USFS Fire Policy. 1920- Present

April 3, 2020

Throughout the decades, policies and ideas change. The United States view on fire is no exception. Primarily, this is due to the European way of forestry which is to fight fires aggressively. This important because the 3rd chief of the Unites States Forest Service, William B. Greeley (1920-1928), who was a top graduate at Yale University was taught the European style of forestry. He implemented a policy of total fire suppression and was set out to put out all forest fires and prevent any future ones. In an article titled “Paiute Forestry” or the fallacy of light burning published in the 1920’s he backs his claim by saying that light burning is too risky, is ineffective in stopping large scale fires, and it not worth the cost (Greeley, 2000). Furthermore, Greeley’s position as a Region 1 supervisor put him at the site of the Big Burn in 1910 which consumed 3 million acres of land in roughly 3 days (Egan 2010). All of these factors were rooted in his fire policy of the 1920’s, one of which was the 10 am rule which stated that all fires had to be put out by 10 am of the next day.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the United States policy of fire suppression changed. Research was showing how fires could have positive effects on the landscape and in 1971 the 10 am rule was amended (Donovan and Brown, 2005).

Today, the USFS has adopted the approach that Greeley despised, light or paiute burning. Most of the approaches that Greeley enacted or proposed are easily denied today. We now know the importance of prescribed burns and how necessary they are on a landscape. However, the goal is still the same which is to maintain a healthy and diverse ecosystem.


Donovan, G.H. and Brown, T.C. (2005). Wildfire management in the US Forest Service: a brief history. Natural Hazards Observer. July, 3p.

Greeley, W. (2000). “Paiute Forestry” or the fallacy of light burning. Fire Management Today, 60 (4), 21.

Egan, Timothy. 2010. The Big Burn. Boston New York: Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Search for: