Are you using a screen reader? Click here to view the navigation links for this site as a bulleted list.

Partner logos: BLM, FWS, FS, NPS, University of Montana Logo
Connecting federal employees, scientists, educators, and the public with their wilderness heritage
Text size: A | A | A  [Print]

Threats to Wilderness From Fire Suppression

A white plane drops a plume of bright red retardant.
Dropping retardant, like that being used in the Lava Beds Wilderness, is one fire suppression technique.
Wilderness managers and scientists now recognize the importance of naturally occuring fire. Fire suppression has had the profound effect of altering plant and animal species composition, distribution, and density at the landscape level, most noticably in ecosystems with high-frequency, low-intensity fire regimes[1]. For example, in fire suppressed ecosystems, shade-intolerant species, such as Ponderosa Pine, are typically outcompeted by shade-tolerant species, such as Douglas fir. By contributing to even-aged tree stands and buildup of woody debris, these ecosystems are at risk of unnatural, high-intensity fires (often termed catastrophic fires), which sterilize soils.

Despite running counter to scientific research and management goals to preserve both the natural and untrammeled qualities of wilderness, fire suppression has been the dominant fire management strategy in wilderness. As of 1998, only 15% of wilderness areas--excluding Alaska where fire use is more widespread--had approved fire plans that allow some natural ignitions to burn and even these areas continue to suppress many natural ignitions[2]. Parsons also reported that between 1988 and 1998, even in the Bob Marshall Wilderness--the 5th largest wilderness in the lower 48 states and which has a progressive natural fire program--the average number of natural ignitions permitted to burn dropped by over half, the average size of natural fires decreased by 75%, and only 19% of all eligible lightning fire starts were permitted to burn.

Three firefighters with backs to the camera survey a prescribed fire.
Firefighters monitor the Bonita Fire, a management-ignited prescribed fire, in the Chiricahua National Monument Wilderness.
Although federal fire policy and some wilderness fire plans support allowing lightning-caused fires to burn, the challenges limiting widespread restoration and maintenance of natural fire regimes in wilderness are complex. In 1988 extensive fires, both lightning- and human-ignited, burned throughout the western United States, including 36% of Yellowstone National Park, and costing $120 million--the most expensive fire season up to that time[3]. "Yellowstone is a beloved icon," Scott McMillion, a reporter for Montana's Bozeman Daily Chronicle at the time of the fires, recounted 20 years later. "It was a celebrity fire in a celebrity place. Everyone knows about Yellowstone and there was an impression that it was being allowed to burn to the ground"[4].

As a result of the 1988 fires, all wilderness fire programs were suspended pending a national review of fire policy. Two years later a public opinion survey revealed that 55% of Montana/Wyoming respondents and 48% of respondents living elsewhere supported a controlled burn policy, yet many respondents were illiterate about wildfire and its effects[5]. Decades later, research suggests that fire use stigmas still exist. Although a 2004 study in Montana's Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat wildernesses indicated that two-thirds of visitors felt natural ignitions in wilderness were desirable[6], a comparable assessment in the same area a year earlier, during a high fire season, showed that only 49% of visitors felt natural ignitions in wilderness were desirable[7].

The following reasons besides public sentiment may also perpetuate fire suppression: The small size of many wilderness areas results in natural ignitions outside of wilderness being suppressed before they can burn into wilderness; with increases in settlement in the wildland urban interface, the risks of fire escaping onto adjacent lands, unnaturally intense fires burning as a result of unnatural fuel loads, and unacceptable smoke impacts to surrounding areas are also very real[2].

In some cases, management-ignited fire may be an alternative to natural fire. However, although management-ignited fire may increase naturalness, it does so at the expense of wildness because it involves human manipulation of the wilderness landscape. As such, management-ignited fire is not always desirable. The same 2004 study researching Montana wilderness visitor opinions about natural fire found, for example, that respondents were split over the acceptability of management-ignited fire, with slightly over half indicating they would accept management-ignited prescribed fires in wilderness[7]. Management-ignited fire is also not always feasible. Many of the same problems facing the reintroduction of natural fire also prevent management-ignited fire use, including the small size of many wildernesses, their proximity to urban areas, air quality concerns, and excess fuel buildup from past suppression efforts[8].


  1. Cole, D. N. & Landres, P. (1996). Threats to Wilderness Ecosystems: Impacts and Research Needs. Ecological Applications, 6(1), 168-184.
  2. Parsons, D. J. 2000. The Challenge of Restoring Fire to Wilderness. In: Cole, D. N., McCool, S. F., Borrie, W. T., & O'Laughlin, J., comps. Wilderness Science in a Time of Change Conference, Vol. 5: Wilderness Ecosystems, Threats, and Management; May 23-27, 1999; Missoula, MT. RMRS-P-15-Vol-5. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station Proceedings, pp. 276–82. Retrieved on October 29, 2009.
  3. National Park Service. (n/d). The Yellowstone Fires of 1988. Retrieved on October 29, 2009.
  4. Hansen, L. & Krantz, L. (2008, August 31). Remembering The 1988 Yellowstone Fires. National Public Radio, Weekend Edition Sunday. Retrieved on October 29, 2009.
  5. Manfredo, M. J., Fishbein, M., Haas, G. E., & Watson, A. E. (1990). Attitudes Towards Prescribed Fire Policies: The Public is Widely Divided in its Support. Journal of Forestry, 88(7), 19-23.
  6. Knotek, K., Watson, A. E., Borrie, W. T., Whitmore, J. G. & Turner, D. (2008). Recreation Visitor Attitudes Towards Management-Ignited Prescribed Fires in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, Montana. Journal of Leisure Research, 40(4), 608-618. Retrieved on September 10, 2009.
  7. Borrie, W. T., McCool, S. F., & Whitmore, J. G. (2006). Wildland Fire Effects on Visits and Visitors to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. International Journal of Wilderness, 12(1), 32-35, 38.
  8. Arnos, S. F. & Brown J. K. (1991). Overcoming the Paradix In Managing Wildland Fire. Western Wildlands, 17(1), 40-46.

Give us your feedback