Research finds the greatest barrier to conducting prescribed fires is lack of capacity and funding

Air quality is often thought to be a key barrier

Red Valley Rx Burn Custer St Pk, South Dakota
Red Valle Rx Burn Custer St Park, South Dakota, April 15, 2004. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

From research conducted by: Schultz, Courtney A. ; McCaffrey, Sarah M. ; Huber-Stearns, Heidi R. , 2019.


Despite broad recognition of its value, managers are not able to use prescribed fire at the levels necessary to improve landscape resiliency in the western United States. A better understanding of policy barriers and opportunities is therefore needed. Limited research suggests that a range of factors constrain prescribed fire implementation including narrow burn windows, air quality regulations, lack of adequate funding and personnel, and other environmental laws. Through interviews conducted in 11 western states, we investigated the degree to which these factors currently act as barriers and the strategies being used to overcome key barriers for prescribed fire application on United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. We asked the following questions: (1) What are the most significant policy barriers to prescribed fire on USFS and BLM lands in the West? (2) What are potential opportunities and mechanisms for change?

The barriers to prescribed fire that were most frequently identified by our interviewees were lack of adequate capacity and funding, along with a need for greater leadership direction and incentives to apply prescribed fire. Interviewees emphasized that owing to a lack of incentives and the prevalence of risk aversion at multiple agency levels, active prescribed fire programs depend on the leadership and commitment of individual decision-makers and fire managers. Barriers related to policy requirements tended to be significant only in specific locations or situations, such as smoke regulations in the Pacific Northwest or protecting specific threatened and endangered species.

Our findings highlight the importance of contextualized investigation into policy barriers and the role of collaborative and multilevel governance approaches for addressing complex land management challenges. This research has broader implications for fire and natural hazard management. It is important in a complex governance system to continue to assess where barriers lie and how they can be addressed. Challenges will change over time, requiring a nuanced and ongoing contextual approach to understanding impediments to improving practice.

Key Findings

  • Findings support previous survey work that found that capacity is a major limitation for applying prescribed fire. We found less support for previous findings that air quality regulation is consistently a significant barrier, except in specific locations.
  • Interviewees emphasized that owing to a lack of incentives and the prevalence of risk aversion at multiple agency levels, active prescribed fire programs depend on the leadership and commitment of individual decision-makers and fire managers.
  • Successful approaches rely on collaborative forums and positions that allow communication, problem solving, and resource sharing among federal and state partners, and that facilitate dialogue between air-quality regulators and land managers.
  • Although not a focus in the present work, interviewees also discussed other barriers to burning, like drought conditions, short burn windows, and the presence of challenging landscape conditions, such as the presence of invasive cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), that limit their ability to conduct prescribed fire.

The findings above are based on:
Policy barriers and opportunities for prescribed fire application in the western United States
Schultz, Courtney A. ; McCaffrey, Sarah M. ; Huber-Stearns, Heidi R. , 2019

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

6 thoughts on “Research finds the greatest barrier to conducting prescribed fires is lack of capacity and funding”

  1. These researchers missed the boat. There is unlimited money for prescribed fire. It’s available along with 25,000 burners from May 1 to November 1. They have $4.5 billion this year. All you have to do is follow National Fires R. O. C. On Instagram to see that we are applying managed fire, restoration wildfire, unplanned fire use to the tune of several million acres every summer. “Managed Fire” is prescription fire in every way. There is no money available in the off season.

  2. I was the burn boss at the former Army base near Monterey California managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and BRAC both from the Department of Defense. We had almost limited resources. The objectives for the burn were to clear the vegetation using prescribed fire so that unexploded ordnance could be removed from the surface and the land returned to the public as well as meeting resource objectives of returning fire adapted vegetation to the sites . Suppression resources, ignition resources, and support by the Army were no issue. Liability was not an issue because the DOD was the backer. Timing of the burn was such that it had a very narrow window in the fall often during fire season. The Navy post Graduate school even supported the burn by supplying meteorological support. The biggest problem was Air Quality form meeting smoke dispersion needs and restrictions on burn days due to AQ. So even with all the support and money needed AQ was still the biggest problem . I burned from 1998 until 2018 when the funding stopped

  3. “No money available during off season”
    That is the very time the money is needed. Especially on the west coast. To do intentipnalprescribed fire ignition during fire season is asking for problems. It is difficult at best to accomplish burning with the active environmental extremist groups on the west coast.
    Meeting prescribed burning goals in fire season is a slippery slope. Political at best, dangerous to life and infrastructure at worst.
    Many areas of the country can benefit from what you refer to, but each area presents it’s own set of challenges

    1. The last sentence is very important; each area presents its own challenges. I live in Texas which is a private lands state with a high historic fire frequency. Human capacity for conducting burns is a major limitation. Prescribed Burning Associations have been the most effective method to overcome limitations in human capacity, knowledge and experience, and equipment. Agencies are most effective when they support the private landowners in forming, equipping, and training members of the PBA.

    2. Again, you didn’t read the article? Some of you just can’t quit blaming conservationists Ie environmentalists:

      “…It is difficult at best to accomplish burning with the active environmental extremist groups on the west coast.
      Meeting prescribed burning goals in fire season is a slippery slope. Political at best, dangerous to life and infrastructure at worst…”

      No. The public cries fowl when there’s smoke, from naturally caused wildfires and control burns.

      Many land owners, farmers, conservationists, hunters, do care about habitat protection for some animal and plant species, esp endangered species. A blanket statement blaming “extremist groups” is unwarranted and unfounded.

  4. I was a Prescribed Fire Manager, a Burn Boss 1, a Fire Behavior analyst and I planned, wrote and executed a lot of burn plans from oak chaparral, to sub alpine fir to grasslands. My first assignment on an Rx burn was Kitching Creek on Mt Laguna with Bill Gabbert and friends. I think that was the late 70’s. The only limiting factor we had then and thru the years is air quality, you can only put so much particulate matter in the air, just so many acres !
    Hows the air quality where you are today ?

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