What is a resource benefit fire?

While we no longer refer to a fire as a resource benefit fire, wildland fire is an essential, natural process. Fire has helped shape our landscapes for thousands of years and is important to the survival of many plants and animals. In fact, some plants and animals depend on fire for survival. Periodic fire stimulates growth, reproduction of plants and provides wildlife habitat. Lack of fire and the resulting excess in some types of vegetation in some areas is threatening the lives of other plants and animals.

Fire behaves differently throughout the country. In addition to fuels (vegetation), fire behavior is affected by weather and terrain. Virtually all vegetation types in the U.S. can experience wildland fire.

How can I get a job as an NPS firefighter?

You must be a United States Citizen and at least 18 years of age in order to work as a firefighter for the National Park Service. All NPS wildland firefighting jobs are announced through the USA Jobs website. We do not accept resumes via email. Every wildland firefighter is required to meet certain physical requirements at the start of each season. The “Work Capacity Test” is required by every agency/bureau before issuing an Incident Qualification Card (Red Card). Certain crews, such as Hotshot crews, have more stringent requirements.

If you are entering the wildland fire arena without any previous experience, you may be able to complete some basic classes locally, which may increase your chances of being hired. Some basic fire courses are available online through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Contact your State Forestry Agency or community college to see if they offer any of these classes.

Learn more at by reading our PDF on NPS Fire Management Careers.

What kind of equipment do you use?

To put out a fire, one of the components of the fire triangle (heat, fuel or oxygen) must be removed. In nature it is often impossible to remove oxygen, so heat and fuel are the components most vulnerable to the firefighters' actions. Putting dirt or water on fire removes the oxygen from the fuel, allowing a single person using a hand tool such as shovel, axe, rake, Pulaski, McLeod or flapper to extinguish small fires. Larger fires require more people and equipment such as engines, pumps, bulldozers, helicopters and air tankers dropping water or fire retardant.

Wildfire is a natural part of the ecosystem, isn't it?

Fire is one of nature’s oldest phenomena, probably developing simultaneously with terrestrial vegetation and the evolution of the atmosphere. Evidence of free-burning fire has been found in petrified wood and coal deposits formed as early as the Paleozoic Era, approximately 350 million years before present.

Likewise, fire is a cultural phenomenon. It probably was the first product of nature that humans learned to control. Early societies used fire to kill and collect insects and small game for food; as a tool to clear land for agricultural activities; as a communication device to create smoke for signaling; and as a weapon against enemies. More recently, beginning with the industrial revolution, humans harnessed fire in engines to power machinery.

Initially, lightning was the spark that ignited fires. Later, once humans learned to initiate fire, its occurrence became much more widespread. Today, lightning strikes start approximately 10 percent of all wildland fires in the United States, and the remainder caused by humans.

Unquestionably, fire greatly impacts the Earth’s natural environment and ultimately results in significant change. However, such change cannot be fully understood until the process of fire itself is understood.

Why should we start fires? "Isn't it bad for forests?"

The National Park Service needs to plan for, and prevent, the conditions where fires can threaten public safety, devastate property, damage natural and cultural resources, and be expensive and dangerous to fight. National Park Service policy emphasizes managing fire in a holistic way. This means planning for the inevitable unwanted fire and promoting the use of fire as a land management tool where appropriate. The goal is to restore and maintain fire's role as a dynamic and necessary natural process where it is beneficial, and preventing or suppressing fire where it has the potential to damage resources.

Where fire can be beneficial to ecosystems or can reduce the risk of fire threatening public safety or property, or damaging natural and cultural resources, prescribed fire is one of the most important fire management tools available. A prescribed fire may be designed to create a mosaic of diverse habitats for plants and animals, to help an endangered species recover, or to reduce fuels and prevent a destructive fire. Burning strategic areas in advance of an unwanted fire can protect specific buildings, cultural resources, critical natural resources, and habitats. Prescribed fire also can be the most cost-effective and natural way to maintain such historic scenes as the open grasslands of the Revolutionary War era at Saratoga National Historical Park in New York, oak-prairie savanna of the Civil War era at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield in Missouri, and vistas of the Nez Perce War of 1877 at Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana.

