Wildland Firefighting Tactics

East Troublesome Fire in the Kawuneechee Valley.
East Troublesome Fire in the Kawuneechee Valley.

NPS, C. Kopek

Tactics used by managers in response to wildfires include a range of activities, from assessing wildfires when they’re first reported, to cleaning up from response activities afterwards. Some fires may be aggressively suppressed, or put out, while others may be monitored and allowed to spread across the landscape because they do not pose a risk to human lives or structures and may have positive effects on natural areas.

When faced with wildfires, agencies must balance human safety, structure protection, and resource needs, and NPS reflects this in its Wildland Fire Strategic Plan. Suppressing all fires results in fuel buildup which can eventually make fires more severe than they otherwise would have been. While suppression is a top priority in many circumstances, it is not always the best choice for every situation.

The range of options available for response to a wildfire include:

This is essentially keeping an eye out on the fire; observing fire behavior and effects to evaluate whether management objectives are still being met.

Managing a fire perimeter by a combination of direct and indirect actions and use of natural topographic features, fuel, and weather factors.

A control line has been completed around the fire and around any associated spot fires; this can reasonably be expected to stop the fire’s spread. The Blue Jay fire, in Yosemite NP was an excellent example of use of confine and contain tactics.

Protecting specific assets or highly valued resources, such as buildings, from the wildfire with handline, water, foam, or other tools, without directly halting the continued spread of the wildfire.

All the work that goes into extinguishing or limiting wildfire spread.
Conducting soil burn severity assessments for the Dixie Fire at Lassen Volcanic National Park. September 2021.
Conducting soil burn severity assessments for the Dixie Fire at Lassen Volcanic National Park. September 2021.

NPS, A. Williams

One or more tactics may be employed on any given wildfire to create a strategy on the wildfire, and hybrid or novel tactics may also be developed as the situation demands. The strategy or strategies being used may vary based on time or location.

In wilderness areas, wildfire is often managed by Minimum Impact Suppression Techniques (MIST), which means applying tactics that effectively meet suppression and resource objectives with the least environmental, cultural, and social impacts. The mechanics used to suppress fires outside of wilderness can include use of bulldozers, masticators, and other tools to cut line, in addition to dropping fire retardant. These would have a large impact on wilderness and would require firefighters to travel long distances into remote areas, risking safety and making resources unavailable to other incidents. Therefore, MIST often make much more sense in wilderness.

Finally, even before a fire is fully contained, and active firefighting activities cease, activities to rehabilitate and restore fire damaged lands begin. These efforts sometimes continue for a significant time after the fire is contained. Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER), also called Emergency Stabilization, consists of planned actions taken to minimize threats to life or property and to stabilize post-fire resource degradation resulting from the effects of a wildfire. The actions are planned and initiated within seven days from containment of the fire and need to be completed within one calendar year from fire containment. Not every fire receives BAER treatment. Natural rehabilitation is preferred; but when that is not possible, BAER comes into play. In the longer term, non-emergency efforts, referred to as Burned Area Rehabilitation (BAR), include efforts undertaken within three years of a wildland fire to repair or improve fire-damaged lands unlikely to recover to management approved conditions or to repair or replace minor facilities damaged by fire (NWCG, 2021). Both BAER and BAR include assessment and creation of a plan in order to develop treatment options following a fire.
NPS fire management plans allow for a wide variety of ways to manage vegetation and respond to wildfires. Having a plan in place allows the NPS to choose the option or options that best meet the individual circumstances of an incident accounting for the features of the landscape where it occurs. We track our success by building measurable objectives. Not allowing a wildfire to get past a creek bottom, or making sure bare mineral soil is available after a fire for giant sequoia seedling establishment are both examples of objectives we might use. When a fire is burning in steep, inaccessible terrain, we might use a confinement strategy, allowing the fire to burn within a pre-established area and placing firelines in areas where firefighters can safely go, or using helicopters to cool areas along a perimeter of a fire to keep it in check.

Safety is our core value. Safety of firefighters and the public is the number one priority of all NPS wildland fire management activities. The NPS approach is designed to increase safety for firefighters through less exposure on the fireline, and to increase effective use of available resources while reducing the hazardous accumulation of overgrown vegetation. Balancing the need for fire prevention and suppression while also using fire as a tool to protect people, communities, and values at risk is essential for effective wildland fire and land management.
Staff monitors prescribed fire at Great Smoky National Park.
Staff monitors prescribed fire at Great Smoky National Park.

NPS

Fire is an important tool used to accomplish specific objectives, such as removal of excess vegetation or promoting plant growth and regeneration. Many healthy ecosystems depend on wildland fire as a natural process. Wildfires that burn under more moderate conditions can increase habitat and species diversity across the landscape. In Yosemite, fire ecologists have found that in addition to reducing the risk of severe fire at large scales, wildfires can also help create healthy forests. Past fire suppression dramatically increased tree densities, which in turn increased competition for limited water resources, negatively affecting forest health. By studying fire history, fire ecologists today can build a picture of how natural fire acted historically on the landscape and apply that knowledge to prescribed fire plans and wildland fire management strategies.

Social and cultural approaches to wildland fire over the past century often focused on preventing and suppressing wildfires, leading to a dangerous build-up of vegetation in our wildlands. The NPS Wildland Fire Management Program is grounded in science, and we continue to increase our understanding of the essential role fire plays in our environment. As Hal Rothman describes in the publication, “A Test of Adversity and Strength: Wildland Fire in the National Park System,” fire management in the National Park System has evolved from mainly full suppression in the early to mid-1900s, to use of a wider range of tactics today, as our knowledge has expanded.

Managing wildfires is not a “one size fits all” formula. Many factors go into determining when fire should be suppressed, when it should burn naturally, or when some combination of tactics should be used. When determining best tactics to use, safety of firefighters and the public, the health of our natural resources, and protection of cultural resources, are always at the forefront.
References

Rothman, H. 2005. A Test of Adversity and Strength. Wildland Fire in the National Park System. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Wildland Fire Program. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/fire/upload/wildland-fire-history.pdf

Last updated: December 21, 2021