Wildland Fire History — The History of National Park Service Fire Policy

Bruce M Kilgore, Regional Chief Scientist, Western Region

Originally published Spring 1989 in Interpretation. Please note that many of the writers whose articles are included in this publication have since moved to new / different positions, retired, or passed on.

Editors’ Note [included in the 1989 article]: Since this article was written in April 1989, the following developments have occurred, as supplied by Dave Butts, Chief, Branch of Fire Management.

As of July 14, 1989, all lightning–caused fires are being suppressed. The report of the Fire Management Policy Review Team has been sent to all bureaus for implementation. It is incorporated in a Special Directive, signed July 12, 1989, which also identifies actions that must be accomplished before prescribed natural fires can again be permitted. There are 26 fire plans being revised in response to those instructions. The programs will be restored as soon as all the necessary refinements can be completed. The resulting program will be stronger and safer as the result of this effort.

Fire has burned forests and grasslands as long as such flammable vegetation has existed on earth. There are many biblical records of the effects of fire on vegetation and accounts of the use of fire by early Native Americans as well–which show ancient man’s knowledge ofthe potential of fire as a process and as a tool.

Many of our present wildfire problems began when we first attempted to ban all fires from the forests. Yet control of wildfire was essential in the late 19th century as forest resources were being destroyed by careless logging and the catastrophic fires which followed.

The policy of banning all fires in national parks in America began in Yellowstone National Park in 1886 and was implicitly incorporated in the National Parks Act of 1916. Fire suppression policies were based on claims that fire of any kind: (1) damages mature trees and kills seedlings; (2) destroys the best forage plants and perpetuates undesirable grasses; (3) robs the soil of nature’s fertilizer and promotes floods and erosion; and (4) destroys natural breeding places and shelter for birds and animals and often burns up nests, eggs, and young.

A number of early researchers in the South and West concluded that these were not accurate claims. In fact, in many cases, prescribed fires in pine forests of the South and West helped to establish pine stands, suppress other hardwood competitors, reduce hazardous fuel accumulations, and control various forest diseases.

So gradually during the 1920’s to the 1940’s, the US Forest Service began to accept the fact that, at least in the South, controlled burning was beneficial to longleaf pine, cattle, and quail.

An example of one of the specific situations which gradually led to a new National Park Service fire policy was the McGee Fire—a disastrous wildfire in 1955 which occurred just west of Kings Canyon. In a few hours, it had burned 13,000 acres of brush and forest and threatened the Grant Grove of giant sequoias. Soon thereafter, a number of scientists began to study the role of fire including prescribed burning in the giant sequoia–mixed conifer forest

These scientists concluded that fire plays a number of very important roles in this forest type: (1) it prepares a seedbed and favors germination and survival of giant sequoia seedlings; (2) it recycles nutrients; (3) it changes the successional pattern in the forest; (4) it favors many species of wildlife; (5) it develops a mosaic of vegetation age classes and types; (6) it reduces accumulations of hazardous fuels; and (7) it modifies the impacts of insects and diseases.

And it does these various important things in the ecosystem by burning fairly often every ten years or so. But if you keep fire out for any time, these effects do not occur. By suppressing fires for a hundred years or so, we may have brought about some changes that will need careful use of prescribed fires before we can simply let natural lightning fires burn again.

That’s why in the Sierra Parks of California, we now have a three–part program involving: ( 1) allowing some natural (lightning caused) fires to bum when they can do so without threatening human life or property; (2) using prescribed frres in parts of the system which have been modified by past fire suppression; and (3) continuing suppression in developed areas and areas near boundaries with other agencies.

The history of fire management policies and programs in the national parks can be summarized as follows. In 1968, the National Park Service changed its fire suppression policy to accept a more natural role for fire in park ecosystems. Lightning–caused fires were allowed to burn under specified conditions in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks that year, followed by similar programs in another seven parks between 1968 and 1972. In the decade that followed, another 26 parks began to use some parts of the prescribed fire program.

Lightning–caused fires are now permitted to bum in designated zones within 46 areas managed by the National Park Service. Nearly 58 million acres of national parks are classified natural fire zones, including 50 million acres in Alaska alone. A total of 58 national park areas use human–ignited prescribed bums to simulate the role of natural fire in certain ecosystems (often too small to allow natural fires to bum).

Since the beginning ofthese new programs in 1968 until1987, more than 1600 lightning–caused fires have been permitted to burn nearly 320,000 acres of national park lands. Also as of 1987, only one serious problem had developed–the Ouzel Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park which threatened the adjacent community of AlIens Park, Colorado. At the same time, more than 1400 prescribed burns were ignited by the park staff in 46 national park areas that covered 325,000 acres.

The burns were designed mainly to manage vegetation by simulating the natural role of fire in reducing fuel accumulations in order to modify plant succession and to help maintain ecosystem processes. Benchmark fire management programs in national parks include those found in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks in California, Everglades National Park in Florida, and Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in the Rockies.

The history–making fires in Yellowstone National Park are treated elsewhere in this issue. But as a result of these fires, on September 28, 1988, the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior appointed a ten–person interagency Fire Management Review Team to investigate and recommend modifications to agencies’ current fire management policies for national parks and federally designated wilderness areas. National Park Service representatives on that team were Boyd Evison, Regional Director, Alaska, and Bruce Kilgore, Regional Chief Scientist, Western Region.

In its December 14, 1988, report, the team indicated that the objectives and the philosophy behind the current prescribed natural fire policies in national parks and wilderness areas are fundamentally sound. But these policies, which permit lightning–caused fire (prescribed natural fire) to burn under predetermined conditions, need to be refined, strengthened, and reaffirmed.

The ten–page report, published in the December 20, 1988, Federal Register, noted that the ecological effects of prescribed frre support resource objectives in parks and wilderness, but in some cases the social and economic effects may be unacceptable. Prescribed natural fires may affect permitted uses of parks and wilderness, such as recreation, and may also impact areas outside parks through such phenomena as smoke and stream sedimentation. The report called for major changes in policy implementation to limit application to legitimate prescribed fire programs and to prevent any inappropriate uses of these policies.

The report contains 14 specific recommendations for strengthening and reaffirming existing fire management policies in wilderness and national parks. For example, it noted that many current fire management plans do not meet current policy and that so–called weather and fuel “prescriptions” for use of prescribed fire do not place enough limits on fire management decisions. To meet these deficiencies, the panel report recommends plans be strengthened by joint interagency planning along common boundaries, by improving weather and fuel prescriptions, and by clearly identifying areas needing protection from fire including developments within or adjacent to wilderness and parks.

The December 20, 1988, report was the subject of eleven public meetings held through the country during the first two weeks of February, 1989; written comments were also solicited. After careful review of such public input, the Review Team will submit its final report, following which the National Park Service will make some revisions in its fire policy to reflect these recommendations. But basically, it would appear that, as the review panel indicated, the policy itself is sound. Nevertheless, it is extremely important that we implement such an important policy with the best possible professional program.

Interpretation [was] a combined effort of the Washington Division of Interpretation and the Regional Chiefs of Interpretation. The publication [was] edited and designed by the staff of the Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry:

General Editor: Julia Holmaas
Technical Editor: J. Scott Harmon
Designer: Phillip Musselwhite
Contributing Editors:
Joe Zarki: Yellowstone National Park
Ginny Cowan: Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017