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Citation for publication number 913:
Miller, Carol, Aplet, Gregory H. (2016). Progress in Wilderness Fire Science: Embracing Complexity. Journal of Forestry. 114(3), 373-383.
Leopold Publication Number 913
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     Wilderness has played an invaluable role in the development of wildland fire science. Since Agee’s review of the subject 15 years ago, tremendous progress has been made in the development of models and data, in understanding the complexity of wildland fire as a landscape process, and in appreciating the social factors that influence the use of wilderness fire. Regardless of all we have learned, though, the reality is that fire remains an extraordinarily complex process with variable effects that create essential heterogeneity in ecosystems. Whereas some may view this variability as a management impediment, for others it provides a path forward. As research has shown, embracing fire in all its complexity and expanding its use can help reduce fuels, restore resilient landscapes, and contain costs. Wilderness fire science will continue to play an important role in understanding opportunities for using fire, its role in ecosystems, its risks and benefits, and the influence of risk perception on decisionmaking. Management and Policy Implications: The past 50 years of wilderness fire science has shown the benefits that accrue from fires that burn on their own terms and under less-than-extreme conditions. Fuel loads are lower, fire behavior is moderated, fire sizes are limited, forest structural diversity and wildlife habitat are improved, and fuel breaks are created that can help in the management of today’s long-duration fires. Although improvements in modeling and data have increased our ability to support decisionmaking and incident management, inadequate monitoring and poor reporting of management activities hinder wilderness fire research. To effectively justify and support wilderness fire, we will need to adapt existing tools and develop new approaches for evaluating the long-term risks and benefits of wilderness fire. Although current Federal Wildland Fire Policy (Philpot et al. 1995, Douglas et al. 2001) provides the rationale and flexibility to expand wilderness fire use, achieving its full potential will require bureau policies that overcome the numerous institutional barriers that continue to constrain decisionmakers. Incentives are needed to encourage fire use by managers who have received advanced training and employ skilled and well-staffed fire use management teams. Even with adequate policies, uncertainties and complexities associated with climate change and risks accompanying an expanding wildland-urban interface will continue to challenge this expansion.