Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Survey of line officers identifies barriers to use of controlled fire

Two Forest Service employees, a man and a women, supervise a controlled burn out in the forest.
A recent Forest Service survey identified perceived barriers to authorizing large-scale controlled burns and wildfires managed for resource benefits. USDA Forest Service photo.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A 2018 USDA Forest Service survey identified barriers perceived by line officers to authorizing large-scale controlled burns and wildfires managed for resource benefits. The findings from this survey suggest that written support from agency leadership can help line officers confidently implement controlled fire as a viable and broad land management tool. Increased personnel and funding for controlled burning during early spring and late fall may better enable line officers to conduct these activities during the limited timeframes when conditions are suitable.

National forests are suffering from a legacy of aggressive fire suppression, with an estimated 80 million acres at risk from insects, disease and wildfires. Managed, or controlled, fire is one major tool the Forest Service can use to protect forests from further damage. A recent analysis of restoration opportunities on national forest lands found that over 39 million acres could benefit from treatment with fire.

Since line officers must approve the use of controlled burns, the Forest Service’s Senior Leader Program Action Learning Team 4 sought to better understand line officer perceptions around the limitations about the use of fire for land restoration. The team received 312 survey responses from deputy district rangers, district rangers, deputy forest supervisors and forest supervisors across all regions; a response rate of 40 percent.

The majority of respondents felt it was their duty as line officers to increase the use of fire on their forest or district. However, over 70 percent of line officers stated that leadership was either neutral or did not support the use of wildfires managed for resource benefits. Forty percent of respondents felt the short burn windows for conducting controlled burns presented the greatest obstacle, while 35 percent were most concerned by the lack of resources available to implement burns. Some line officers were specifically concerned about their inability to authorize controlled burning at regional or Geographic Area Coordination Center preparedness levels 4 or 5.

Using the results of the survey, the team proposed a FIRE Action Plan designed to facilitate the use of controlled burning through four strategies: Focus, Innovation, Resources and Engagement. The plan involves a focus on cultivating strong, consistent support of managed fire activities by higher level leadership, sharing innovative practices among regions and Forest Service partners, addressing resource availability issues through task teams, and implementing shared stewardship by engaging partners and exchanging ideas about effective fire use.

Forest Service employee walking along a line of prescribe burn out in the field
Managed, or controlled, fire is one major tool the Forest Service can use to protect forests from further damage. USDA Forest Service photo.