NPS Wildland Fire Management Policy and Guidelines


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Wildland fire management within National Park Service units is conducted to support resource management objectives. The full range of strategic options is available to managers provided selected options do not compromise firefighter and public safety, cost-effectiveness, benefits, and values to be protected. Suppression of unwanted, potentially environmentally damaging wildland fires is guided by fire management plan direction. Fire activities may include using fire as either a natural process or as a management tool. Fire objectives include, but are not limited to: restoring, mimicking, or replacing the ecological influences of natural fire, maintaining historic scenes, reducing hazardous fuels, eliminating exotic/alien species, disposal of vegetative waste and debris, and preserving endangered species (from National Park Service Reference Manual 18 - Wildland Fire Management -- see below).


Directors Orders-18, Wildland Fire Management (DO-18) - 1998


National Park Service wildland fire management activities are essential to the protection of human life, personal property and irreplaceable natural and cultural resources, and to the accomplishment of the NPS mission. High safety risks and expenses associated with fire management activities require exceptional skill and attention to detail when planning and implementing fire management activities.

Interagency recognition of risks and expenses associated with wildland fire management culminated in a December 1995 Final Report of the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review, issued by a team of fire management experts. The Secretary of the Interior has accepted and endorsed the principles, policies, and recommendations contained in the report, and has directed the NPS to implement them.

The objectives of this Director's Order are to: (1) institutionalize within the NPS the new policies, organizational and operational relationships, and changes in law and reporting requirements reflected in the report; and (2) establish a framework by which the NPS will implement the report's principles, policies, and recommendations. The provisions of this Director's Order supercede all previous NPS instructions, requirements and statements of policy relating to wildland fire management that may be in conflict.


NPS Management Policies (beginning at chapter 4, page 14) governing fire management in the National Park System are hereby rescinded and replaced with the following:

Park Fire Management Programs

Wildland fire may contribute to or hinder the achievement of park management objectives. Therefore, park fire management programs will be designed to meet resource management objectives prescribed for the various areas of the park and to ensure that firefighter and public safety are not compromised. Each park with vegetation capable of burning will prepare a fire management plan to guide a fire management program that is responsive to the park's natural and cultural resource objectives and to safety considerations for park visitors, employees, and developed facilities. The Environmental Assessment developed in support of the fire management plan will consider effects on air quality, water quality, health and safety, and natural and cultural resource management objectives. Until a fire management plan is approved, parks must aggressively suppress all wildland fires, taking into account the resources to be protected and firefighter and public safety. Suppression activities within wilderness, including the categories of designated, recommended, potential, proposed, and study areas, will be conducted in keeping with "minimum requirement" protocols identified in Director's Order #41, Wilderness Preservation and Management.

All fires burning in natural or landscaped vegetation in parks will be classified as either wildland fires or prescribed fires. All wildland fires will be effectively managed, considering resource values to be protected and firefighter and public safety, using the full range of strategic and tactical operations as described in an approved fire management plan. Prescribed fires are those fires ignited by park managers to achieve resource objectives and will include monitoring programs that record fire behavior, smoke behavior, fire decisions and fire effects, to provide information on whether specified objectives are met.

All parks will use a systematic decision making process to determine the most appropriate management strategies for all unplanned ignitions, and for any prescribed fires that are no longer meeting resource management objectives. Parks lacking an approved fire management plan may not use resource benefits as a primary consideration influencing selection of a suppression strategy, but they must consider the resource impacts of suppression alternatives in their decision.

The full range of suppression strategies will be considered by superintendents guiding suppression efforts. Methods used to suppress wildland fires should minimize impacts of the suppression action and the fire, commensurate with effective control and resource values to be protected. Park superintendents must address the need for adequate funding and staffing to support fire management operations.

National Park Service Reference Manual 18 - Wildland Fire Management - 2/16/99


The most aggressive resources management tool employed in the National Park Service (NPS) today is wildland fire, second only to urban development in its potential for impacts on a park. Although current technologies for fire management are available to all agencies, the NPS fire management program has been modified to adapt them to the wide diversity of ecosystems found within the National Park System. Wildland fire management in each park must be assessed and defined as an integral part of the park's resource management program.

The National Park Service's policy on fire is expressed in Director’s Order 18, Wildland Fire Management, which replaces NPS Management Policies (1988), for the wildland fire program. Reference Manual 18 is issued by the Associate Director, Park Operations and Education and is a technical expression of wildland fire management requirements and procedures that provides detailed definitions and expanded guidance of all information presented in DO-18.

