Wildfires, Prescribed Fires, and Fuels

National Interagency Fire Center

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), located in Boise, Idaho, is the nation's support center for wildland firefighting. Eight different agencies and organizations are part of NIFC. Decisions are made and priorities set through close interagency cooperation. The National Park Service’s Division of Fire and Aviation Management (FAM) is located at NIFC and is the National Park Service’s national office that provides policy guidance, management, and oversight for the Wildland Fire Management, Structural Fire Management, and Aviation Management programs in the national parks.

Wildland Fire

Some of the terms used to discuss fire in the parks can be misunderstood.

Wildland fire is an overarching term describing any non-structure fire that occurs in vegetation and natural fuels. Wildland fire encompasses both prescribed fire and wildfire. The NPS applies a variety of strategies to manage wildland fire to meet park objectives.

A prescribed fire is a planned fire intentionally ignited by park managers to meet management objectives.

A wildfire is an unplanned fire caused by lightning or other natural causes, by accidental (or arson-caused) human ignitions, or by an escaped prescribed fire.

Fire managers define fuels as all living and dead plant material that can be ignited by a fire. Fuel characteristics strongly influence fire behavior and the resulting fire effects on ecosystems.

residential area with wildfire smoke in the distance
A wildfire is an unplanned event that fire managers may use a combination of strategic and tactical actions to manage.

NPS Photo

Managing Wildfires

Wildfire management consists of actions that are applied to wildfires based on a number of factors such as safety, economics, social considerations, political views, and anticipated environmental effects. It is important to recognize that wildfires may provide positive ecological benefits.

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 are assigned 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, as well as 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.

Wildland Fire Decision Support System

Wildfires are managed according to direction provided in the park’s Fire Management Plan. For each unplanned ignition, many factors need to be taken into account to determine the best action to take. The Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) is used to store and organize decision criteria and data, and help managers document the factors used in deciding how they manage each incident.

Workers use a chipping machine for removing fuels from a wildfire area
Fuels management projects may include chipping to remove fuels from an area.

NPS Photo

Fuels Management

Fuels management includes both planned prescribed burns and other treatments to change or reduce wildland fuels. The National Park Service’s fuels management program has become increasingly important for reducing the risk of severe wildland fire to human communities and for maintaining or improving the health of park ecosystems. Many of the wildland areas found in NPS units are characterized as fire-adapted or fire-dependent and thus require periodic fire to maintain a healthy, resilient condition. Within these ecosystems, prescribed fire can help restore and sustain long-term environmental health. Crews also implement mechanical treatments, such as thinning, mowing, and removing excessive dead vegetation, to reduce hazardous fuels and restore ecosystem health. Prescribed fire, mechanical treatments, and chemical treatments (or combinations of these treatment types) are used to protect park visitors, park developments, and neighboring communities from destructive wildfires by reducing the fuels that could otherwise contribute to destructive wildfires. Occasionally, byproducts from hazardous fuel removals are used to create biomass fuels or products.

prescribed fire to preserve historic battlefield
Prescribed fire may be used to maintain a cultural landscape, such as on a battlefield.

NPS Photo

Prescribed Fire

The National Park Service uses prescribed fire as a vegetation management tool to accomplish natural and cultural resource goals.

Before any prescribed fire is permitted, the park must have a strategic Fire Management Plan in place, as well as an specific burn plan. Before ignition, each planned fire must meet all the conditions identified in a go/no go checklist. When prescribed fire is not the best option, fire managers may accomplish hazard fuel reduction with mechanical treatments using chainsaws and manual removal, or through other methods.

Prescribed burns are ignited to:

  • reduce hazardous fuel loads near developed areas, providing for firefighter safety and structure protection in the event of a wildfire.
  • restore and maintain natural landscapes, such as the giant sequoia trees of Sequoia National Park and the “river of grass” at Everglades National Park.
  • maintain cultural landscapes, such as historic battlefields and homesteads.

Prescribed Fire – Case Study

What is the process behind using fire as a management tool? Learn all that goes into planning and executing a prescribed fire.

The Interagency Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation Procedures Guide provides standardized procedures, specifically associated with the planning and implementation of prescribed fire. Appendix A of the guide provides a Prescribed Fire Plan Template.

The Prescribed Fire Plan is the site-specific implementation document. It is a legal document that provides the park superintendent the information needed to approve the plan, and the prescribed fire burn boss with all the information needed to implement the prescribed fire. Prescribed fire projects must be implemented in compliance with the written plan.

Fire Effects Information System

The Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) summarizes and synthesizes research about the effects of fire on plants and animals in the United States. It is used extensively by fire managers when planning and evaluating prescribed burns.

Last updated: July 18, 2016