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.

Utah wins Bronze Smokey for prevention

Utah burned much more than usual in 2020 and, more than ever before, humans were to blame. The state had its worst year of human-caused wildfires on record that year, when 1,500 wildfires burned more than 100,000 acres of land across the state. Officials say 1,143 of those fires were caused by humans, beating the state’s previous single-year record by more than 250.

Utah wins a Bronze SmokeyUtah launched a statewide campaign called “Fire Sense” to reduce human-caused wildfires, and it was incredibly effective. The state marked a 60 percent reduction in human-caused wildfires in the two years following the start of the program. In 2023 that number has gone down even more, with only 295 of Utah’s 772 wildfires recorded as human-caused as of October 6.

A Bronze Smokey
A Bronze Smokey

The program was recently awarded a Bronze Smokey, which is a national award for statewide service, for its by-the-numbers success.

“This is a great honor for Fire Sense,” said Kayli Guild, the Fire Prevention and Communications Coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL), after receiving the Bronze Smokey. “We launched this campaign to raise awareness surrounding the impact our behaviors as humans have on wildfire starts. Over the past two years, we have seen a drastic decrease in human-caused starts as we have seen Utahns implement Fire Sense.”

Fire Sense is basically a PSA package geared toward educating Utah’s residents about how they can help avoid starting wildfires throughout the state. All of the usual bases are covered, including telling people to put out their campfires, not drag chains, and not fire guns on hot and windy days. The execution of the project, however, seems to be what made it so effective.

“This strategy worked because Fire Sense is common sense!” according to FFSL . More details on the Fire Sense program are available from the website.

Smokey Award Levels:

Gold: This is the highest honor given to organizations or individuals for outstanding wildfire prevention service that is national in scope over at least a two-year period. A maximum of three Gold Smokey Bear awards may be given annually.


Silver: This is the highest honor given to organizations or individuals for outstanding wildfire prevention service that is regional (multistate) in scope over at least a two-year period. A maximum of five Silver Smokey Bear awards may be given annually.

Bronze: This is the highest honor given to organizations or individuals for outstanding wildfire prevention service that has impact within a state over at least a two-year period. A maximum of 10 Bronze Smokey Bear awards may be given annually.


Biden Administration announces new community funding for prevention

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced on Sunday more than $21 million in new funding for wildfire risk reduction; she spoke during a press conference with Senator Jeff Merkley at the Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest District headquarters, according to a report by KEZI-TV News in Eugene, Oregon.

She said fire management agencies plan fuel management work on more than 170,000 acres in Oregon this year.

District Forester Mike Shaw said there’s good news with better snowpack this year. “I do project that we’re going to have another challenging fire season,” he said. “All hands on deck is the approach that we’re taking and all wildland fire agencies are working together.”

Senator Jeff Merkley, chairman of the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, joined Haaland and Shaw to emphasize their collaboration on wildfire prevention. “We’re really focusing on the front end of forest treatment and on the back end of having the resources to fight the fires,” Merkley said. “The key word here is collaboration.”

Aside from the millions in federal funding allotted from his bipartisan infrastructure law, Haaland said that President Biden is also supporting increased pay, better housing, and more full-time jobs for firefighters.

Vice President Kamala Harris joined other national leaders in the nation’s capitol to announce the new funding to help protect high-risk communities. “Our acres of burned land have doubled,” Harris said. “We need to change how we think about how we respond to fires. We need to prevent them, not just respond after they’ve started.”

Community Grants

KRDO News reported that $197 million in federal funding will be made available this year to 100 communities in 22 states and 7 Native American tribes. “There were 36 states and 45 tribes that applied for the funding,” Harris said. “This is the result of legislation I started years ago while I was in the Senate.”

She said she was motivated by recent destructive fires in her home state of California. “This will be the first of many grants,” she said. “We’re committing $1 billion over the next four years and $7 billion over the next ten years.”

Community near Heppner, Oregon first in Morrow County to earn Firewise designation

A bolt of lightning struck a tree just outside Bruce Wilcox’s home in Morrow County, Oregon last year, sending shards of wood flying 40 yards away. “It didn’t start a fire,” he said. “It just hit that tree and went to ground. But we were lucky.” Lightning-ignited fires are common in north-central Oregon, and Wilcox lives about 16 miles south of Heppner — home to the nearest fire department. Wilcox is helping his community, known locally as Blake Ranch, become the county’s first to join Firewise USA. He told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the Firewise program could be the key to protecting nearby homes from the next big wildfire.

FIREWISEFirewise is sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) manages the program at the state level. Through training and local fire prevention projects, Firewise encourages property owners to take proactive measures to prevent fires from destroying their homes and businesses. Many of Oregon’s small and isolated communities have achieved Firewise designation.

