Wildfire Concepts Wildfire









The US government began the policy of fire protection on public wildlands when the US Calvary assumed administration of YNP in 1886.  From 1872-1971, full suppression was theoretically practiced, but due to limited resources efforts were not complete until after WW2 when aircraft played a part.

The Leopold Report/Committee proposed that the highest goal of National Parks were to maintain “biotic associations” found in the park when Europeans first discovered it.  A “reasonable illusion of primitive America” was strived for where these associations could not be maintained or recreated.  The fire suppression policy was modified to allow naturally ignited fires (lightning) to burn within prescription guidelines; this became National Park Service policy in 1968.

Firefighters.  From Carey and Carey 1989.


Although all fires were fought through 1971, by 1972 15% of Yellowstone’s acreage was designated as natural fire zone (Schullery 1989).  Over the next few years, most of the rest of the park was added to the natural fire zone, and fires were allowed to burn if they did not threaten human life, property, cultural sites, or specific natural features of unusual value (Schullery 1989). 

The National fire management plans administered in GYA after 1972 were based on past experience and historical data indicating that fuel conditions confined large fires to “overmature” pine or aging spruce-fir forests (see succession image and description).

The experience from 1972-1988 indicated that most of YNP was basically non-flammable (Franke 2000).  Additionally, if a fire was to start in the park, the size of the Yellowstone wilderness was assumed to be adequate to contain natural fires (Franke 2000). 

Following the GYA fires of 1988, the natural fire management policy was suspended by all national parks until further study was concluded.  Three congressional hearings were held and the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture formed a committee to investigate fire management policies for national parks and wilderness areas.  Their 1989 report asserted that a natural fire management policy was necessary, but the report was critical of the National Park Service’s specific management plans.  The committee recommended that specific criteria be applied to determine the circumstances under which natural fires would be allowed to burn.  Until these management recommendations were formally accepted in 1992, all fires were suppressed.

In 1995 Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture issued the first ever joint fire management policy to ensure the coordination of agency programs.  Through this joint management policy, they confirmed that “wildland fire will be used to protect, maintain, and enhance resources and, as nearly as possible, be allowed to function in its natural ecological role” (Franke 2000).  This joint management policy also revalidated the informal agreements allowing some fires to burn across national forest / park boundaries. 

Policy Links

National Fire Plan, Federal Wildland Fire Policy, Coordinated Program Management

National Park Service (NPS) FireNet, Bureau of Land Mgmt. (BLM) Fire Policy, US Fish & Wildlife Fire Mgmt.,

Fire Policy in the Wildland/Urban Interface, Use of Wildland Fire, National Interagency Fire Center