Wildland fire use as a concept had its origin when humans first gained the ability to suppress fires. Some fires were suppressed and others were allowed to burn based on human values and objectives. Native Americans and Euro-American settlers fought those fires that threatened their villages and settlements but left others to burn unabated. Even with the advent of a fire suppression capability in the late 1880s, control efforts were focused on areas of human development while fires in remote areas were largely ignored. When the Forest Service was established in 1905, fire suppression became its reason for being, although some foresters questioned the economic logic of suppressing all fires. Fire suppression was the only fire policy for all federal land management agencies until the late 1960s when the National Park Service officially recognized fire as a natural process. Lightning fires ignited in special management zones in parks were allowed to run their course under prescribed conditions. The U.S. Forest Service followed suit in 1974 and changed its policy from fire control to fire management, allowing lightning fires to burn in wilderness areas.
Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 as the world’s first national park. For the next several years, administration of the park languished until 1886 when the Army was assigned the responsibility for its protection. Upon its arrival in the park, the Army found numerous fires burning in developed areas as well as in areas where it was not reasonable to control them. The commanding officer decided that human-caused fires along roads posed the biggest threat and that the Army would concentrate its suppression efforts on the control of those fires. There were not enough soldiers to fight all of the fires, and thus came the first conscious decision by a manager of federal land to allow some fires to burn while others were controlled. The policy of fire suppression was also applied to Sequoia, General Grant, and Yosemite national parks when they were established in 1890, and Army patrols were initiated to guard against fires, livestock trespass, and illegal logging.
In 1916, the National Park Service was established and took over management from the Army. Fire suppression remained the only fire policy in the national parks for the next five decades. The Forest Service was established in 1905 and one of its primary missions was the suppression of all fires on the forest reserves it administered. The extensive fires of 1910 solidified the Forest Service as the premier fire control organization, and the National Park Service followed its lead. Complete fire suppression was the objective. Although after 1915 some managers allowed low intensity fires to spread in remote areas unless they threatened valuable resources or facilities, by 1934 a policy of extinguishing all fires by 10:00 AM of the next burning period was implemented.
In 1962, the Secretary of the Interior asked a committee to look into wildlife management problems in the national parks. This committee, named after its chair, Dr. A. Starker Leopold, did not confine its report to wildlife, but took the broader ecological view that parks should be managed as ecosystems. As a result, the National Park Service changed its policy in 1968 to recognize fire as an ecological process. Fires were to be allowed to run their courses as long as they could be contained within fire management units and accomplished approved management objectives. Several parks established fire use programs, and policies were gradually changed from fire control to fire management. In 1978, the Forest Service abandoned the 10:00 AM policy in favor of a new policy that encouraged the use of wildland fire by prescription.
Three events between 1978 and 1988 precipitated a major fire policy review in 1989: the Ouzel fire in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Yellowstone fires of 1988 in and around Yellowstone National Park, and the Canyon Creek fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness on the Lewis and Clark National Forest. In all three cases, monitored fires burned until they threatened developed areas. The Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior convened a fire policy review team to evaluate the National Park Service and Forest Service wilderness fire policies. The team reaffirmed the fundamental importance of fire’s natural role but recommended that fire management plans be strengthened by establishing clear decision criteria and accountability, and that interagency cooperation be improved. Wildland fire use programs restarted slowly after the 1989 review. Eventually the Forest Service and National Park Service programs began to grow as the number of fires and area burned increased.
The South Canyon Fire became controversial. It was ignited by lightning in a fire exclusion zone July 2, 1994. Suppression action was taken on the wildfire within two days of its start, but a blow-up two days later killed 14 fire fighters. An interagency team was formed and issued their report in August. They cited several direct and contributory causes of the fatalities including fire behavior, personnel profiles, and incident management procedures. The South Canyon incident led to the first comprehensive review and update of federal wildland fire policy in decades. The report reiterated that the first priority of all federal wildland fire programs was firefighter and public safety. With regard to prescribed fires and prescribed natural fires, the report stated that, “Wildland fire will be used to protect, maintain, and enhance resources and, as nearly as possible, be allowed to function in its natural ecological role.” In 1998, a new procedures guide used the term “wildland fire use” to describe what had previously been prescribed natural fires. By the end of the decade, a 1995 policy had reinvigorated “wildland fire use” programs and given managers the support they needed to enable the programs to continue to grow and mature.
Fire management benefits began to appear, such as the 2000 Hash Rock fire which burned almost all of the Mill Creek Wilderness on the Ochoco National Forest in Oregon before it was suppressed. When the wildfire reached the 1996 Mill Creek fire, which had been managed under the wildland fire use program, it went out. Use of fire presently varies in various federal agencies, partially due to differing influences such as land proximity to urban areas.
The use of helitack, helicopter-delivered fire resources, varies by agency. Often, helitack crews often perform duties similar to typical initial attack crews. Two or three firefighters will be dispatched to a newly-reported fire. Helitack crews are usually used for initial attack on fires that are difficult for other firefighters to access, or on extended fires that require aerial support in the form of water drops, cargo delivery, crew shuttling, or reconnaissance. A typical initial attack response by a helitack crew involves flying to the fire via helicopter and spending one to three days (although sometimes much longer) putting the fire out before hiking to the nearest road for pickup.
A highly effective way to fight wilderness fire when no roads are nearby is to have wildland firefighters rappel from a helicopter. These firefighters then take suppressive action on the fire or clear a safe landing zone to receive additional firefighters if the fire is too large. Rappellers usually carry 30 pounds of personal gear plus up to 300 pounds of fire gear which is lowered down to them from their helicopter. Rappelling heights can range from 30 feet (in tall, continuous brush) to 250 feet (in timber). When suppression is complete on rappel fires, ground transport is typically arranged to pick up the firefighters at the nearest road. These crews carry chainsaws, hand tools, radios, and can even have 75 gallon water bags, known as blivets, flown in to help fight the fire. When not rappelling, the crew works as an ordinary helitack crew and can fly or hike to any regular fire.
When water is required to refill an empty fire engine, water delivery is vital. The typical water tender carries 1200 gallons of water to support the fire engines. Water tenders can be used to fill water dropping helicopters when a lake or reservoir is not nearby.
Heavy equipment's primary function of wildland fire suppression is through the application of heavy construction style equipment to move large amounts or earth, or remove vegetation. This application can also be used as pre-fire suppression to clear fuel breaks, or provide access to areas that maybe previously inaccessible. Heavy equipment is often used to mitigate storm, flood, earthquake and other emergency incidents requiring this type of equipment.
Wildland fire and wildland firefighting play a major role in Australia due to arid conditions similar to those in the western U.S. The preferred term for wildfire in Australia is bushfire. Notable fire services tasked with wildland fire suppression include:
Wildland Fire Suppression: Better Guidance Needed to Clarify Sharing of Costs between Federal and Nonfederal Entities.
Aug 01, 2006; GAO-06-896T June 21, 2006 Wildland fires can burn or threaten both federal and nonfederal lands and resources, including homes in...