This reference manual will not be published and distributed in the traditional way. Rather, it is being published electronically and is available on the Internet. It contains many links to other information sources valuable to wildland fire and resource managers. To keep this manual a living document, revisions and updates will be made as necessary. As revisions are made they will be noted in the NPS Morning Report and in electronic mail to all fire management officers’ and all program assistants’ mailing lists. The format of this Internet presentation allows the user to print individual chapters and individual exhibits as needed.

The Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review of 1995 has established direction for this program that represents a significant departure from past management practices. No longer will all ignitions be classified as either wildfires or prescribed fires. All ignitions occurring in wildland areas are classified as wildland fires or prescribed fires.

Prescribed fires are authorized by approved resource and fire management plans and contribute specifically to a park's resource management objectives. Wildland fires are managed with the appropriate management response as directed by the park’s fire management plan and analysis of the specific situation. These fires can be managed entirely or in any part for resource benefits or receive suppression actions to minimize burned area due to high values to be protected, threats to life or property, or other social, political, and economic considerations that outweigh potential environmental benefits. For all fires, if the initial strategy does not accomplish the desired objectives, the Wildland Fire Situation Analysis (WFSA) process will be utilized to develop and select new strategic alternatives. The scope and complexity of a park's fire program determines whether or not there should be staff members dedicated to fire management. Park resources and values to be protected are the primary criteria for determining whether a fire will be suppressed or managed for resource benefits. By selecting the appropriate management response, park managers can minimize the amount of damage to park resources. Parks who have a low incidence of fire occurrence or complexity and no dedicated fire staff should assign fire responsibilities as a collateral duty. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) has developed a flowchart that illustrates the broad framework within which all federal agencies will implement the policy. Figure 1 presents the NWCG flowchart and framework for NPS management of all wildland fires.

The National Park Service averages about seven major unplanned ignitions requiring extended management actions each year. It takes preparation and teamwork to assure that such fires are properly managed. Large fires today are managed through the interagency sharing of available resources, since no one park or forest has the number of people needed to individually manage large and potentially long duration fires. The interagency dispatch coordination system provides for the interchange of personnel among parks and agencies. Interagency established qualifications ensure sharing of qualified and skilled personnel. The incident commander for a large fire works under a written, limited delegation of authority from the park superintendent. Regardless of agency affiliation, incident management teams will manage such fires within that delegation. Fire staff and managers alike must develop a rapport with their counterparts in other fire management agencies.

Incident Management teams, when assigned to a park unit, manage our prime resources and multi-million dollar incidents under emergency conditions. It is imperative that park managers and fire staff actively work with these teams to ensure the team has a full understanding and appreciation of park resource values, operations and their limitations. Additionally, park managers should identify and support employees in their parks that can serve on these interagency teams to benefit the Service, their own units, and the wildland fire community. Qualified personnel that serve on these teams are usually employees with substantial experience and often hundreds of hours of training to reach these levels. It is in the Service’s best interests that these employees are supported, encouraged to participate in these teams, and not withdrawn as they enter management positions.

Fire management funding for the National Park Service is derived from three sources:

1. FIREPRO funds are managed through annual operating program accounts or through project work accounts, depending on the activity. Activities covered include preparedness, permanent staffing, training, monitoring, and accountable equipment purchases.

2. ONPS funds should still be used to support programs in place before FIREPRO and to provide enhanced fire management capabilities in many parks. FIREPRO is intended to identify the minimum acceptable standards which each park fire management program should achieve. The FIREPRO analysis will be used as a justification for seeking adequate funding to implement these standards. In the event that adequate FIREPRO funds are not appropriated, parks may need to supplement FIREPRO funding with ONPS funding to achieve minimum fire management capability. Parks may also use ONPS funds to augment the basic FIREPRO-funded preparedness operation in order to achieve a higher level of response capability or to retain a stronger initial attack capability outside the defined fire season.

3. Wildland fire operations funds within the NPS portion of the Interior firefighting account may be insufficient to cover expenditures for suppression, severity, rehabilitation and hazard fuels management during severe fire years. For these situations, the NPS will first request that the Department transfer wildland fire management funds from other bureaus or, if these funds are exhausted, utilize the emergency authority under Section 102 of the general provisions of the Interior Appropriations Act to transfer funds from other programs. The NPS will then seek to restore funds to affected programs through a supplemental appropriation.

