Fire History

A burned forest near a mile post reading mile number 9
Most visitors will see the area burned by the 2009 Bridge Fire along the Southern Scenic Drive near Mile Post 9.

NPS Photo/Peter Densmore

 

What words come to mind when you think of different kinds of fire? The community of being around a campfire? The destruction that comes with a house fire? Perhaps the usefulness of a prescribed burn? There are many different ways that we can think of fires. While plant communities in the western United States have had plenty of time to adapt to natural fires, adaptation has often been more challenging for the communities of people living in these same spaces. Humans have a complex and dynamic relationship with fire, and our changing attitudes over time are reflected in how our fire management policies have changed.

 

Recent Major Fires

 
Large plumes of gray and white smoke rise from a forested area with large rock formations in the foreground
Abundant fuel in the form of overcrowded forest caused the Bridge Fire to burn hot and fast.

NPS Photo

Bridge Fire (2009)

The Bridge Fire started from a lightning strike on June 14, 2009 at Bridge Hollow in Dixie National Forest land. Following the lightning strike, the fire was closely monitored and managed so that it could provide resource benefits, like reestablishing quaking aspen and ponderosa pines, and reducing fuel loads resulting from fire suppression. One month later, on July 14, hot and dry conditions along with unpredictable winds from the southwest carried the fire into the park. 30 mph (48 km/hr) gusts carried sparks from the flames across the scenic drive near Whiteman Bench, allowing the fire to spread quickly.

In total, the Bridge Fire burned 3,947 acres split almost evenly between the park and Dixie National Forest land. This was the largest fire in Bryce Canyon National Park’s history. Within the park, the burned area stretches west on Whiteman Bench and below the rim between Swamp Canyon and Farview Point. Along the west side of the park road, the visible burn stretches approximately 1.5 miles (2.4 km) between mile markers 8 and 10.

 
A mountain covered with dark green trees can be seen through a haze of gray smoke
Fire managers decided to let the Riggs and Lonely fires burn naturally to reduce the buildup of fire fuel in the area.

NPS Photo

Riggs and Lonely Fires (2018)

Both the Riggs and Lonely Fires were started by lightning strikes – the Riggs Fire on August 25, 2018, and the Lonely Fire on September 6 of the same year. Both of these fires originally started on Dixie National Forest land, and eventually merged into one large fire in mid-September. The area in which the fires were burning hadn’t been impacted by fire for many years, so fire managers decided to let them burn naturally to reduce the buildup of fire fuel brought on by fire suppression. At one point, however, the fire began to spread up into the park towards the parking lot by Rainbow Point, which would threaten both visitors and historic buildings like the restrooms on the south side of the parking lot. As a result, fire managers decided to implement a backburn off of the Bristlecone Loop trail.

Burn piles had already been established in the area as a consequence of the fire management program, so these piles were burned on the east side of the trail down towards the Riggs Spring Loop, while the west side of the trail was kept wet to prevent the fire from spreading. This careful and intentional backburn used up any possible fire fuels before the larger Riggs/Lonely Fire could move into the park on its own, thus preventing any unpredictable damage to visitors or historic structures. The backburned area is still obvious on the Bristlecone Loop today.

In total, the Riggs and Lonely Fires burned about 2,300 acres between the park and Dixie National Forest land. This was a fire that was managed by multiple agencies, including the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

 

How Do We Learn From Our Fire History?

Both the Bridge Fire (2009) and the Riggs/Lonely Fire (2018) began with lightning strikes. However, the Bridge Fire was the main reason the Riggs/Lonely Fire wasn't as severe as it could have been. After a fire, managers will reflect on what they could have done better. Following the Bridge Fire, this reflection led to the implementation of the fuel reduction program at Rainbow Point. Although lightning-caused fires can be unpredictable, we can use the past to plan ahead and prepare ourselves for the future.

What other lessons have we learned? Continue reading for a brief history of fire in the National Park Service, or check out the NPS Interactive Wildfire History Timeline!
 
A map of Bryce Canyon showing location of Bridge fire near Whiteman Bench and Riggs and Lonely Fire near Rainbow Point.
Locations of the park's two largest wildfires in recorded history: the 2009 Bridge and 2018 Riggs and Lonely fires.
 
Smoke plumes rise up from a wooded area with red rock formations in the background
Fire management has become more complex as wildfires have grown in size, intensity, and frequency over the last 30-40 years

NPS Photo

Historic Fire Regime

Before European colonization of the Americas, many indigenous peoples utilized controlled burns. These fires modified the landscape, helping to maintain the habitats of animals and plants that sustained their cultures and economies. However, as indigenous peoples were displaced by colonists and killed off by European diseases, attitudes towards fires began to shift. Rather than a helpful tool, fire was seen as a threat and feared by European colonists. As a result, fire suppression became a widespread policy. By 1911, with the passage of the Weeks Act, native fire practices were largely made illegal.

Fire suppression became the norm following three catastrophic fires. These were the Peshtigo Fire (Wisconsin, 1871), the Santiago Canyon Fire (California, 1889), and the Great Fire (Montana/Idaho, 1910). In particular, the legacy of the Great Fire solidified fire suppression in the US Forest Service – and, in turn, the National Park Service, who followed their policies.

As of the 1960s, the National Park Service no longer uses fire suppression as their primary management strategy. Where it is safe to do so, lightning-caused fires will be allowed to burn and provide resource benefits. Where fire suppression has created large buildups, especially in popular areas, fire managers might use a prescribed burn instead. In the case of a human-caused fire, suppression is still required. Managing fires isn’t always so simple, though. In the wake of fire suppression policy, today’s fire managers have a complex task. As we continue to learn about how fire suppression has impacted modern forests, how fire impacts our ecosystems, and where we as humans fit into our environments, our management strategies will continue to change.

 

Why Did We Stop Suppressing Fires?

By the 1920s, the Forest Service had determined that fire had no place in the forests. Thus began the “10 a.m. Policy”. This required all wildfires to be completely suppressed by 10 a.m. the morning after they were first spotted, or as soon as possible after that.

Initially, fire suppression was seen as very successful. In the 1930s, about 30 million acres of forest burned per year. This was reduced to only 2-5 million acres per year by the 1960s. However, there were dissenters throughout these years. Scientists and naturalists argued that fire played an important role in many ecosystems. Like the fires, these voices were mostly suppressed until the late 1960s and 1970s. By this time, research was beginning to show the effects of fire suppression, including the buildup of fire fuel. Other research argued that fire was necessary to reestablish populations of some plants, like the giant sequoia, because their cones could only release seeds if they were first burned in a fire.

In the 1960s, the National Park Service began to deviate from Forest Service policies. A special advisory board on wildlife management released the Leopold Report in 1962, which stated that “parks should be managed as ecosystems”. Furthermore, the Wilderness Act of 1964 encouraged parks to allow for natural processes, including fire. By 1968, the National Park Service changed its policy to recognize fire as an important ecological process. Fires are now allowed to run their natural course as long as they fulfill approved management objectives.

Want a more in-depth timeline of wildland fire history? Check out the NPS Interactive Wildfire History Timeline!
 
  • A burn scar showing the silhouette of bare trees and snags against a pink and blue sky
    Fire Ecology

    Learn more about forest succession and plant and animal adaptations to fire

  • A firefighter in a helmet, sunglasses and uniform uses a chainsaw to cut into the trunk of a tree
    Fire Management

    Learn more about the past, present and future of fire management strategies in Bryce Canyon

  • Flames against a black background.
    Fire Safety

    Learn more about fire safety.

Last updated: July 3, 2023

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