Wildfire: Policy, Land Issues, & Implications on Wildlife
Created by: Jenniffer Holt, Katherine Rodd, Angela Schneider
"Wildfires don’t always conform to the policies and stable processes that we design. They are dynamic, they change…unlike the organizations and bureaucracies that we design to manage them." West, 1989.
Wildfire always has and always will be an important and prominent phenomenon in and around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). The techniques and methods used to suppress fires has varied for many years. When the summer of 1988 had come and gone and left Yellowstone with 1.41 million burned acres, the fire policy of the time came under great scrutiny. There was a feeling of confusion or inadequacy concerning the interactions among the different departments. The fact that there were many different policies depending on jurisdiction should have been a warning sign. Beginning immediately after the fires of 1988, the fire policy of the GYE was looked at very closely and a new interagency fire policy was pursued.
Fire has usually been suppressed in the GYE. Whether the ignition was from natural or human sources, fires were not allowed to burn for long. Depending on the literature or source, the fire policies of each department is essentially the same, just worded differently. The GYE policy was a policy of fire by prescriptions. The National Park Service policy was to permit natural fires, or lightning-ignited fires, as long as they stayed within prescribed area. Fires could be declared "wild", where they were then suppressed. The National Forests surrounding Yellowstone had natural-fire policies in designated wilderness areas adjoining the park (Carrier, 1989). If the fuel got to dry or if certain stands of timber were threatened, fires were to be suppressed. The GYE is divided up into several fire boundaries (See FIRE BOUNDARIES). The agency that must confront the fire depends on where the fire originates. Much of the conflict happens when the fire crosses a boundary into a neighboring jurisdiction. Fires were even allowed to burn across the border, from the park into a forest, or vice-versa (Carrier, 1989).
In the latter part of the century, ecologists began expressing a need to allow fire back into natural settings. "The idea of letting fires burn naturally grew from the same seeds that sprouted the green revolution, wilderness protection and the science of ecology-the recognition that all living things are connected." Carrier, 1989. This new school of thought was not popular with the general public.
There are many different definitions of prescribed fire. This is just another factor that made any shared policies difficult to label or manage for.
The sizes and frequencies recommended by scientists and managers to meet ecological goals are new, and they are highly controversial (Weldon, 1996). The traditional assumption of a prescribed fire is one that is intentionally set by fire managers. The current definition is one that is used by most agencies. A fire, whether caused by humans or accident, is allowed to burn within a prescribed area. Once the fire threatens to move out of the prescribed area or endanger land or life, the fire is suppressed.
The traditional view of wildfire is that "fire is bad, we need to always suppress it". Fire burned trees and left the forests black with soot. While to some this can be an eyesore, it can also be a very important step in the balance of ecology. It is difficult to make the general public see this. Progress has been made in the past couple decades and the general perception of wildfire has become rather open-minded. Public support is important to all restoration efforts on public lands. Some types of restoration activities are easier for the public to support than others. Unlike most restoration projects, restoring ecological processes, such as fire, has a direct impact on people (Weldon, 1996). Leslie A. C. Weldon discusses the challenges of restoring fire to the forest. She interviewed residents of the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana. (Bitterroot Valley, Montana)
Florida has tried an approach to gain understanding and support for the benefit of prescribed fire. "The widespread presumption that all fires should be suppressed poses a challenge to Florida’s fire managers" (Thorsen and Kirkbride, 1998). The Central Florida Prescribed Fire Council was established in 1993, and soon following, the Council decided that the most immediate need was to educate the public on the value of prescribed burns (Thorsen and Kirkbride, 1998). The Council proceeded to make brochures and get the media involved. It is very difficult to determine how much the Council’s actions have changed public attitudes toward prescribed fire. However, the public and the news media now appear to be somewhat more aware of the need for prescribed burns (Thorsen and Kirkbride, 1998). (Florida and Public Perception )
The damage done by the fires was very evident immediately. The park was a charred mess. Few people could see past this and realize that maybe this wasn’t as damaging as it looked. After the summer of 1988, there were resignations and criticism that provoked a review of the fire policy (Carrier, 1989). Federal review teams concluded that fire personnel in Yellowstone and the surrounding National forests underestimated the severity of drought conditions, and that the number and size of fires that burned across the park could have been decreased. It was recommended that Yellowstone’s fire policy be overhauled….(Carrier, 1989). Basically, the point of all this is to put fires out faster.
