Research suggests Forest Service lands not the main source of wildfires affecting communities

They found that ignitions on Forest Service lands accounted for fewer than 25% of the most destructive wildfires

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West Wind Fire, Denton, MT
The West Wind Fire destroyed grain elevators and 25 homes in Denton, Montana December 1, 2021. Photo courtesy of Fergus County Sheriff office.

Research led by Oregon State University shows that fires are more likely to burn their way into national forests than out of them. The findings contradict the common narrative of a destructive wildfire igniting on remote public land before spreading to threaten communities, said Chris Dunn of the OSU College of Forestry.

The study, which looked at more than 22,000 fires, found that those crossing jurisdictional boundaries are primarily caused by people on private property. It also showed that ignitions on Forest Service lands accounted for fewer than 25% of the most destructive wildfires – ones that resulted in the loss of more than 50 structures.

“In the old framing, public agencies bear the primary responsibility for managing and mitigating cross-boundary fire risk and protecting our communities, with their efforts focused on prevention, fuel reduction and suppression,” Dunn said. “This has been the dominant management approach of years past, which is failing us.”

Destructive fires start on Forest Service or other land
Location of destructive wildfires (> 50 structures lost) between 2000 and 2018 that originated on (a) USFS lands, and (b) non-USFS lands. Fire locations are symbolized by magnitude of structure loss. Relatively few destructive fires originated on USFS lands. The most destructive USFS and non-USFS fires during this time are the Cedar fire and the Camp fire.

The findings, published February 15, 2022 in Nature Scientific Reports, follow by a few weeks the Forest Service’s release of a new 10-year fire strategy, Confronting the Wildfire Crisis. The strategy aims for a change in paradigm within the agency, Dunn said.

“We are long overdue for policies and actions that support a paradigm shift,” he said.

Scientists including Dunn and OSU’s Will Downing investigated 27 years of fires that crossed jurisdictional boundaries. The collaboration also included scientists from Colorado State University and the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Cross-boundary fires consumed just over 17 million acres during the study period of 1992 to 2019, and about half of the burned area was Forest Service land. The study area covered almost 141 million acres across 11 states and included 74 national forests.

Destructive fires start on Forest Service or other land
Area burned by CB fires derived from FIRESTAT data and binned by ownership category. Blue dots represent decadal averages of inbound and outbound acres combined. CB fire activity increased substantially during our study period. Area burned on USFS lands by fires originating on other ownerships (“inbound”, gray) has increased more rapidly than area burned on non-USFS lands. “Outbound not protected” refers to fires that burned out of a Forest onto land not protected by the Forest Service. Ownership categories are described in more detail in the Methods section of the paper.

Of all ignitions that crossed jurisdictional boundaries, a little more than 60% originated on private property, and 28% ignited on national forests. Most of the fires started due to human activity.

“The Forest Service’s new strategy for the wildfire crisis leads with a focus on thinning public lands to prevent wildfire intrusion into communities, which is not fully supported by our work, or the work of many other scientists, as the best way to mitigate community risk,” Dunn said.

Home Ignition Zone

“A substantial portion of the wildfire problem is a community destruction problem,” added Michael Caggiano of Colorado State. “The Forest Service can contribute to an advisory or facilitation role to address the home ignition zone, including fire resistant design and zoning, and fuels management on private lands, but states, local government and homeowners are better positioned than the USFS to manage those components of wildfire risk.”

A paradigm shift that could mitigate wildfire risk would begin with the recognition that the significant wildfires occurring in western states is a fire management challenge with a fire management solution, not a forest management problem with a forest management solution, Dunn said.

“The only way we are going to address the wildfire problem on large public lands at the scale of the challenge is through the effective and efficient management of wildfires over the long run,” he said.

Dunn said that means allowing some fires or portions of fires to burn to provide risk reduction and ecological benefits, identifying and preparing locations where suppression is likely to be effective, and developing strategies to rapidly distribute resources to where they are most needed and can do the most good.

“Our research has significant potential to inform and guide development of effective cross-boundary risk mitigation strategies, including identifying where and how work on the ground can be most effective,” he said. “The main source of our communities’ exposure to wildfire risk is clearly not our national forests.”

The study showed that in many cases, national forests were a net receiver of cross-boundary wildfire rather than a source, and that those fires tend to happen in areas with higher densities of roads and people.

Dunn credits the Forest Service for accepting the modern realities of wildfire and for embracing collaborative governance and cross-boundary partnerships. He added that managing fire in multijurisdictional landscapes has become a centerpiece of wildfire strategic planning and that evidence suggests fire transmission across boundaries will continue to increase.


