Pre-colonial frequency RxFire needed to save Western forests, study confirms

In 1993, District Manager John Koehler was in the midst of a shift in popular fire management practices. In his position with the Florida Forest Service (then the Division of Forestry) he’d noticed a new trend developing among the country’s wildfire managers, but he found there was little data to support their claims. So he decided to conduct a study to either verify or debunk the usefulness of prescribed burns.

Koehler wasn’t the first to gain interest in whether the historical practice of prescribed burning was as effective as people claimed. Fire Scientist Robert Martin, in his 1988 study, found that prescribed burning reduced the number of acres burned per wildfire, but said the practice’s effect on wildfire occurrence was “at best, speculative.” Forester James Kerr Brown, in his 1989 study, said a prescribed burning program would not have prevented the disastrous Yellowstone fires that had burned the year before.

1998 Yellowstone ~ NPS photo
1998 Yellowstone ~ NPS photo

Koehler was less than impressed by either study. He wanted to learn whether prescribed fires held quantifiable, tangible benefits – which neither study supplied. To compile hard data, Koehler used nine years’ worth of Florida Forest Service fire statistics to determine whether prescribed burns were affecting the frequency and size of wildfires at all. His study would go on to produce the hard data he was looking for, concluding that in every area where prescribed burns occurred, decreases were recorded in the total number of wildfires, the number of acres burned, and the average number of acres burned per wildfire.

“Prescribed burning will not eliminate wildfires, but this practice does reduce the threat posed from wildfires,” Koehler said.

At the end of his study, he recommended more research focused on quantifying benefits of prescribed burning as a prevention tool. Fast-forward 30 years, and Koehler would get his wish after a team of researchers on the other side of the country completed one of the most comprehensive examinations of prescribed burns’ effect on future wildfires.


The new research, “Low-intensity fires mitigate the risk of high-intensity wildfires in California’s forests,” was published in the journal Science by Biostatistician Xiao Wu from Columbia University and a team of Stanford researchers. In the study, the team analyzed 20 years of satellite data on fire activity across more than 62,000 miles of California forests to determine whether intentional low-intensity burns mitigate the consequences of the increasing frequency of severe wildfires.

Their conclusions were the same that Koehler had heard wildfire managers espousing decades before: prescribed
burns help prevent future wildfires.

In conifer forests, they found, areas that have recently burned at low intensity are 64 percent less likely to burn at high intensity in the following year relative to unburned synthetic control areas – and this protective effect against high-intensity fires persists for at least 6 years.

Prescribed burn ~ NPS photo
Prescribed burn ~ NPS photo

The study not only found prescribed burns widely successful in California, but also showed that they’re a necessary practice vital to conifer forests’ health, something Native American tradition has known for centuries.

The study does not shy away from referencing previous case studies that indicate frequent and low-intensity fires were the norm before the forceful removal of numerous Native American tribes from California. Previous research from Ecologist Alan Taylor shows that fire regime changes over the past 400 years likely resulted from socioecological changes rather than climate changes. Fire Scientist Scott Stephens found around 4.4 million acres of California had burned annually before 1800, in part helped by Native American cultural burning. Geographer Clarke Knight determined that indigenous burning practices promoted long-term forest stability in the forests of California’s Klamath Mountains for at least one millennium.

“The resilience of western North American forests depends critically on the presence of fire at intervals and at intensities that approximate presuppression and precolonial conditions that existed prior to the extirpation of Native Americans from ancestral territories in California,” Wu wrote.

RxFire training, Grand Canyon National Park ~ NPS photo
RxFire training, Grand Canyon National Park ~ NPS photo

The research led the study’s authors to recommend a continuation of the policy transition from fire suppression to restoration – through the usage of prescribed fire, cultural burning, and managed wildfire. The maximum benefits a prescribed fire program can yield, however, are dependent on whether the practice becomes a sustained tradition. If sustained, prescribed burning could have an ongoing protective effect on nearly 4,000 square miles of California’s forests.

Getting to that point would require many more resources. As pointed out in Fire Scientist Crystal Kolden’s 2018 research, management practices in the West have still failed to wholeheartedly adopt and increase prescribed burning despite calls from scientists and policy experts, including the 30-year-old call from Koehler.

The result is the continual compounding
of the ongoing fire deficit.

“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,” said Kolden.

She also gave a well-deserved shoutout to fire managers in the Southeast U.S., crediting them with accomplishing double the number of prescribed burns compared with the entire rest of the U.S. between 1998 and 2018. “This may be one of many reasons the Southeastern states have experienced far fewer wildfire disasters relative to the Western U.S. in recent years,” Kolden said.

Even as the USFS and other federal agencies continue to tout prescribed burns in their national strategies, it won’t be until the agencies collectively create policy changes and budgetary allocations sufficient that prescribed burning is used at a scale in which it can create meaningful prevention. Without those meaningful changes, the wealth of prescribed burn research clearly shows that more catastrophic wildfire disasters are inevitable.

