James D. Johnston, John B. Kilbride, Garrett W. Meigs, Christopher J. Dunn, Robert E. Kennedy
Year Published:

Cataloging Information

Fire & Wilderness
Management Approaches

NRFSN number: 23525
Record updated: September 2, 2021

National forests in the western United States are divided roughly in half between lands without roads managed for wilderness characteristics and lands with an extensive road system managed for multiple uses including resource extraction. We investigated the influence of these land use designations on fire ignitions, fire extent, and fire severity over the last three decades. Although roadless areas experienced fewer fire ignitions and are generally cooler, moister, and higher elevation landscapes less conducive to fire, wildfire extent was far greater in these areas than in roaded areas. An area equivalent to approximately one-third of roadless areas burned in the last three decades, while an area equivalent to less than one-fifth of roaded areas experienced fire. Most of the largest fires that have burned on national forest land in recent years began in roadless areas. Despite greater fire extent in roadless areas, there was no significant difference in fire severity between roadless areas and roaded areas after accounting for biophysical differences between these management regimes. Although fire patterns in roadless areas may pose challenges to land managers, the available evidence suggests that the greater extent of fire in roadless areas may confer resilience to these landscapes in the face of climate change.


Johnston JD, Kilbride JB, Meigs GW, Dunn CJ, and Kennedy RE. 2021. Does conserving roadless wildland increase wildfire activity in western US national forests? Environmental Research Letters 16 (8): 084040.

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