Wilderness

Section 2 (c) of the Wilderness Act states that wilderness is to be "protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable..." 

So the challenge of managing fire in wilderness is two-fold:

One - What is the natural role of fire in your wilderness? Two - How, if at all, should a particular fire be controlled?

Wildfire is a natural process in some ecosystems ("Fire-Dependent"), but fire management policy in the past was mostly about suppression. Fires were suppressed in both wilderness and non-wilderness. In systems where fire is an important natural process, these decisions to suppress wildfire in the past have had long-term consequences in the present, including dramatically increased fuel loads and shifts in natural species composition and distribution.

Some ecosystems that evolved without the presence of landscape-sized fire ("Fire-Independent") may now be at risk due to the spread of flammable non-native annual grasses (such as buffle grass or the exotic Bromus species such as red brome and cheatgrass), and through the introduction of human ignitions from recreational use, arson, and other sources. In those instances, wildfire threatens to become an unnatural process and fire control is essential to maintaining the largely fire-free conditions under which these ecosystems evolved.

You need to know not only what the natural role of fire is in your wilderness, but how far the current conditions are a departure from the natural conditions.

According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, "Wilderness [retains] its primeval character and influence [and] generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature." In certain environments, such as fire-dependent ecosystems, fire can be a powerful natural force. Allowing fires to burn in these wilderness areas preserves wilderness character, while allowing fire to burn in other areas negatively impacts wilderness character. Conversely, suppressing natural fires in fire-dependent wilderness ecosystems is a form of trammeling. The effects of wildfire on wilderness character will vary depending on whether the fire is in an unaltered fire-dependent ecosystem, a human-altered system (e.g. where past fire suppression has significantly changed the natural character), or a fire-independent ecosystem.

"Such measures may be taken as may be necessary in the control of fire...subject to such conditions as the Secretary deems desirable."

What is meant by "the control of fire"? What actions comprise "control"? And just what types of conditions are included in the general term of "fire"? There is little doubt that the original intent of the word "fire" is what we now call "wildfire." When the Act was passed in 1964, agency-ignited prescribed fires were rare occurrences, and wildfires were generally considered harmful. However, since at least 1978, Congress has seemed to embrace a broader definition of "control":

House Report 95-540 accompanied the bill which became P.L. 95-237 (Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978). It read in part:
"Section 4(d)(1) of the Wilderness Act permits any measures necessary to control fire, insect outbreaks or disease in wilderness areas. This includes the use of mechanized equipment, the building of fire roads, fire towers, fire breaks or fire pre-suppression facilities where necessary, and other techniques for fire control. In short, anything necessary for the protection of the public health or safety is clearly permissible" (emphasis added).
P.L. 95-237 authorized "whatever appropriate actions are necessary for fire prevention and watershed protection [including] acceptable fire pre-suppression and fire suppression measures and techniques" for two specific wilderness areas. House Report 95-540 makes it clear that, "The uses authorized by such special management language should not be construed by any agency or judicial authority as being precluded in other wilderness areas, but should be considered as a direction and reaffirmation of congressional policy" (emphasis added).
House Report 98-40 accompanied the bill which became PL 98-425 (California Wilderness Act of 1984). It read in part: "Prescribed burning could prove to be an especially significant fire pre-suppression method, particularly in cases where a history of past fire suppression policies have allowed 'unnatural' accumulations of dead or live build up to hazardous levels. Controlled burning...may have the advantage of producing fewer long term adverse impacts (and possibly beneficial impacts) on wilderness values than would the construction of roads or similar intrusions...Obviously, such measures should, to the maximum extent practicable, be implemented consistent with maintaining the wilderness character of areas, while at the same time protecting the public health and safety and protecting private property located immediately adjacent to wilderness areas" (emphasis added).

Training Materials

The materials posted here are intended for use in Wilderness Fire Resource Advisor Training sessions sponsored by the federal land management agencies. The materials date from 2008 and should be updated as necessary before use. Some modification of the presentations or addition of relevant examples to suit local conditions may also be necessary and is encouraged. Note also that much of the material is not wilderness specific, but addresses the general resource advisor position.

These training materials were produced by the staff at the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center and by subject matter experts such as Fire Resource Advisors and wilderness and fire managers from the four federal wilderness management agencies. The Wilderness Fire Resource Advisor Training is based on materials contained in the NWCG publication: Resource Advisor's Guide for Wildland Fire.