Why should we stop fires?

When and where necessary for resource protection or public safety, the NPS fire staff is trained and equipped to aggressively put out unwanted fire. Each wildfire start is evaluated to determine the best possible strategy for managing it. Even in an area where fire is beneficial to the ecosystem, fire managers may opt to suppress it due to many factors, such as extreme drought conditions or a start too early in the fire season.

What is the NPS doing to stop these fires from starting in the first place?

NPS fire personnel work with interagency partners in an effort to prevent unwanted human-caused fires. Since people are the cause of nearly 90 percent of all wildfires, the key component is education and outreach. Campaigns such as One Less Spark target specific audiences and causes, and are used by multiple agencies across the country. Park managers take other precautions as well, including implementing fire restrictions during times of very high or extreme fire danger. Also, in most parks, campfires are only allowed in designated campsites and campfire rings.

Why can't you better manage where smoke goes?

The weather and atmospheric conditions have the greatest impact on smoke dispersal. Often during the early morning hours, an inversion will trap smoke in the low-lying areas, such as valleys. When the inversion lifts, so does the smoke.

When park fire managers conduct prescribed fires, they do so under very specific guidelines for smoke dispersal. Smoke management in the parks consists of at least four different strategies. First, for prescribed fires, managers choose ignition days with unstable atmospheric conditions, which help disperse smoke. Second, the parks control smoke output by limiting the number of acres ignited per day. Third, using an experienced smoke technician, the parks monitor particulate levels using stationary and mobile equipment. And finally, the parks notify local residents and visitors prior to an ignition. For more information on smoke management, go to Smoke Information from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and/or an overview of smoke from Yosemite National Park.

Why don't we put out all fires? I thought Smokey Bear said that we should put out fires!

Fire is a natural part of many ecosystems, and fires burned long before humans were around to extinguish them. Many factors go into park management’s decision on how to manage a fire. The NPS fire management program is designed to protect life, property, and natural and cultural resources, while ensuring the continuation of fire as a natural process. Fire managers recognize that fire has been an essential part of many ecosystems for thousands of years. Due to decades of fire suppression, the natural occurrence of fire was eliminated, resulting in overgrown and unhealthy forests.

Naturally occurring fires allow forests to be thinned, opening the canopy and allowing sunlight through. Fire also allows for the recycling of nutrients to the soil while reducing the amount of dead, woody debris. This allows for the sprouting and regrowth of plants, shrubs and trees. A large accumulation of combustible material on the forest floor is hazardous and threatens to destroy forests and structures in an unwanted fire.

Any fires that are human-caused are immediately suppressed by park fire staff. All fires that pose a threat to humans or have the potential to destroy property are also suppressed.

What does it mean to manage a fire?

Each wildfire start is evaluated to determine the best management strategy relative to park management objectives. The first priority in all decisions is the protection of human life and the safety of visitors, park staff and firefighters. Once people have been committed to a wildfire incident, they become the highest value to protect.

After safety has been adequately assessed, managers consider the potential effect of the wildfire on property and natural and cultural resources. Decisions also take into account the location of the fire, the condition of the fuels, current and predicted weather, and topography. Depending on the anticipated consequences and management objectives for the area that is likely to burn, any one or a combination of strategic and tactical actions may be chosen.

Allowing the natural process of fire is an important part of the fire management plan of many parks. When a park decides to manage a long-duration fire, it means park fire personnel are closely monitoring the fire and the burning conditions and ensuring that the stays within a predetermined area that will benefit from natural fire. Sometimes fire personnel will provide point protection to a structure, such as a back-country cabin, or put in fire breaks on one side of the fire to keep it burning in the desired area.

