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Fire Ecology, 2007
Volume 3, Issue 2

The History and Evolution of Wildland Fire Use
Author: Jan W. van Wagtendonk
Pages: 3-17
DOI: 10.4996/fireecology.0302003

Wildland fire use as a concept had its origin when humans first gained the ability to suppress fires. Some fires were suppressed and others were allowed to burn based on human values and objectives. Native Americans and Euro-American settlers fought those fires that threatened their villages and settlements but left others to burn unabated. Even with the advent of a fire suppression capability in the late 1880s, control efforts were focused on areas of human development while fires in remote areas were largely ignored. When the Forest Service was established in 1905, fire suppression became its reason for being, although some foresters questioned the economic logic of suppressing all fires. Fire suppression was the only fire policy for all federal land management agencies until the late 1960s when the National Park Service officially recognized fire as a natural process. Lightning fires ignited in special management zones in parks were allowed to run their course under prescribed conditions. The Forest Service followed suit in 1974 and changed its policy from fire control to fire management, allowing lightning fires to burn in wilderness areas. The programs in both agencies grew slowly as managers became comfortable with allowing fires to burn under controlled conditions. Various terms were used to describe these programs including “Let Burn,” “Prescribed Natural Fire,” and now “Wildland Fire Use.” Setbacks such as the Yellowstone fires in 1988 and the Cerro Grande fire in 2000 resulted in reviews and updates of federal fire management policies. The Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs joined the other two agencies by implementing fire use programs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today wildland fire use is a vital link in the fire and fuels programs of each of the federal land management agencies with nearly 6,000 fires burning over 1,400,000 ha (3,500,000 ac) annually. The future of restoring fire to fire-prone ecosystems will have to rely on increasing the use of wildland fire.

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