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14 thoughts on “Pre-colonial frequency RxFire needed to save Western forests, study confirms”

  1. Great article thank you. Two things need more attention in this space.

    1. The culture of some fire organizations, especially at the state level, needs to shift. They talk the talk around prescribed fire, but mid level leadership and institutional culture do not embrace the practice. Top brass often aren’t fire people, and aren’t incentivized to ask hard questions. I’d speculate this cultural focus has a bit to do with state resources having more exposure to WUI and local politicians who may be more sensitive to constituents than the more removed federal government. The feds are often working in more remote areas with a bigger buffer (for escapes and smoke management). Really I only have knowledge of one state in particular, without any real idea of cultures in other states or at the federal level, so speculating on that part.

    2. Even if you could get staffing up and had relatively favorable weather windows, smoke management would be next to impossible to burn at the pre-colonial scale. For one thing the build-up in fuels and especially duff and heavies means that even if you have great lift and ventilation during the peak burning period, you’re going to have a lot more lingering smoldering to drift downslope and settle out where people live (assuming those fuels are available). So you can “peel the layers off the onion,” making sure you only consume a bit of this accumulation at a time (and moderating negative effects associated with higher-severity fire). But still it’s a lot of onion to peel to get on a pre-colonial rotation. It’d be fantastic if someone did the modeling to look at smoke production and impacts across a typical year if we burned at pre-colonial scales. That’d facilitate an honest conversation between land managers, advocates on both sides (forest health, clean air), and regulators.

  2. The literature on pre-colonial intentional burning is anecdotal. Native Americans had a sense of humor; good-natured teasing. I have observed this in Mewok, Pueblo, and Hopi, and knew one of the prominent anthropologists who depended upon anecdotal stories (the native peoples that I have known tended to tell them what they wanted to hear).

    Context is everything.

    1. Hi Wayne, do you know which of the Northern Plains tribes had a written language record? I’m not sure what you mean by “anecdotal” literature?

  3. I know I’m going to sound like an arrogant asshole….. I know I probably deserve it for what I’ll write below … I’ll take it on the chin and not complain or whine about it, but after 35 years as a torch carrier, ignition and holding specialist, burn boss, planner, and program manager deeply involved with prescribed fire ……
    All I have to say is …..DUH!!!!!
    Thanks sincerely to those who ground out this study. Maybe now we can move forward. “Pre-colonial”, “pre-settlement”, or whatever…..

      1. I’m guessing your old frustrations are my frustrations! We did our best my friend. We are both well, thanks, tight back at you.

  4. Unfortunately the term “pre-Colonial” is a loaded word that’s recently been made popular by the leftist fringe. If I read anything that references “pre-Colonial”, I immediately stop reading and move onto something else. There are better words to describe that era that aren’t associated with politics. I know, it sucks, but it is what it is.

      1. I didn’t have any quarrel with the ideas expressed in the article, therefore I didn’t participate beyond my first remark.

        “Pre-colonial” might be a popular or even technical term within government or academia, but in this time of extreme political turmoil pre-colonial means so much more than the era before the Spanish and English showed up on our shores.

        Deleting my comment is a captious way of dealing with a comment that you don’t like. However your readers deserve a response if you believe your use of pre-colonial was appropriate. Take me to task, don’t run from the controversy.


        1. Frank, with all due respect, you have still not answered Kelly’s question on what “better words” should be used to describe the time before the forceful removal of Native Americans off of their ancestral lands.

          The term “pre-colonial” has been used since the 1860s and is used in my article, and the research study my article references, to specifically speak on the era of U.S. history before British colonies began.

            1. It’s important to recognize the nuance in studies like this. Prescribed fire would certainly not have been a useful tool in preventing the Yellowstone Fires of ’88, which burned almost exclusively lodgepole forest, and “managed” wildfires in fragile subalpine forests are often higher stakes than managers realize. It is not at all assured that these forests will regenerate after wildfire, given the realities of novel climatic regimes. Rx is great in a low severity/high frequency disturbance regime, but to think of it as a panacea to solve a climate-driven wildfire crisis is naive, and in fact may cause quite a bit of unintended damage down the road.

        2. Frank, I respect your opinion on the use of “pre-colonial” as reference to a period in history. However, your first comment declares that upon reading the words “pre-colonial,” you stop reading and move on to something else.
          Your next comment states that you have no quarrel with the ideas expressed in the article.
          “Pre-colonial” is in the title of the article. You saw that…you read on…………

    1. “There are better words to describe that era that aren’t associated with politics.”

      Such as which better words, Frank? I’m pretty sure “pre-colonial” is a factual thing and not a political thing, unlike your use of the “leftist” term. Are you “rightist” ??


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