Note: This article was adapted from one previously published: van Wagtendonk, J. W. 2008. The history and evolution of wildland fire use. Fire Ecology 3(2):3–17.
Fire has been a dynamic ecological force in fire-prone ecosystems for millennia. As a natural process, fire is an integral part of the structure and function of park and wilderness ecosystems. The 1916 National Park Service Organic Act states that parks will be left unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations, and the 1964 Wilderness Act states that wilderness will be protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions. Implicit in these statements is that fire should play out its natural role: humans should minimize their intervention in ecological processes so that landscapes continue to be shaped by natural forces.
Not until humans felt the need to control or use fire was its role altered in natural ecosystems. Native Americans were the first humans in North America to influence fire regimes by setting fires to drive game and thwart enemies, by using fire to enhance the production of food items and basketry materials, and by controlling fires near their villages. When Europeans arrived in North America, they caused more extensive changes to fire regimes by converting forests and grasslands to farms, by indiscriminate burning, and by trying to extinguish human-caused and lightning-caused fires near settlements whenever possible. Some European settlers also used forms of prescribed fire to clear lands and open up understory vegetation for a variety of purposes. Systematic federal wildland fire management did not occur until the late 1800s, when federal land was set aside as parks and forest reserves table 1. The 1910 fires in northern Idaho represented a turning point in the transition to coordinated federal suppression response and attendant policies and budgets.