Why aren't you burning more?

While prescribed fire is a very effective fire management tool, planning one takes years, and conditions have to be nearly perfect before fire crews ignite a prescribed fire. For each prescribed fire, fire managers work with other resource managers for several years planning and writing a specific prescription that includes parameters for wind speed and direction, relative humidity, fuel moisture for live and dead burnable vegetation, and more. The plans also delineate types and numbers of resources needed to safely conduct each burn and to support contingency plans.

Before igniting a prescribed fire, fire managers must be sure not only the weather and fuel conditions are right, but also that biologists have conducted wildlife and bird surveys in the area to avoid any negative impacts. Many areas also require other surveys, such as for invasive weeds or archeological surveys.

Why are fires so expensive to fight?

Wildland fire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer and the frequency, size, and severity of wildland fires has increased. Changing climatic conditions across regions of the United States are driving increased temperatures— particularly in regions where fire has not been historically prominent. This change is causing variations and unpredictability in precipitation and is amplifying the effects and costs of wildfire. Related impacts are likely to continue to emerge in several key areas: limited water availability for fire suppression, accumulation at unprecedented levels of vegetative fuels that enable and sustain fires, changes in vegetation community composition that make them more fire prone, and an extension of the fire season to as many as 300 days in many parts of the country. These factors result in fires that increasingly exhibit extreme behavior and are more costly to manage. The six fire seasons with the most acreage burned since 1960 have all occurred since 2000. Moreover, since 2000, many western states have experienced the largest wildfires in their state’s history. In addition, more and more development is taking place near forests—an area referred to as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Increasing densities of people and infrastructure in the WUI makes management more complex and requires more firefighting assets to ensure an appropriate, safe, and effective response that protects lives and property. (Source: The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations publication by the USDA Forest Service)

In large natural areas why aren't wildfires just allowed to burn out by themselves?

All fires are managed based to meet park objectives, which often means allowing fire on landscape, especially in remote areas. Before making the decision to monitor a fire, fire and park managers take several factors into consideration. They use prediction tools to determine the likely spread of the fire and its potential impact to park visitors and staff. If it is very early in the fire season, they may decide to suppress the fire before it has the opportunity to grow large, especially if drought conditions exist or a particularly long, busy fire season is predicted. When a fire ignites in the backcountry late in the fire season, and it is not threatening life or developed areas, the park will often make the decision to manage the fire until a season-ending rain or snow puts the fire out.

What will be the effect of climate change on wildfire severity?

Climate change, following the current trend, will increase the demand for wildfire response and increase the complexities of managing ecosystems that evolve with fire. The job of understanding and managing the effects of these changes is complex. Predicting future high-fire areas using climate models and implementing management actions in advance could help prevent damage or destruction of valued resources in those areas.

Several studies on climate change include wildland fire. The impacts are already evident, with longer, more extensive and more expensive fire season. Read more on NPS efforts regarding climate change.

slash pile burning in the sunny snowy scenic mountains at Grand Teton National Park
Tipi piles such as this one in Grand Teton National Park, burn efficiently by keeping the heat in the center and allowing for ample oxygen. Fire crews burn the piles when snow is on the ground or wet enough conditions to keep the fire from escaping.

What are the "tepee - shaped" slash piles we see?

Visitors may notice tipi-shaped slash piles in parks, mostly near developed areas, where fire crews have completed fuels reduction projects, which include thinning and removing lower limbs from trees, and removing dead wood and brush from the forest floor. The projects are designed to lower the risk of losing structures to a wildfire and to create more open areas that will help moderate fire behavior during a wildfire, which increases firefighter and public safety. Firefighters place the slash in tipi-shaped piles and often let them cure for a year before burning them, usually when there is snow on the ground. The tipi shape is the most efficient for burning as it allows adequate oxygen in and concentrates the heat in the center, resulting in better consumption of the woody debris.

Last updated: March 28, 2023