Only one Federal land management agency has substantially increased prescribed fire use

Data from 1988 to 2018

Prescribed fire by agency

Despite widespread recognition that treating forests and grasslands with prescribed fire can be a major step toward reducing the negative impacts of wildfires, only one primary Federal land management agency made a substantial increase in the number of hectares accomplished from 1988 to 2018 — the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A higher proportion of tribal lands managed by the BIA have been subject to prescribed fire than for any other agency, with a mean of 7.5% of tribal lands burned each year.

This conclusion was expressed in a paper written by Crystal A. Kolden of the University of Idaho, titled, “We’re Not Doing Enough Prescribed Fire in the Western United States to Mitigate Wildfire Risk.” The last section of the document, the Discussion, is below. It begins with the statement that many may disagree with — the Southeastern states have fewer wildfire disasters than the rest of the country because they accomplished over twice the amount of prescribed fire as the entire rest of the US combined between 1998 and 2018. However, later she writes about the West, “[T]he topography is more complex and inaccessible, burn windows are narrow, and fuels have built up throughout decades of fire exclusion.” There are also challenges in the West in dealing with restrictions imposed by air quality agencies, more so than in the Southeast.

The paper also points out another rarely mentioned factor that limits the use of prescribed fire on Federal lands. “[Agencies] have not made sufficient policy changes or budgetary allocations to carry out the Cohesive Strategy.” Which, she writes, “…specifically identified prescribed fire as the most cost-effective solution over the largest potential area of the US, as compared to managed wildfire and non-fire vegetation treatment.”

Below is the Discussion section of the paper.


The Southeastern US accomplished over twice the amount of prescribed fire as the entire rest of the US combined between 1998 and 2018. This may be one of many reasons why the Southeastern states have experienced far fewer wildfire disasters relative to the Western US in recent years. The amount of prescribed fire reported in the Southeastern US is also likely underreported, as the Southeastern states have purportedly accomplished millions of hectares of prescribed fire annually for decades. However, until 1998 there was no central prescribed fire reporting in the US. Even after 1998, non-federal entities did not necessarily report the full scope of their accomplishments in the federal reporting system.

The dramatic difference in prescribed fire completed between east and west reflects both a broad socio-cultural divide over fire and a problematic dichotomy between federal and non-federal fire management. Biophysical conditions have often been highlighted as a challenge to prescribed burning in the Western US; the topography is more complex and inaccessible, burn windows are narrow, and fuels have built up throughout decades of fire exclusion. By contrast, the Southeastern states have both the most extensive Wildland–Urban Interface in the US and some of the worst air quality challenges associated with prescribed fire due to higher humidity (e.g., increased smog formation). That agencies are able to accomplish so much prescribed fire in such a populated region likely also reflects social acceptance in addition to more conducive conditions. It is also telling that no single Southern state is driving the regional trend. State summaries in the Historical Wildland Fire Summary reports indicate that Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas all completed an average of over 40,000 ha per year each from 2002 to 2017.

Prescribed fire is widely accepted as a tool in the Southeastern states, where residents are more accustomed to using controlled fire to enhance timber production, control the rapidly growing vegetation, and enhance game species habitat. Some states, such as Florida, even have laws that recognize prescribed fire as being in the public interest and protect landowner rights to utilize it. Although studies throughout the US have shown that residents in all regions broadly support the concept of prescribed fire, they fear the potential for escaped fires and they are also highly concerned about smoke impacts [41]. However, Engebretson et al. found significantly higher tolerance of prescribed fire smoke from Southern-state residents than those in Western states, which suggests that this tolerance may translate into less opposition to using prescribed fire in the Southern GACC. This is true for either federal or non-federal agencies in the region; the Historical Summaries indicate that much of the USFS annual prescribed fire accomplishment occurs in the Southern GACC states (particularly along the Gulf Coast) rather than in the Western states where the greatest proportion of USFS land lies.

By contrast, fire managers in the Western US face considerable social barriers to using prescribed fire, including negative public perceptions of risk of escapes and smoke. This high perception of risk has been cemented by the occasional escaped prescribed fire, but it has likely also become entrenched due to the absence of prescribed fire demonstrated here. Fire managers, particularly federal fire managers, receive insufficient incentive to use prescribed fire under current agency policies that incentivize fire suppression (e.g., with overtime pay and promotion) but penalize risk-taking, particularly when escaped prescribed fires occur. Additionally, federal funding for prescribed fire and other fuel reduction activities has been drastically depleted over the past two decades as large wildfires force federal agencies to expend allocated funds on suppression rather than prevention.

