june 2014

Although the term “wildland fire use” has been officially banned from US federal fire management terminology,* I’m unwilling to let it go, and I’m even more opposed to its replacement term, “managed fire for multiple objectives.” As bad as the acronym for wildland fire use was (WFU, pronounced “woo-foo”), its replacement is a far more atrocious acronym (MFMO, pronounced “miff-mo”). MFMO sounds like mumbo-jumbo to me for it reveals nothing about the intentions or actions of fire crews applying it. I suspect that it is intended to be vague and non-descript, perhaps as a means of dodging potential public opposition or air quality regulation that can get triggered when resource benefits or restoration objectives are mentioned as the rationale for authorizing fire use.

I believe in the strategic role and vital necessity of fire use in fire management, and it is time for the wildland fire community to acknowledge it rather than disguise it, and encourage it rather than constrain it. To help this effort, I propose that we simply call it “fire use” and then properly recognize the three kinds of fire use that form the very basis of fire management: prescribed fire use, suppression fire use, and restoration fire use. The public understands and largely accepts the first two kinds of fire use, and from that basis, can learn to support the third kind of fire use that in my opinion must become the real focus if not primary mission of agencies: restoration fire use for ecological fire management.


Prescribed burning is the ideal kind of fire use because it offers managers the most control over desired fire behavior and burn effects. However, several challenges are making prescribed burning more and more difficult to apply. First, there is the ever-present risk of fires burning out of prescription and escaping control. There have been some epic disasters from escaped prescribed fires that have killed people and destroyed homes, and it only takes one of these to end a manager’s career in fire. Although the risk of escape is a constant concern, in practice, the vast majority of prescribed fire use goes according to plan. Barely one percent of prescribed fires escape, and a small fraction of those ever cause any injuries or property damage, but those are the fires that make the headlines while the 99% of safely implemented prescribed fires go unreported. Thus the merits and successes of prescribed fire use are largely unheralded.

A number of factors are making prescribed fire use more challenging to apply. Climate change is shrinking the number of days when weather conditions are within prescription. Also, smoke emissions are becoming more of a social and legal constraint even though its through prescribed burning that managers have the most control over smoke compared to wildfire emissions. Subdivisions sprawling into fire-prone wildlands make prescribed fire use more challenging to implement without risking property damage or public nuisance complaints. Finally, unlike wildfire suppression that essentially enjoys unlimited funding through deficit spending, prescribed fire projects must be funded by fixed fuels budgets that are getting reduced every year. All of these factors make prescribed fire—the most desirable kind of fire use from the standpoint of fire managers—the least likely means of accomplishing the vast scale of burning needed to reduce fuels, restore ecosystems, and prepare landscapes for climate change.


There is another kind of fire use that occurs on every large wildfire, but is largely unrecognized as fire use: burnouts and backfires. In roadless wildlands with dense fuels and steep terrain, during severe weather conditions, or extreme fire behavior, “fighting fire with fire” is often the safest method for firefighters to suppress wildfires. But therein lies a great paradox: firefighters are starting fires in order to stop wildfires. Given the enormous size of recent wildfires, firing operations can add up to a significant amount of burned acreage. People do not associate firefighting with fire-lighting, but suppression fire use is happening on a scale that far exceeds any other kind of fire use.

Environmental or ecological impacts are almost never considered in firefighting operations, and there is no systematic tracking of firing locations or monitoring of their effects. There is but one singular objective driving suppression fire use: to contain and control wildfire spread. Unlike accidental escapes of prescribed fires, the intentional high-intensity, uncontrolled blazes of backburns and the severe effects they cause are tolerated as collateral damage of emergency wildfire suppression. But what exactly are firefighters “suppressing” when they ignite large-scale backburns at times, locations, and conditions almost guaranteed to create high-severity effects? Suppression fire use will have to become more mindful of its effects and more inclusive of additional objectives—prime among them: restoring resilience in fire-adapted ecosystems.


