Masthead banner of Park Science: Integrating Research and Resource Management in the National Parks; ISSN 1090-9966; link to current issue
Volume 28
Number 3
Winter 2011-2012
Arrowhead symbol of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
Home + About + Author Guidelines + Archive + Subscribe +  
Invited feature Invited Feature
Fires in wilderness in the national parks

By Jan W. van Wagtendonk
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
Fire protection years, 1886–1967
Experimental years, 1968–1977
Reevaluation years, 1978–1989
Maturation years, 1989–1999
Cerro Grande and beyond, 2000–2010
Future years
Literature cited
About the author
+ PDF +

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.

Return to top

This page updated:  6 February 2012

Page 1 of 9 • Next +
From the Guest Editor(s)
A Wilderness Celebration
At Your Service
Masthead Information
Special Issue: Wilderness Stewardship and Science
A conversation with NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis
Using wilderness character to improve wilderness stewardship
Using the “Keeping It Wild” framework to develop a wilderness character monitoring protocol for the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness
Lessons learned: Merging process elements to address wilderness character and user capacity
A database application for wilderness character monitoring
  Fires in wilderness in the national parks
Transboundary cooperation to achieve wilderness protection and large landscape conservation
Integrating cultural resources and wilderness character
Climate change: Wilderness’s greatest challenge
Climate change threatens wilderness integrity
The science of trail surveys
Wilderness visitor experiences
Scientific study and enduring wilderness
The hidden consequences of fire suppression
Using acoustical data to manage for solitude in wilderness areas
Creating exploratory maps for wilderness impact surveys: Applications in campsite searches
Spiritual outcomes of wilderness experience
Remote sensing of heritage resources for research and management
Managing overnight stock use at Yosemite National Park
Economic impacts of search-and-rescue operations on wilderness management in the national parks
Through the looking glass: What value will we see in wilderness in 2064?
Related Publications + Explore Nature + + Privacy + Disclaimer + Contact Editor
Web Site Last Updated: 16 September 2015