Leopold Report (1963) Leopold Report
Wilderness Act (1964) Wilderness Act of 1964
Fire management on public lands now operates under a pluralistic policy that allows in principle for an equilibrium between fire use and fire control (Ecological Consequences, 1988). "Care must be taken that interagency agreements to harmonize procedures for accepting fires along administrative borders do not disguise very different operational criteria for distinguishing between prescribed and wildfires" (Ecological Consequences, 1988).
National Interagency Fire Center review and update of policy NIFC Fire Policy
There are 11 geographic areas, according to the Geographic Area Coordination Center (GACC). (Geographic Area Map)
Federal Administration Boundaries of the Greater Yellowstone Area Federal Administration Boundary Map
National parks and federal land agencies can use natural fire management to restore natural habitat of wildlife, but unfortunately, the matrix of lands limits management on edges of land ownership. One of the many challenges these agencies will face, both today and increasingly in the future, is the encroachment of urban areas on wilderness areas currently referred to as the wildland/urban interface. Due to the risk that fire presents to life and property in an around these matrix lands, automatic suppression of fire is the only management option open to these agencies when fire draws to close.
The wildland/urban interface is expanding, especially in areas of high natural resources and aesthetically pleasing wilderness expansions. The Wildland/Urban interface is defined as "the area where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels" (FEMA mitigation).
There are actually three different types of wildland/urban interfaces as defined by the National Interagency Fire Center. The first is "classic" interface. This interface is created by urban sprawl. Homes and other structures are placed in direct contact with wildland, usually along the edges of highly urban areas.
The next interface is known as the "intermix" or occurs when single or clustered homes and other structures are scattered throughout a wildland area. These might be summer homes, suburban homes on large parcels of land, or even isolated recreation areas, such as cabins, mobile homes, and camping facilities. Many individual structures are often surrounded by woodland vegetation, and have very little road access. Of the roads that are there, they are usually narrow. This makes it very difficult to reach these areas if fires occur.
The third and final interface is the "occluded" interface, which consists of islands of wildland within an urban area, such as a city park, or land that might be incompatible for building like steep slopes or weak soils. The threat of fire in these areas is usually lower than the others, but when fires break out here, there can be a significant risk to all the surrounding structures and to the people who use the natural areas.
There are many dangers and vulnerabilities associated with wildland/urban interface lands that either allow fire to get in close to wildland/urban areas or that reduce the capability of firefighters to extinguish a fire that is burning. Many of these dangers can be reduced through the involvement of community members and agencies working to diminish fire risks.
Due to nearly a century of fire suppression in natural and urban areas, excessive amounts of woody debris have accumulated that would have otherwise burned in low intensity fires. The woody debris created fuels for large fire that make them burn hotter and more dangerously than urban structural fires. This creates a dangerous fire situation and makes management of fires in these areas very difficult and complicated.
In urban areas, firefighters are able to rely on large supplies of water to put out fires. Often, in these interface areas, there are no large supplies of water and the water that is used to fight the fires must be trucked in. Fighting the fires in wildland areas usually consists of clearing fuels and fighting the fire from the perimeter to keep it from spreading until it goes out.
The roads in these interface areas are often too narrow and poor grading to where emergency vehicles cannot get access to all areas in order to fight the fire. The limited access for emergency vehicles can make even getting at the fire to fight it very difficult.
Use of flammable structures often increases the risk from fire dramatically. Houses that have cedar shake roofs or wood shingles are at a much greater risk to burning than roofs made from alternate less or non-flammable materials. Gutters that are not cleaned regularly store dead leaves and needles, which are highly flammable. Siding on houses can also be made of highly flammable materials that burn readily when fire reaches them. The use of less flammable or non-flammable materials instead is one way to reduce this risk to structures within these interface lands.
Vegetation surrounding houses and structures can often provide a path for the fire to travel through. Trees with dead lower branches or spaced around houses and structures can allow a fire to leap to them. Tall grasses can be very flammable especially after they’ve dried out for the season. Any kind of vegetation that allows fire to move from wildland into direct proximity of an urban structure increased the chance that those structures will be burned in the next fire.
The good news is that there are many public and private agencies that are trying to reduce the risks associated with wildland/urban interfaces. Mostly, they are attacking the problem in two ways: Education and Action.
