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The Effectiveness of Wildfire as a Fuel Treatment

Burn severity for the Granny fire (2004) in the Gila-Aldo Leopold Wilderness in New Mexico. Qualitatively, it appears as though areas that has previously burned in 2000 had lower burn severity (i.e., dNBR) than areas that had not previously burned. Forest ServiceSnapshot : New research results provide crucial information to land managers as they assess trade-offs associated with wildfire suppression and appropriate management response

Principal Investigators(s) :
Parks, Sean A. Miller, Carol L.
Research Location : Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, Gila-Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2012
Highlight ID : 140


Although wildland fires are not commonly thought of as a fuel treatment, the fires consume fuel and alter vegetation structure, thereby having great potential to serve as fuel treatments in much the same way as more traditional means, such as mechanical or prescribed fire. The amount of land area treated by wildfire is expected to increase along with wildfire frequency associated with warming climates and recent revisions to Federal fire policy that enable the management of fire to attain multiple objectives. Thus, the need to understand the effectiveness of wildfire as a fuel treatment has never been greater, and new data will be critically important for developing appropriate management responses to future fire events.

One purpose of traditional fuel treatments is to alter fuel condition so that future wildfires are less difficult, disruptive, and destructive. To investigate whether the burned area created by a wildfire treatment can temper or moderate the burn severity of a subsequent fire, scientists evaluated the effects of previous fires on subsequent burn severity for a large number of wildfires in two wilderness areas—Frank Church-River of No Return and Gila-Aldo Leopold—in the Western United States that have experienced substantial fire activity in recent decades.

Results clearly show that wildfires moderate burn severity of subsequent wildfires in the two study areas, indicating that fire history has a substantial effect on burn severity. This moderating effect diminishes as the time between wildfire events becomes longer, but appears to persist for at least 22 years. These results provide crucial information to land managers to assess the trade-offs that are associated with wildfire suppression and in formulating an appropriate management response.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • R1 Forest and Rangeland Management

Program Areas