Managing Fire

November 11, 2021 Build Back Better

A large group of NGOs and scientists have written to the U.S. Congress in support of the provisions in the Biden Administration's Build Back Better budget package, relative to national forest lands and fire policy and management. Below are some excerpts from the letters:

"As researchers and practitioners with the overwhelming weight of the scientific evidence behind
us, we write in support of the Forestry title of the Build Back Better reconciliation package
pending before Congress. In our view, the $27.7 billion investment in science-driven,
ecologically based forest and fire management is an historic commitment that should be enacted
into law. This investment supports dry forest restoration, climate- and wildfire-adaptation, fire
risk reduction, and carbon storage as well as collaboration, forest inventories, monitoring and
adaptive management, and other forest programs."

"...The scientific consensus is clear; the forest and fire management programs supported by the
Build Back Better package work to restore forests and increase climate- and wildfire-adaptation
of forests and nearby communities. Treatments in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) help
reduce the spread of wildfire in urban environments, while landscape restoration treatments are
effective in mitigating fire intensity and reducing vulnerability to drought and wildfire. Indeed,
such treatments are rightfully attributed with positively altering wildfire behavior in this
summer’s Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe, as well as other wildfires such as the Black Butte and
Lick Creek Fires in Oregon. These changes in wildfire behavior, made possible through past fuel
reduction treatments, likely saved both lives and structures" (from Scientists' Letter, download here).

"There is broad consensus among fire scientists, land managers, firefighters, and others that increasing the pace and scale of ecologically based forest management -- such as thinning overly dense forest stands and applying prescribed fire to reduce surface and ladder fuels -- is critical to returning Western forests to a resilient condition. This needed increase in the pace and scale of forest treatments is not possible without a significant funding boost for federal land management agencies. Because of capacity and budget constraints, land managers have only been able to treat a small fraction of what is needed for ecological and community resilience each year. Additionally, effective forest treatments require ongoing maintenance over decades, underscoring the need for long term resources and funding" (from California Organizations' Letter, download here).



Fire in the Sierra Nevada is an essential ecological process that can restore, revitalize, and renew the forest. However, tragic losses to life and property are increasing where fires ignite in, or spread into, the wildland/urban interface (WUI). There appears to be an unprecedented convergence of factors driving these megafires that are related to climate change and other human-caused alterations of the environment that have resulted in longer drought, higher temperatures, and extended fire seasons into the spring and winter. Fire behavior has become more severe due to feedback loops attendant to the altered composition and structure of natural areas. Introduced and highly flammable annual grasses are widespread now in many forest and woodland landscapes, and plantation forestry creates uniform, single-age stands of trees that burn with high intensity. Plantation trees are also the most likely stands to be attacked by bark beetles, resulting in millions of standing dead trees awaiting the next conflagration. At the same time, exclusion or suppression of fire increases positive feedback to the problem by furthering the growth of overly dense forests and altering the natural thinning processes.

Many different species of plants and animals live with fire aspot firend are adapted and dependent upon the diverse landscape fire creates. Current fire science suggests that restoration objectives cannot be achieved without the continued and increased use of fire. Fire practitioners, air quality regulators, and others interested in conservation are partnering to foster discussions and changes needed to effectively restore a Sierra Nevada fire-adapted landscape while providing for public safety.

In the menu block to the left, you'll find links to scientific research papers, federal and state fire policies, and information about prescribed fire. More extensive research literature can also be found in the fire ecology and science section of our website, under the tab Forest Conservation.

Types of Fire: Definitions

Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire is the knowledgeable and skillful application of a planned ignition specific to environmental conditions (e.g. fuel moisture, temperature, smoke dispersion, topography etc.) to achieve a biophysical resource objective (e.g. enhancing wildlife habitat, meadow enhancement, reduction of surface fuels) or cultural resource objectives.


A wildfire is an unplanned ignition such as a fire caused by lightning, volcanoes, unauthorized and accidental human-caused fires and escaped prescribed fires. Unplanned ignitions that are natural ignitions (lightning and volcanoes) can be managed for resource benefit and/or suppression.

Natural Ignitions

Natural ignitions  are those caused by natural events, such as lightning, and not by any anthropogenic (human caused) actions. Under Title 17 definitions (California regulations for the Air Resources Board), a natural ignition managed for resource benefits is considered to be a prescribed fire, and as such, would subject the burn to the requirements of Title 17. These requirements may include the submittal of a Smoke Management Plan to the local Air District or ARB.

Cultural Fire

Cultural fire is a form of prescribed fire. Cultural fire is the intentional application of fire and smoke to create and sustain ecosystems and plant communities, including especially culturally defined resources (food and materials as well as aesthetic and spiritual resources) within those systems and communities. Like prescribed fires with biophysical resource objectives, cultural burning may include such goals as enhancing wildlife habitat or water resources, but cultural fires may also address aesthetic goals (such as creating a “park-like” landscape) and fulfill spiritual obligations. [Editor's note: the use of prescribed fire in this context is related to traditional Native American uses of fire to restore and enhance culturally important plant resources, such as basketweaving plants]. Distinguishing features of cultural fire regimes include specific patterns of fire seasonality, frequency, intensity, severity, site selection, ignitions, controls, and smoke application.

(The definitions above are from the bylaws document for the Southern Sierra Nevada Prescribed Fire Council, in progress).