Both the resources management plan and the fire management plan are key to making fire an effective component of park management. The fire management plan is prerequisite to implement the full range of management options and is an operational document used regularly to guide the fire program; it must be reviewed and updated periodically to remain current. Each fire management plan is reviewed for policy compliance and technical competence by the regional fire management officer and then approved by the park superintendent.

The paramount considerations of each park fire management program will be:

1. Protection of life, both employee and public

2. Protection of facilities and cultural resources

3. Perpetuation of natural resources and their associated processes

4. Perpetuation of cultural and historic scenes.

There is no standard program that fits all parks, but the wildland fire management program of each park must be appropriate for its purpose and resources.

National Park Service Management Policies - 1988*

* Effective 12/31/97, NPS-18 Fire Management Guidelines, were replaced by Directors Orders-18. DO-18 incorporates changes required following the 1996 Federal Wildland Fire Management - Policy & Program Review.

Chapter 4:14 - FIRE MANAGEMENT

Park Fire Management Programs

Fire is a powerful phenomenon with the potential to drastically alter the vegetative cover of any park. Fire may contribute to or hinder the achievement of park objectives. Park fire management programs will be designed around resource management objectives and the various management zones of the park. Fire-related management objectives will be clearly stated in a fire management plan, which is to be prepared for each park with vegetation capable of burning, to guide a fire management program that is responsive to park needs.

All fires in parks are classified either as prescribed fires or wildfires. Prescribed fires include fires deliberately ignited by managers (prescribed burns) or fires of natural origins permitted to burn under prescribed conditions (prescribed natural fires) to achieve predetermined resource management objectives. To ensure that these objectives are met, each prescribed fire will be conducted according to a written fire prescription. All fires that do not meet the criteria for prescribed fires are wildfires and will be suppressed.

All fires will be monitored with sufficient instrumentation and documentation to (1) record the significant fire behavior and decisions, (2) determine whether specified objectives were met, and (3) assess fire effects. Agreements will be pursued with cooperators at all levels to facilitate efficient fire management activities within and adjacent to the parks. Specific guidance on wildland fires is contained in the NPS Fire Management Guideline (NPS-18)* and in section 910 of the Departmental Manual.

Wildfire Prevention and Suppression

Active fire-prevention programs will be conducted in fire prone parks. The National Park Service will work with adjacent landowners to prevent human-caused wildfires and their potential adverse impacts on human life, facilities, or park cultural or natural resources.

The methods used to suppress all wildfires should be those minimizing the impact of the suppression action and the fire itself, commensurate with effective control. The full range of suppression strategies, from confinement, through containment, to full aggressive control, will be considered by superintendents guiding suppression efforts. The only exception to the suppression of wildfires may be within prescribed burn units. Wildfires originating in those units that meet all prescription parameters may, with the written concurrence of adjacent land managers, and wildland fire control agencies, be reclassified as prescribed burns and carried out in line with the approved fire management plan for the unit.

Prescribed Fire

Prescribed natural fires contribute to the management of natural areas, while prescribed burns may contribute to the resource objectives of any park. All prescribed fires are carried out under the written and approved prescriptions within carefully defined fire management units.

Prescribed natural fires are the preferred means for achieving resource management objectives in natural zones. If unnatural fuel loads exist it may be necessary to use conservative prescriptions initially to avoid excessive impacts. In some cases prescribed burns with conservative prescriptions may be needed to restore an area to a natural range of conditions. Prescribed burns may also be used to attain other resource objectives such as restoring or maintaining historic settings, maintaining open scenes, and reducing hazardous fuel accumulations.

Permissive prescribed fire intensities may range from creeping surface fires to stand-replacing crown fires provided that the fire behavior is reasonably predictable and the effects are acceptable as defined by the prescription and management plan. All fire management plans will consider effects on air quality, visibility, and health along with other resource management objectives. Management action to minimize the production and accumulation of smoke will be included in every fire prescription. All prescribed fires will comply with smoke management and air quality regulations of state and local authorities, regardless of the park's jurisdiction.


Chapter 6:7 - Wilderness Fire Management

Fire management activities conducted in wilderness areas will conform to the basic purposes of wilderness. The park's fire management and wilderness management plans together will identify the natural and historic roles of fire in the wilderness and will provide a prescription for response, if any, to natural and human-caused wildfires. If a prescribed fire program is implemented, these plans will also include the prescriptions and procedures under which the program will be conducted.

Actions to suppress wildfires will use the minimum tool concept and will be conducted in such a way as to protect natural and cultural features and to minimize the lasting impacts of the suppression actions and the fires themselves. Information on developing a fire management program is contained in the Fire Management Guideline (NPS-18).

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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