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The hidden consequences of fire suppression

Photo of Simulations show where fires would have spread and reveal hidden consequences of suppression. Forest ServiceSimulations show where fires would have spread and reveal hidden consequences of suppression. Forest ServiceSnapshot : Researchers are investigating the true costs of suppressing wildfires and finding results that will have broad national applicability. Their methods are being evaluated in the Rockies and Southwest.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Miller, Carol L.  
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2011
Highlight ID : 400


For decades, the Forest Service's principal objective for managing fires has been suppression, even in remote areas. But does this strategy, while seemingly beneficial in the short term, have hidden costs What if the Agency didn't suppress those fires Where would those fires have spread, and what would the effects have been Can the effects of suppressing those fires be measured Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists recently quantified many of the hidden consequences of fire suppression. They found that the growth of many fires would have been curtailed by burned areas from previous fires. This clearly demonstrates how fires can create barriers to future wildfires in the form of fuel breaks - lessening the risk of catastrophic wildfire and potentially making it easier to safely manage the next wildfire. Studies also illustrate another hidden consequence of suppression: many ignitions would not have occurred because they were located on areas where an earlier fire would have left little fuel remaining on the site.

These findings that fires dramatically alter the number of subsequent ignitions and fire spread were obtained by scientists using a novel combination of fire behavior modeling technology, GIS, and local expertise. The results of this research have broad national applicability, and the methods have been documented in a step-by-step guidebook for managers to conduct similar analyses elsewhere. In fact, these very methods are currently being used to conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of different response strategies for three large wilderness landscapes in the northern Rockies and the Southwest.

This research is improving the prioritization and planning of fuels management activities nationally. It also allows managers to frame future decisions and cost-benefit analyses in the context of past experiences, track the cumulative effects of suppression, and communicate tradeoffs to the public. Findings are also improving the quality and consistency of fire and fuels management decisions and helping managers devise safe and effective strategies that capitalize on the opportunities for a wider use of fire. Lastly, this research highlights the importance of wilderness areas for research because they are natural systems where ecological processes are allowed to play out, and are essential for understanding fire ecology within wilderness areas as well as within more heavily managed landscapes.

For more information, see: Davis, Brett H.; Miller, Carol; and Parks, Sean A. 2010. Retrospective fire modeling: Quantifying the impacts of fire suppression. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-236WWW. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 40 p; or visit

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