Letting people know who is at risk and what they should do about it. The national fire plan includes a list of communities at risk to wildland fire. Once communities are aware of the problem there are numerous places they can go to learn more about effective reduction of fire risk. The Internet is a fast way to get a lot of information. There are quite a few different websites dedicated to keeping people informed including many of the federal agencies fire information pages. One organization, Firewise, even has a workshop series where people can go to learn about the risks in person.
Not only are these agencies and organizations getting the word out, but also they are working to get people involved and the reduce fire hazards. Agencies are working together under the new national fire plan to reduce hazardous fire fuels such as woody debris through various management techniques. Also these agencies are working together with communities to find compatible solutions to fire problems. Agencies have also created many improved and useful fire-monitoring systems to be able to catch fires before they become dangerous.
One of the areas within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that is experiencing this wildland/urban interface expansion is the Gallatin County in Montana. Many people want to live right outside wilderness areas because of the peacefulness and serenity found in these areas. This map shows the expansion of residences in Gallatin County from the past until recently. The other chart shows the increasing trend of new construction in this pristine county.
Unfortunately, this trend is seen nation-wide where there are areas of natural wilderness. This makes the problem that agencies will face with wildland/urban interfaces an enduring one that may only get worse with time. But with all this development and matrix of lands, the implications on wildlife habitat must be considered.
What does it mean to have to automatically suppress fires when they come within an unacceptable range to people and their property? Most of the areas within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have the historical role of fire within their ecological structure. The return of fire to these areas created unique habitat for wildlife that was maintained by the presence of fire in these systems. The role of fire in these systems has a changing effect on the vegetation that makes up an area and that affects the wildlife in and around Yellowstone National Park in many different ways. Even though fire has played a key role in shaping these ecosystems, when wildland/urban interfaces exist within the landscape, the management used by agencies must change to be able to protect the life and property of people in these areas. The fires must be put out before they are allowed to reach these areas of development. With the expansion of interface lands, especially within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, there comes a great challenge to managing fire in order to protect wildlife and their habitat but also to protect the people living in these areas.
In most cases fire can be either beneficial or have no effect on wildlife. When death does occur it often provides a source of food for other wildlife. Elk and moose have been observed moving into areas just days after the areas have been burned. This may be due to the minerals they receive from the ash. The ash also provides nutrients for increased plant growth in the years following the fire. Rain and snow will break down the ash into nutrients that are absorbed into the soil. (Ekey, 1989)
Directly after the 1988 Yellowstone fire, only 259 large mammals were found to have died as a result of the fires. Two hundred and forty four of these were elk and nine were bison. The largest group of these was comprised of 144 elk, six of which were buried. During the initial visit to the site 42 elk showed evidence of bear feeding by both black and grizzly bears. During revisits to the site grizzlies, black bears, coyotes, bald eagles, golden eagles, and ravens were all observed feeding upon the carcasses. Along with these, up to 500 ravens could be seen daily feeding upon the dead elk (French, 1989). Almost all of the large mammals in this case provided a source of food for many different species, showing that death by fire is not necessarily bad for the ecosystem, but in fact beneficial.
There are also many other animals that feast during and directly after fires. Raptors for example are attracted to the smoke of recently burned areas. Small rodents are made more visible in these areas and become easy prey for them. Hawks and owls will also respond in the same manner. Bluebirds are also attracted to recently burned areas because of the insects that are drawn to the warmth. Insects will also lay their eggs in charred trees in these areas, which in turn provides food for woodpeckers. They will also take residence under burned and rotting logs which provides food for deer mice, bears, and many species of birds. (Carey, 1989)
Not only does fire appear to have many positive attributes, but suppression of fire may actually have negative effects on wildlife.
