Summer wildfires spark new suppression strategies

Refuge Notebook

Posted: Friday, December 09, 2005

While 2005 was an exceptional fire season for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Kenai Peninsula, one which tested our mettle in many ways, it provided us with opportunities to manage wildfire using a new strategy. This wildfire management strategy, which is not really new — but which has not been used until recently in Alaska — is known as “wildland fire use” or WFU.

Wildland fire use can be defined as: The management of naturally ignited (usually by lightning) wildland fires to accomplish specific prestated resource management objectives in predefined areas outlined in Fire Management Plans. In fact, WFU is mandated by Department of Interior wildland fire management policy (620 DM 1): “Wildland fire will be used to protect, maintain, and enhance natural and cultural resources and, as nearly as possible, be allowed to function in its natural ecological role.”

The term, wildland fire use, is relatively new although the strategy has been used on some federal lands in the United States since the late 1960s. The National Park Service was the first federal land management agency to allow natural fires to burn in specific areas of some national parks, especially in wilderness areas. This strategy some referred to as the “Let Burn Policy” came to be known as “Prescribed Natural Fire” (PNF).

However, both of those terms were unpopular with the fire management community. So, after the 1988 Yellowstone fires generated a national debate about wildland fire management policies and strategies (a debate that has continued for most of two decades), national fire policies changed and so did some of the terminology. One of the new terms is wildland fire use, which replaced the technical term PNF and the politically-incorrect “Let Burn.”

So, even though the terminology has changed and the management strategy has matured over the years, the underlying philosophy for WFU and its purposes have not changed. I guess one could say that the (inappropriate) names have been changed to protect the innocent (good policy). And now, because it is widely recognized as good policy, WFU is utilized (where designated by approved fire management plans) by every federal land management agency in the United States.

Those of you who are familiar with wildland fire management in Alaska might ask, “How does WFU differ from other fire management strategies or options, such as limited suppression?”

Well, I must admit there are similarities between WFU and limited suppression. Both are designed to provide public and firefighter life safety and protect private property and other important values at risk.

And both tend to reduce costs by limiting the use of aggressive firefighting tactics.

But there are also important differences. Compare the definition given above (WFU) with that of suppression: a management action intended to protect identified values from a fire, extinguish a fire, or alter a fire’s direction of spread. By national policy, all wildland fires caused by humans are classified as unwanted wildfires that must be suppressed.

And land managers are mandated to investigate any wildfire to determine cause, origin, and responsibility. WFU may only be an appropriate management response for some naturally-ignited wildfires and is not an option for human ignitions.

Again, WFU is a strategy used to accomplish specific resource management objectives, such as: reduce hazardous fuels; restore or maintain fire-adapted ecosystems; prevent or alter the spread of future unwanted wildfires; or protect wilderness values.

Suppression is a defensive strategy, while wildland fire use is offensive. WFU is proactive, while suppression is reactive. The difference is really a matter of management perspective.

With WFU, the land manager asks the question, “How can we manage this unplanned natural wildfire to meet our land and resource management objectives and agency purposes?”

With any suppression res-ponse, the land manager asks, “How can we manage this unplanned unwanted wildfire to minimize the risks to human life and property, minimize the environmental impacts of suppression activities and minimize suppression/rehabilitation costs?”

Congress has recognized the differences between WFU and suppression. They see that nationally, WFU costs much less per acre than wildfire suppression and WFU costs much less per acre than mechanical fuel reduction. Also, wildland fire use generally produces ecological benefits while suppression activities can produce adverse environmental im-pacts.

Next week, I’ll tell you how the Kenai Refuge selected the wildland fire use strategy to successfully manage two large lightning fires in 2005.

Doug Newbould has lived and worked on the Kenai Peninsula since 1991 and has been the Fire Management Officer at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge since 1999.

For more information about the refuge or to view past Refuge Notebook articles, visit the refuge Web site at or visit headquarters in Soldotna on Ski Hill Road.

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