“As the Forest Service’s strategy moves forward, we think there could be opportunities to learn from what their state partners are doing, such as the more comprehensive policies passed in Oregon in 2021,” he said. “Oregon’s omnibus wildfire bill is a science-driven approach that recognizes the shared responsibility we all have in adapting to the fire environment.”

The legislation requires those homes at greatest risk to mitigate at the home ignition zone and also addresses landscape resilience and improved wildfire response.

Dunn calls it “the type of comprehensive policy we need to address the multitude of impacts wildfires have on communities, ecosystems, industry, etc. It recognizes that the Forest Service is neither the sole source of the problem nor the sole solution to the problem, but rather one of many pieces to a paradigm shift society needs to make.”

Matthew Thompson and Karen Short of the Rocky Mountain Research Station also took part in the cross-boundary fire study, which was partially funded by the Forest Service.

From Oregon State University.

Authors of the research paper: William M. Downing, Christopher J. Dunn, Matthew P. Thompson, Michael D. Caggiano, and Karen C. Short


Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.

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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.

25 thoughts on “Research suggests Forest Service lands not the main source of wildfires affecting communities”

  1. Technology has also made it easier and more comfortable than ever to live in remote places, ie- wireless/ satellite internet, solar power, fracking for wells….

    Couple that with the idea that some people, locals and 2nd homeowners, refuse to cut a single tree or bush on their property to be “gentle on the land” Despite making conscious decisions to build a house, 3 outbuildings, and a 1/4 mile driveway into the WUI, it’s such a basic disconnect and it baffles me every time.

    At this point, if you’re a FF in a fire prone community, you have an obligation to spread the good word of fuels management , offer to help, write a grant for a community chipper , what else? Time to get to work!

    Ely, Minnesota

  2. Last year New Mexico passed a law for prescribed burns on private lands. It includes a training and certification program for private land owners as well as liability insurance.

    1. And not only does that bill include a certification for liability insurance, it reduces protections for owners of adjacent properties that may be damaged or burned in the course of a fire. In many cases one has to prove gross negligence. This bill could really hurt people in the WUI. Starting fires near other people’s homes is generally a very bad idea. Home hardening and reducing fuels in the 100+ perimeter around homes is a very good idea, and absolutely necessary.

  3. To help avoid further confusion to some, there is no such thing as “Forest Service lands.” They are National Forest lands that the general public owns and the USFS manages.

      1. Cool, maybe out state and local fire departments can start managing it better at 10x the costs..Or maybe the federal government starts paying its own people a better rate to manage it, and quits paying all the local cooperators to come sit on their ass’s at wildland incidents, including their million of dollars worth of hotel bills, their portal to portal, and for their backfill firefighters at their fire station.

    1. Semantics dude. If you really want to get anal they’re actually “National Forest System

  4. Makes sense to me.
    Majority of wildfires in the USA are man-caused. Intentional, accidental or negligent, does not matter.
    Majority of people don’t wander far from home. Probability models show this.
    Seems like the fingers should be pointing downhill.

  5. This seems to be a good study. The kind of work that should direct the FS and adjacent land owners to manage their land without blaming one another. Finally, it seems the FS has a wildfire strategy, and let’s hope it abandons their initial approach to reduce fire transmission from public lands. This study clearly shows it is not warranted. Instead, the FS and other should focus on irreplaceable products of our treasured lands – watersheds, habitats, and resources that are threatened by wildfire and cumulative effects of past management.

  6. I would suggest the article may be misleading in some aspects. It is not the land ownership where ignition occurs that is an issue. I would ask how many fires meeting the criteria were managed by a federal agency? How many of those fires that started on private land were under federal DPA? Finally, how many of the fires that meet the criteria were natural ignitions on federal land that were allowed to burn for resource benefit and escaped?

  7. Interesting article! It seems to only look at the West. What about the East? What about when the FS “accidently” starts a fire on private land? This happens a lot in Region 8!

  8. It would be interesting to see if any of the public land ignitions were in highway, gas line or power line right of ways. That could be a big part of that 25%.

  9. In recent years more than 5,000 homes have burned in California from fires originating on Federal land. Carr Fire 1600 structures lost, PNF North Bear fire 2352 structures lost, Caldor fire 1003 structures lost , August Complex 935 structures lost, to name just a few,. Entire communities have been wiped out. The economic loss is staggering and home insurance rates have quadrupled or been cancelled entirely.

    The threat of wildfire originating on Federal land is real and should not be minimized.

