Fuel Treatments & Effects
Naturally-ignited Fire-use treatments
Federal land managers in the United States are permitted to manage wildfires with strategies other than full suppression under appropriate conditions to achieve natural resource objectives. However, policy and scientific support for “managed wildfire” appear insufficient to support its broad use. We conducted case studies in northern New Mexico and southwestern Utah to examine how managers and stakeholders navigated shifting barriers and opportunities to use managed wildfire from 2018 to 2021. The use of managed wildfire was fostered through an active network of civil society partnerships in one case, and strong interagency cooperation and existing policies and plans in the other. In both, the COVID-19 pandemic, drought, and agency direction curtailed recent use. Local context shapes wildfire response strategies, yet centralized decision-making and policy also can enable or constrain them. Future research could refine the understanding of social factors in incident decision-making, and evaluation of risks and tradeoffs in wildfire response.
Managers and stakeholders seeking to restore fire’s ecological roles in their own landscapes through the use of managed wildfires could use these findings to cultivate supportive local environments for their objectives. Both case studies offer examples of how managed wildfires may be facilitated through civil society partnerships and interagency cooperation. Networks of civil society and agency partners can encourage policy change at multiple levels through concerted efforts over time, particularly by building a larger case through localized examples of collaborative projects and a body of regionally relevant scientific evidence. Strong interagency cooperation on both mitigation and response can also foster an environment of mutual understanding, even given differing missions and mandates for managed wildfire.
Federal wildfire response must consider multiple objectives that may compete across scales, social-ecological contexts, and timeframes. These include minimizing negative impacts on human values, responding to immediate risks of fire exposure, managing land sustainably under longer timeframes; and meeting accomplishment targets, such as acres of hazardous fuels reduction, ecological restoration, and other resource objectives.
Federal wildfires and land managers are permitted to manage wildfires for natural resource objectives but face challenges of ambiguous terminology, conflicting policies, drought, increasing numbers of homes in wildlands, and unanticipated events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Conditions, opportunities, and barriers to manage wildfire vary substantially by locality and are dependent on local actors, yet also subject to higher-level changes in policy direction.
Beyond improved risk analytics and decision support tools, enabling social and internal institutional conditions may also facilitate opportunities for use of managed wildfire. Social science can provide evidence and frameworks including concrete lessons learned, expanded use of after-action reviews, process monitoring, briefings with leadership, and science application through boundary-spanning organizations.