In the case of whitebark pine for example, suppression policies have caused a successional replacement of the pines by mostly subalpine fir. The US Forest Service Sciences Laboratory in Missoula Montana found that tree scars on whitebark pine suggest that the fire intervals were 500 to 300 years apart up to 1910, as compared to about 3,000 years apart currently. The remaining old trees are now being killed off by pine beetles, depleting the remaining trees even further. The implications of this are detrimental to wildlife. Pine seeds are a very nutritious source of food, containing protein, fat, and carbohydrates. They are also very large when compared to their forest associates. Birds along with mammals rely on the seeds for those reasons. They are harvested by Clarks’s nutcrackers, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, finches, crossbills, and grosbeaks. Many small mammals, such as squirrels, deer mice, and voles, eat deeds dropped by the birds. Black and grizzly bears eat the seeds from squirrel stashes in order to prepare for hibernation. The nutrition the bears receive from the seeds is second only to deer and elk meat. A single Clark’s nutcracker can store between 32,000 and 98,000 seeds. If these stashes are unretrieved they germinate and become a new patch of whitebark pine. This critical cycle is being damaged by suppression tactics. (Tomback, 1989) New plans are now being drafted in many areas to restore fire into the National Park Wilderness.
The migration patterns of many species were shown not to have altered much after the 1988 Yellowstone fires. One such example was a study done on 44 individually radio telemetered grizzly bears. As the author stated "the 1988 fires had no apparent harmful short-term affects upon Yellowstone grizzly bears, and were in fact likely beneficial, largely due to increased production of grizzly bear diet items such as forb foliage and tuberous root crops." (Blanchard, 1989) Another study done on pronghorn antelope showed the effects of the 1988 Yellowstone fires on their migration patterns. They were observed using 9 unusual places in the spring and summer of 1989, eight of which were entirely outside of their typical permanent or summer range. Almost all of the new areas that were being used were areas that had been burned. This may suggest that burning actually creates better ranges for the antelope. (Scott, 1993)
Following the 1988 Yellowstone fire a study was conducted in order to determine the effects the fire had upon grasslands. Burning was found to actually enhance the total grass and plant production in both grass and sage habitats by about 20 percent. Not only was there greater production, but the vegetation being produced was more nutritious than before. The elemental concentrations were higher and total nitrogen yield was enhanced. The burning also elevated digestibility and increased fibrous constituents in grasses. Along with all of these benefits, greater foraging efficiency by the elk was observed in burned vs. unburned habitats. There were more bites per minute, larger bite sizes, and less travel time by the elk in the burned habitat. (Singer, 1996)
Articles, Books, & Papers
Ament, Robert. Fire Policy for the Northern Rocky Mountains (U.S.A.).
Blanchard, Bonnie, Richard R. Night. Effects of Wildfire on Grizzly Bear Movements & Food Habits. Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, Forestry Sciences. Laboratory, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717. 1989.
Carey, Alan & Sandy. Yellowstone’s Red Summer. Northland Publishing © 1989, Flagstaff AZ 86002.
Carrier, Jim. Summer Of Fire. 1989.
Ekey, Robert. Yellowstone on Fire. Billings Gazette © 1989, Helena MT.
French, Marilynn & Steven P. Large Mammal Mortality in the 1988 Yellowstone Fires. Yellowstone Grizzly Foundation, 581 Expedition Drive, Evanston, Wyoming 82930. 1989.
Scott, Douglas, Hannes Geisser. Pronghorn Migration & Habitat Use Following the 1988 Yellowstone Fires. Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190. 1993.
Singer, F.J., M.K. Harter. Comparative effects of Elk Herbivory & 1988 Fires on Northern Yellowstone National Park Grasslands. Ecological Applications, 6(1), 1996. pp. 185-199 © 1996 by the Ecological Society of America.
Thorsen, Jim and Kirkbride, Earle. Prescribed Fire and Public Education. Fire
Management Today. Volume 58, No. 3. 1998.
Tomback, Diana F. Wilderness & Wildfire. School of Forestry, University of Montana. June 1989.
Weldon, Leslie A. C. INT-GTR-341: The Use of Fire in Forest Restoration:
Dealing with Public Concerns in restoring fire to the forest. October 9, 1996.
West, Allan J. Suny College of Environmental Science and Forestry: The
Continuing Evolution of Federal Wildland Fire Policy (As Influenced by the 1988 Fires). 1989.
United States Forest Service
United States Fish and Wildlife Service
National Fire Plan
Western Governors Policy Statement
FEMA Mitigation Website
Ecological Consequences of the 1988 Yellowstone Fires. 1988.
National Parks Association of NSW Inc. Fire Management in Natural Areas.
Policy No: 2, December 1980.
Online Forum. Our Nationbs Parks. A forum with Interior Secretary Bruce
Babbitt. May 23, 1997.
Review and Update of the 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy.
United States Forest Service. Wildland Fire Policy