Jessica Prakke with ODF said these sparsely populated communities are among the target areas for the state. “We’re definitely trying to reach those smaller communities that are in the wildland/urban interface, because they can be the most susceptible to wildfire.”

In Blake Ranch, Wilcox contacted ODF after he read about a community in northeast Oregon’s Wallowa County that was participating. Since then, ODF has sent foresters to assess Blake Ranch properties for fire readiness, and some residents have taken a wildfire prevention class. Prakke said ODF doesn’t usually initiate the process of turning communities into Firewise sites, because the agency needs community buy-in to make the program work. Wilcox noted that some local residents are a little skeptical — they suspect the program might require them to remove trees they want to keep. But Wilcox thinks they’ll come around.

Morrow County FIREWISE

The Firewise program has an interactive map on the NFPA website with details about designated sites and their locations across the country, and it’s interesting to compare locations with known fire-danger areas. There’s a cluster of sites, for example, north of Paradise in northern California. One of the sites, Falcons Pointe Drive, is near Upper Bidwell Park in Chico. That community’s participation in the Firewise program began in September of 2022.


There are very few sites in Nevada and zero in North Dakota; about half of Colorado’s map is covered with little Firewise icons. While Oregon’s west side is not really known for severe wildfires, that side of the state surely proved the exception over the last few years, and it’s crowded with Firewise sites, while the east side of Oregon, no stranger to major fires, has only a few. Blake Ranch was just added to the list in December, and the numbers grow as people learn about neighborhoods and towns devastated by wildfires.

“The number of conversations I have had since Paradise has skyrocketed,” said Chris Chambers, Forest Division Chief in Ashland, Oregon. Residents and local officials in and around Ashland tend to be a little more fire-savvy than in many areas; they have a history with interface fires. Jefferson Public Radio reported, about a year after wildfire leveled the town of Paradise, that Chambers spoke to a throng of people at a sold-out screening of the documentary Fire In Paradise at a theater in downtown Ashland, just north of the California state line. Although the Camp Fire was more than 200 miles south, Chambers says it alarmed Ashland residents;  it’s a small, woodsy town that, like Paradise, is tucked into forest.

“People have really become concerned,” Chambers said. “I just hope that translates into lasting awareness in the sense that people take responsibility for the condition of their property.”

New fire prevention print ads

In addition to the two new Smokey Bear fire prevention videos, the Ad Council has created three new print ads featuring artwork made of the ashes of wildfires.

You can download higher resolution versions here.


wildfire prevention fire


wildfire prevention fire


wildfire prevention fire

USFS bans exploding targets in their Northern Region

The U.S. Forest Service has banned the use of exploding targets in their Northern Region, which includes all lands administered by the USFS in the states of Montana and North Dakota, and in parts of South Dakota and northern Idaho. The ban, signed last week, will be in effect for a year, until May 9, 2015. This is considered a stop-gap measure while a longer term prohibition is being considered that will be incorporated into Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, part 261.

The decision by the Northern Region is in concert with other USFS areas that have banned the dangerous devices, including national forest system lands in the states of Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. 

The announcement about the ban, issued by Jonathan L. Herrick, Special Agent in Charge and Faye L. Krueger, Regional Forester, included this statement:

The purpose of the order is to enhance public safety, and to protect our natural resources and property by restricting the use of explosives and exploding targets.  The widening use of exploding targets on our National Forests and Grasslands has led to serious injuries, catastrophic wildfires, destruction of property and a significant loss and/or damage to our natural resources.  This order provides authority for FS law enforcement officials on all Forests/Grasslands in Region 1 to enforce this restriction and to enhance our ability to protect our natural resources and the people who use them.

On April 20 the Bureau of Land Management issued a ban on exploding targets on BLM lands within the state of Idaho, to be effective between May 10 and October 20, 2014.

Exploding targets have become popular in the last two years with shooters who get a thrill from seeing the explosion when their bullet hits its mark. We have documented numerous wildfires that have been started by the exploding targets. They are sometimes called “binary exploding targets”, since they are completely inert until two powders are mixed by the target shooter. After they are combined, the compound is illegal to transport and is classified as an explosive by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and is subject to the regulatory requirements in 27 CFR, Part 555.

In June, 2013, a man attending a bachelor-bachelorette party in Minnesota was killed by an exploding target. After someone shot the device, shrapnel struck 47-year-old Jeffery Taylor in the abdomen causing his death.

We have written about exploding targets numerous times, and applaud this decision by the USFS Northern Region. Hopefully the Regional Foresters in California, and Regions 4, 8, and 9 have the courage to take the same step. (See the map below to decode the region numbers.)

USFS Region 1

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Steve and Chuck.