Of the federal agencies reporting individually (i.e., separate from the ST/OT class), only the BIA has been able to substantially increase the relative use of prescribed fire. This increase is particularly striking because a higher proportion of tribal lands managed by BIA have been subject to prescribed fire than for any other agency, with a mean of 7.5% of tribal lands burned each year. This may reflect the more recent efforts of tribes seeking to reclaim sovereignty on their ancestral lands through increased self-governance and drawing upon TEK to re-introduce extensive intentional fire in these landscapes, particularly following the 2004 Tribal Forest Protection Act. The push for more prescribed fire among tribes is also reflected in the BIA budget for prescribed fire, particularly compared with the fire suppression budget. BIA devotes the second-highest budget of the five primary land management agencies to prescribed fire (behind USFS), but the prescribed fire budget is between 50% and 80% of its fire suppression budget, while no other agency’s prescribed fire budget has exceeded 25% of its fire suppression budget in the last five years. It is also worth noting that the more detailed Historical Wildland Fire Summary reports suggest that the strong positive trend in the Eastern GACC region is potentially partially a function of increased tribal burning in that region.

Despite changes in federal fire management policy meant to increase prescribed fire use, only one region of the US has considerably increased the amount of prescribed fire completed, and credit for much of this increase goes to non-federal agencies. Given the evidence that federal agencies have not accomplished more prescribed fire across the US over the past two decades, this suggests that while the Cohesive Strategy incorporates the best available science in a top-level holistic management framework, federal agencies have not made sufficient policy changes or budgetary allocations to carry out the Strategy.

There is considerable evidence in the scientific literature that prescribed fire is the most effective means of reducing the risk of wildfire disasters and increasing ecosystem resilience across much of the US. However, only one primary federal land management agency has substantially increased prescribed fire use, and the only widespread use and acceptance of prescribed fire is in the Southeastern states. Federal and non-federal entities have used the prescribed fire expertise of the Southeastern region as a training ground for fire and fuel managers across the US, but this has not translated to increased prescribed fire use. This suggests that a larger cultural shift in public sociocultural perceptions of prescribed fire is needed to truly capitalize upon the utility of prescribed fire and more aggressively reduce wildfire risk. Without such a shift, more catastrophic wildfire disasters are inevitable.

prescribed fire accomplished

The graphics are from the paper written by Crystal A. Kolden.
Fire 2019, 2(2), 30;

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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.

5 thoughts on “Only one Federal land management agency has substantially increased prescribed fire use”

  1. Interesting. The percentages tell a partial story that highlight tribal activity, but complete data on average and total acreages, size-of-burn and cost per acre per agency would be more insightful.

  2. For a closer look at why the NPS has never reconciled prescribed fire policies with on the ground results, especially in western states, see the article at GeorgeWright in the May edition by Botti and Nichols.

  3. I thankfully am here in the SE. I can remember a couple of fires outside of managed land that got to around 1000 acres but they are very rare. I also remember one on managed lands that they just let go natural that went large but was heavily watched. because of the controlled fires we have so many turkeys and deer as well as lots of black bears that forage in all of these areas. We contract about 40K acres a year for private landowners as well as what the Feds do. I think they do a great job here. That being said we do not have the terrain issues except for some very deep mud…I do think they could better manage things though with better mechanical clearing at the base of terrain along the interfaces to start and gradually expand from there. New neighborhoods might even be required to maintain a 300 foot swath around them that a HOA has to care for… maybe even have emergency sprinklers already dry set in the ground?

  4. Not really a new finding, but still an important reminder. The effectiveness of Rx fire has been recognized for many many decades and this report reflects the continuing abject failure of FS leadership to use science and practical knowledge to actually manage fire rather than just respond to it. The disincentives in doing Rx burning, all the risks but no public or agency rewards, means that it’s far safer politically to just fight fire, and fail to manage our fire dependent ecosystems. Not sure that facts actually matter today – but to change from wildfire to prescribed fire requires true leadership by the FS and State government in the west – something unprecedented in a century.

  5. Good on the BIA! They really never stopped the prescribed burn programs. The issue: trouble keeping up with qualified RXB1 / 2 along with RXM1/2. In the SW, with AZ and NM, you can find a thriving ecosystem on many of the reservations.


Comments are closed.