Evolution of Science and Policy of Forest Wildland Fires

April 2, 2020

The contemporary thinking of the roles of wildfires in ecosystems is much different than it was in 1920, when Chief Greeley wrote the article “Paiute Forestry” or the Fallacy of Light Burning. Historically the main focus of these forested ecosystems was timber production and the revenue that accompanied that timber. The main argument Chief Greeley was focused on was the harmful effects of “light burning”, he believed that this strategy would destroy all of the pine forests that it was used in. Greeley was focused solely of the use of suppression for wildfires, it was the only method of protection that he believed was efficient. This suppression strategy was heavily influenced by the destructive and extreme fire season of 1910, this season drove the Forest Service to adopt these policies strict fire protection. The fear of fire and its destructive capabilities fueled the fire policies of this time and tried to completely remove fire from the landscape.

In today’s world the roles of wildfire are viewed much differently, as these ecosystems are managed for more than just timber production. The management of public lands was shifted by the passage of the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act (1960), the Wilderness Act (1964), and the National Environmental Policy Act (1970). These acts came with shifting attitudes concerning public land management and wildfire. The Wilderness Prescribed Natural Fire Program, which was implemented in 1972, really altered the perception of wildfire control; under this program some wildfires in wilderness areas were allowed to burn. Allowing some of these fires in wilderness areas to burn was completely different from the historical view of complete suppression that Greeley discussed. This came after people began to realize that the suppression expenditures, that were reaching considerable amounts, could not be economically justified. The environmental era that was occurring in this time frame also led to more awareness of the importance of wildfire in these ecosystems, making it more acceptable to implement on the landscape.

Following this realization that suppression expenditures were not economically feasible, Congress eliminated emergency funding for pre-suppression in 1978. This led to a new protocol for the Forest Service, which required them to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on all future pre-suppression budget requests. Forcing these agencies, such as the Forest Service, to conduct these cost-benefit analyses also allowed them to look at situations where they could potentially leave some of these wildfires to burn and reduce some of these expenditures.

In today’s world fire is viewed as a useful tool to restore these pine forests, where Greeley thought it would be destructive. Although there are still challenges to the use of fire in these landscapes, the perception of it is slowly changing to a positive, useful role, rather than an evil force. Fire is still something any people fear, but with more knowledge and research it is slowly becoming more accepted.

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