‘Let burn’ narrative put to the test on USFS lands

Fires not fully suppressed but herded around and allowed to burn have allegedly been an unofficial USFS practice since the 1970s. A new study challenges whether that practice is as common as many believe.

The naming convention for the practice has reportedly changed repeatedly. They were originally called “let burn” fires, but forest managers soon dropped the term because a pervasive misunderstanding quickly arose that wildland firefighters were ignoring fires and letting them run amok. Even though other terms like “Natural Wildland Fires” and “Managed Fire” took the “let burn” term’s place, the incorrect view of the practice has persisted, being referenced as recently as in 2021’s Tamarack Fire.

That lightning-caused fire forced the evacuation of nearly 2,000 residents, destroyed 25 structures, and burned 67,000 acres in California and Nevada. Many members of the public blamed the fire’s negative outcomes on the supposed “let burn” practice, despite the policy’s not formally existing.

Tamarack Fire lifts evacuation orders for nearly 2,000 residents

Researchers from the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station wanted to put the “let burn” narrative to the test — by quantifying the damage from consequential lightning-caused fires such as the Tamarack Fire.

The study, published in SpringerOpen Fire Ecology scientific journal, used multiple sources of fire-reporting data to identify numerous USFS fires from 2009 to 2020 using management strategies similar to those used during the Tamarack Fire. Of the 940 wildfires that burned within that time, the researchers found only 32 fires with characteristics similar to the Tamarack, nearly half of which ignited within wilderness areas.

Woodbury Fire Phoenix Roosevelt
The Superstition Wilderness inside the perimeter of the Woodbury Fire, June 22, 2019. InciWeb.

The researchers found that firefighter hazard mitigation was the primary driver on 26 of the 32 wildfires, with only six of the fires managed for “resource objectives” like the reported “let burn” fires. Risks posed to firefighters from terrain, snags, or inaccessibility were by and large what fire managers are concerned about during a wildfire — not how they can let the fire burn for potential ecological gains, or for the oft-alleged “treatment acreage quota.”

ICS-209“Our results suggest that a ‘let burn’ strategy is not a predominant USFS management approach,” the researchers concluded. “A limited palette of strategic reporting categories may be partially responsible for the falsely premised ‘let burn’ narrative.”

Researchers theorized that a large reason for the pervasiveness of the “let burn” misconception is how fire managers fill out ICS-209 forms post-fire. Managers select one of four categories to classify the intent behind their decisions, including “monitoring,” “confine,” “point or zone protection,” or “full suppression.” The subtlety that’s lost on which option is chosen —  any option other than full suppression — may be responsible for the spread of misinformation on the fire’s management.

“These categories may not capture enough of the nuance and complexity of the decision environments in which they are made,” said the Rocky Mountain Research Station. “In turn, this information gap may permit inaccurate explanations to dominate the conversation.”

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

14 thoughts on “‘Let burn’ narrative put to the test on USFS lands”

  1. Ken Kerr, your exactly right. That was my point, many ways to describe fire, so the agencies need to do a better job telling the public what is they are trying to do. They can’t keep trying catch phrases. People can read and figure it out. Just call it what it is, but don’t try to educate us (public).

  2. regarding Cerro Grande, it wasn’t the prescribed fire that burned into Los Alamos. It was an escaped burnout associated with the suppression response.

  3. Peggy it is the simple step of putting nearby fire agencies in the planning loop and making clear what the designed boundaries are, then identifying the management point where suppression needs to take place as it is likely to or has become an escaped fire.

    There are regions that do a good job of including local agencies in the plan, while others have not been as inclusive. The escaped prescribed fire that became the Cerrio Grande Fire is one such fire that Paul Gleason described as one lacking in better planning and burned portions of Los Alamos.

    1. I thought she meant the Let Burn strategy?
      ... “Having lived with the Let Burn strategy since the 1970s”

  4. Having lived with the Let Burn strategy since the 1970’s and subsequent iterations of a name I can understand the strategy for low asset commitment to achieve fuel reduction and such, but the problematic side of this is having the IMT work with local threatened/impacted communities to bring the Managed Fire to containment before (I stress before) it reaches the community.

    As a Structure Protection Specialist I have observed a significant amount of stalling to order and commit resources for Structure Protection, inherently expensive for sure, but an expense an IC cannot cut corners on. We know that the federal land agencies are neither trained or equipped to engage the WUI fires, their job is suppression in the non-WUI areas by doctrine, let’s partner for improved outcomes in the early stages of any fire.

  5. What a self serving article. Why wouldn’t the research station find just the opposite to be ‘true’. Poor me some more of that coolade. GRM

  6. Pacific Islanders have many words for ocean waves as do the Inuit’s with describing snow conditions. So why are we trying to do the same thing with fire?


What do you think?