Manic suppression: Now is our chance to reform wildfire management

Photo: Wildfire at night
At a time when forest fires are predicted to grow throughout the West, national forest managers, policymakers and the public currently have unique opportunities to reform wildfire management.

With nearly 9 million acres burned this year across the nation, 2015 is shaping up to be one of the most destructive wildfire seasons yet in a decade strung with devastating fire seasons. And with drought and climate change, wildfires are only predicted to get worse.

In a commentary published Sept. 17 in the journal Science, a team of scientists led by a UC Davis affiliate describe unique opportunities and suggestions to reform forest fire management to lessen the impacts of inevitable wildfires in future years.

In the U.S., 98 percent of wildfires are suppressed before reaching 300 acres. Yet the 2 percent that escape containment account for 97 percent of fire-fighting costs and total burned area, the paper said.

The current funding structure for fire management encourages that imbalance. The authors write that, for individual national forests, “fire suppression is steadfastly financed through dedicated congressional appropriations,” which are supplemented with emergency funding. However, funding for fuels reduction and prescribed burns comes out of a limited budget allotted to each national forest and is often borrowed to cover suppression costs. 

‘Management reform has failed’

The recently released National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and the U.S. Forest Service’s current efforts to revise national forest plans provide incentives — and distinct opportunities — for change. Most of the 155 national forests will begin writing new plans and holding public forums within the next 10 years.

Further, public resistance to controlled fire management, such as objections to smoke and negative perceptions of forest fires, is starting to change.

This growing public and congressional awareness of the problem is placing additional pressure on state and federal agencies to better manage forests and fire. The authors said this kind of support is needed to enact true change — not just at the policy level but also with actual wildfire response.

“Management reform in the United States has failed, not because of policy, but owing to lack of coordinated pressure sufficient to overcome entrenched agency disincentives to working with fire,” the authors write.

The paper suggests that change come in the form of more prescribed and managed burns, increased thinning, and less suppression. The authors point to Parks Canada, which divides the landscape into different zones for fire management.

For example, U.S. forest plans could:

  • Use mechanical thinning and suppression near homes;
  • Use prescribed fire and mechanical treatments just outside of the wildland-urban interface;
  • Allow more remote lands to burn as managed wildfires when naturally ignited and use prescribed fires.

Additional authoring institutions include UC Berkeley, University of Washington, The Wilderness Society, Northern Arizona University, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Read the full study.

Media Resources

Kat Kerlin, Research news (emphasis on environmental sciences), 530-750-9195,

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