Historical Fire Policies: How They Have Changed Over Time


Historical Fire Policies: How They Have Changed Over Time

In the early twentieth century, exploitation and settler selfishness seemed to drive the management of lands within the federal domain. Forest Service Chief Greeley published an article titled “Paiute Forestry or the Fallacy of Light Burning” where he discussed the common ideology of the time. Historically, Native Americans utilized fire as a tool to groom the landscape and minimize damage as a result of natural ignitions. Chief Greeley deemed the light burning as destructive, and that old trees are weakened, hollowed out, and topple during wind events. He also mentioned that decay increased as a result from fire scars and decreased the financial quality of the wood. The most interesting quote from Chief Greeley’s article, however, is portraying the importance of stopping all surface prescribed burning, stating that “if surface burning is not stopped, the end is total destruction which, though less spectacular, is just as complete and disastrous as when a forest is consumed in a crown blaze that kills everything at once”. This is a powerful quote that resembles the mentality of individuals of the time – portraying the sense of selfish resource exploitation of the land.

The Devil’s Broom fire of 1910 and the European forestry practices of the time had led to the creation of the several policies that explicitly applied to wildfire management. The Weeks Act of 1911 created provisions for joint firefighting resources and a budget to be distributed to states with a protection system in place. Arguably one of the most aggressive policies enacted was the 10 AM policy in 1935 that called for the immediate suppression of all wildfires by 10 AM of the day following ignition.

Public perception began to shift as time progressed; a more ecological-based approach to land management surfaced and changes began to occur within the 10 AM policy that seemed to be as a result of the Leopold Report in 1963. This report identified the removal of fire from the landscape as a major ecological problem and suggested that it be used as a restoration tool for ecological benefit. In 1971, an amendment was passed that seemed to decrease the aggressiveness in fire response and altered the act to contain all fires before they reach 10 acres. In 1978, the 10 AM policy was completely removed and all emergency funding for presuppression efforts were eliminated.

More recently, the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy of 1995 emphasized the role natural fire has on the landscape and recognized that there is a need for prescribed fire and resource benefit fires in areas other than just the wilderness. Resource benefit fires are assuming a larger role in the management of large wildfires, and it will be interesting to see if management practices are affected in the future as social acceptance issues continue to increase across federal lands.