  10. Compelling evidence that national forests are not the most significant wildfire threat to most communities in the western US has been reported in at least 12 prior publications. However, conclusions at the scale of the western US are an overgeneralization since wildfire simulation studies point to at least several hundred communities where national forests are highly likely to be the source of future fires. Other large public land tenures contribute significant community exposure as well including national parks, BLM, and state lands. Every community is unique when it comes to the source of risk and this needs to be recognized in community protection planning and restoration of the surrounding landscape. See also:

    Palaiologou, P., A. A. Ager, C. R. Evers, M. Nielsen-Pincus, M. A. Day, and H. K. Preisler. 2019. Fine-scale assessment of cross-boundary wildfire events in the western United States. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 19:1755–1777.
    Barros, A. M. G., M. A. Day, T. Spies, and A. A. Ager. 2021. Effects of ownership patterns on cross-boundary wildfires. Scientific Reports 11: 19319. doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-98730-1
    Evers, C., A. A. Ager, M. Nielsen-Pincus, P. Palaiologou, and K. Bunzel. 2019. Archetypes of community wildfire exposure from national forests in the western US. Landscape and Urban Planning 182:55-66.
    Ager, A. A., M. A. Day, F. J. Alcasena, C. R. Evers, K. C. Short, and I. Grenfell. 2021. Predicting Paradise: Modeling future wildfire disasters in the western US. Science of the Total Environment 784:147057.
    Ager, A. A., M. A. Day, P. Palaiologou, R. Houtman, C. Ringo, and C. Evers. 2019. Cross-boundary wildfire and community exposure: A framework and application in the western US. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-392, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, CO.
    Ager, A.A., Palaiologou, P., Evers, C.R., Day, M.A., Ringo, C. and Short, K., 2019. Wildfire exposure to the wildland urban interface in the western US. Applied Geography, 111, p.102059.

  11. Actually, this research is perfectly in line with the recently announced USFS strategy. In it, they say that the FS needs to treat 20 million acres, but they also say that 30 million acres needs to be treated on other ownerships. That’s effectively saying that three fifths of the risk is not National Forest System lands. They also say in the strategy that there needs to be work in communities as well.

  12. It would be interesting to know who funded this research. I’m curious, because when I worked at Texas A&M I did research on funding vs outcome. For example, there was a study that looked at the best rice and the study said that Uncle Ben’s Rice was the best…guess who funded the study. Yep, Uncle Ben!!! So, who funded this study and why? Wondering minds want to know! Knowledge is Power! 🙂

  13. The study unfortunately ended with 2018. In the three following years California set new successive records for destructive forest fires in 2020 and 2021. Some of these fires burned less than the study required 50 homes but were pretty bad. Ask the people that survived fires that burned; Greenville, Markleeville, Doyle, Feather Falls and Berry Creek if fire coming off USFS lands creates a need for more fuel reduction and fire suppression or if the prefer to live with fire.
    Our Federal Government that ignited; Manifest Destiny, The Homestead Act, The Forest Reserve Act, The Weeks Act, The Clarke-McNary Act and Land Grant Colleges like OSU can’t now have it both ways. Having created the National Forests the Federal Government doesn’t get to now tell the public to live with Fire because the West has become too populated.

  14. That’s right, Mike, not only should the agency not tell the public to “learn to live with fire,” they are irresponsible to make such an ignorant comment. Sooner or later, a lawsuit will bring a halt to this kind of apathy to the general public.

  15. I guess the haters are not going to like these conclusions since it doesn’t fit their belief system that governments at any level are the source of all our woes. Probably some of the same people who won’t mitigate on their property or in their community because they think it violates their “liberty”, but who stand at the front of the line for relief handouts from the same government they hate when their place burns down.

  16. It is no wonder that many WUI cabin owners won’t reduce the amount vegetation on their property when they drive thru miles and miles of overgrown forest to get there. They look at their property and think it looks just like the “natural” forest they just drove thru. I have always thought that it would make sense to thin the forests back a couple of hundred yards on either side of a highway, so drivers could see what a healthy fire-adapted forest really looks like.

    Forest thinning along road corridors would also have the advantage of turning every road into a major fire break. Here in Arizona a number of huge fires were stopped at the first major highway they encountered. Even FS dirt roads could serve the same fire break purpose, if they were cleared back a significant ways on both side of the road. If every FS road corridor was thinned back, new wildfires might be able to be stopped at the first forest service road they encounter. I am also guessing it might be easier to find loggers to take on a forest thinning contract if they were working immediately off the roads most accessible to logging trucks. Same for dealing with the expensive-to-haul-away bio-mass

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