Progressive fire managers have been doing restoration fire use for decades although they have called it different names, such as “prescribed natural fire” (PNF), and their opportunities have been limited mostly to lightning-caused fires in the remotest parts of national parks or designated wilderness areas. Line officers are hesitant to authorize fire use for resource benefits or restoration objectives based on their own misunderstandings and the public’s misperceptions about what it is and how it’s done. Many people wrongly believe that fire use means the same thing as “let it burn” through passively monitoring wildfires with little or no management influence. However, fire use managers would argue that monitoring is actually managing a wildfire, and if the conditions change or fires reach certain pre-determined trigger points, then more active interventions including suppression actions can occur under the aegis of fire use strategies. So far, though, sound rationale and empirical examples of successful restoration fire use just cannot compete with institutional biases and individual prejudices against it, so restoration fire use is the least utilized of all.


There needs to be an expanded redefinition of fire use that synthesizes the objectives of prescribed fire, wildfire suppression, and restoration fire use to truly become fire management for multiple objectives. Current federal fire policy allows one, two, or all three types of fire use to be applied on a single wildfire, and conceivably combined in the same firing operation. For example, a firing operation to suppress uncharacteristic wildfire severity could also be intended to restore fire processes, reduce surface fuel loads, and renew habitat for fire-dependent species in an area that was intended for a prescribed burn. To meet multiple objectives, though, this requires that fire management goals and objectives be explicitly stated upfront, implementation actions are transparent and accountable, and outcomes are measurable and monitored. Simply slapping on words like fuels reduction or ecosystem restoration onto standard suppression firing operations will not suffice.

Restoration fire use must be viewed as a means of active fire management, not simply a passive monitoring or “let burn” response. Active management does not have to be “aggressive,” either. Indeed, we need to purge militaristic metaphors from fire management terminology in order to reflect a new ecological restoration focus. For example, we need to change phrases like “fighting” fire to managing fire, initial “attack” to initial action, and so on. This is already occurring in bits and pieces, but it needs to be more systematic and consistently integrated in every firefighter training session, in every fire information officer’s press release. Most importantly, we need to acknowledge and explain that our fire use actions on wildfires are not a matter of let it burn, but make it burn for many sound community protection and ecologically restoration objectives.

At the same time that we re-articulate the motives and methods of fire use, we will need to re-conceptualize wildfire suppression, ending its single-minded focus on limiting wildfire spread to keep the size or duration of fires small. Instead, we need to redefine suppression as mitigation actions to reduce uncharacteristic intensity or severity while at the same time enabling fires to spread larger and burn longer, as conditions allow. There is a near consensus among fire ecologists that it’s uncharacteristic fire severity, not large fire size, that should be our prime concern. We should develop the capacity and willpower to take advantage of every ignition, no matter what its source or location, as an opportunity to manage fire for ecological restoration objectives. Accordingly, future wildfires will be larger by design, resembling landscape-scale prescribed fire use with occasional acts of suppression fire use when needed, as restoration fire use becomes the primary means of large fire management.

This natural-color satellite image shows thick smoke from the fires streaming from Idaho northeast toward Montana. It was collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite on August 28, 2012. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS’s thermal bands, are outlined in red. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response.


In the not-so-distant future, we won’t be able to prevent or put out large wildfires even if we wanted to—and we won’t want to! Instead of preventing large wildfires, we may actually be promoting them to restore landscapes adversely altered by past fire exclusion. Large wildfires can accomplish so many ecological restoration objectives on a scale that prescribed burning cannot and suppression backfires will not do, but we need to stop fighting against and start working with large fires. It’s time to embrace fire use not just as a “tool,” but as the guiding philosophy and primary practice of ecological fire management. And the more we state its values and claim its accomplishments, the more public support we can expect to gain. Right actions on the ground can speak louder than words, but it’s also important that we speak the right words. As a community, we need to “talk the walk” and explain that fire use is fire management, and the more fire restoration, the better the land management.

* Note: Curiously, Wildland Fire Use has reappeared in the official glossary of the National Cohesive Wildfire Strategy.

About the author

Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D, is executive Director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE).