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Smoke Management and Fire

Photograph of an NPS fire specialist extinguishing a prescribed fire
Prescribed fire in Zion National Park, Utah.


Wildland fire is a natural process in the landscape. Naturally occurring fires remove dead, woody debris on the forest floor, thin the forest understory, and recycle nutrients to the soil. Fires that burn into the forest canopy open the canopy to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. This allows for the sprouting and regrowth of plants, shrubs and trees. Several plant and tree species are dependent on fire to release seeds.

If natural fires are suppressed, combustible materials accumulate and increase the risk of a catastrophic fire that damage natural resources or nearby communities. The National Park Service uses planned fire ignitions (also called prescribed fire) to manage natural forest resources and protect against catastrophic fire.

Smoke from planned and unplanned fires impacts air quality. The Air Resources Division works with local community, state, and federal partners to develop fire management policies that protect air quality.

Smoke is comprised of gases, particles, and ash. Many of the gases are toxic—carbon monoxide gas can cause suffocation in enclosed/unventilated areas. Other gases, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic carbon, contribute to the formation of ozone, a pollutant that impairs respiratory function. Nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates and sulfates are volatilized from burning soils and vegetation into the air, while metals and other elements remain as ash. Ash and large smoke particles sink to the ground near a fire while fine, microscopic particles can be transported hundreds of miles in the air before depositing on the ground. These fine smoke particles (especially those 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less) contribute to haze and pose the greatest health risk.

Smoke Management and the NPS

Each park with vegetation capable of burning is required to prepare a fire management plan. The plan guides the program by addressing safety considerations, resource management objectives, and potential impacts. The NPS complies with all federal, state and local air quality regulations and permitting requirements related to prescribed fire management and is committed to minimizing air pollution emissions associated with the use of prescribed fires.

The Air Resources Division works with local community, state, and federal partners to develop fire management policies that protect air quality.

For additional information related to the NPS fire and smoke management programs:

  • The NPS Fire Management Program Center (FMPC) provides national leadership, direction, coordination, and support for NPS fire, aviation, and incident management.
  • The NPS Wildland Fire Management Policy (pdf, 2.0 MB) provides guidance for the development of park Fire Management Plans.
  • NPS Fire Management Plans require fuels projects to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA directs federal agencies to evaluate the environmental effects of any federal action, including fuels projects.
  • The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) coordinates fire management activities across federal agencies.

Other Fire Management Resources

On February 13, 2009, the Fire Executive Council (FEC) approved Guidance for Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy (pdf, 1.7 MB). This Guidance provides for consistent implementation of the 1995/2001 Federal Fire Policy, as directed by the Wildland Fire Leadership Council. The Guidance requires that each of the federal wildland fire agencies work together through development of unified direction and guidance for agency/bureau manuals, directives, handbooks, guidebooks, plans, agreements and other pertinent documents.

The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (pdf, 1.7 MB) is a collaborative process to seek national, all-lands solutions to wildland fire management issues. The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy focuses on three key areas: Restore and Maintain Landscapes, Fire Adapted Communities and Response to Fire.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Interim Air Quality Policy on Wildland and Prescribed Fire (pdf, 84.2 KB) addresses public health and welfare impacts caused by wildland and prescribed fires that are managed to achieve resource benefits.

The Western Regional Air Partnership (WRAP) Fire Emissions Joint Forum makes recommendations to the western states, tribes, and partners on policies and methodologies for: estimating air pollution emissions and their effects on air quality and visibility due to smoke from various natural and human-caused fires; developing an emissions data set and associated tracking system; and recommending strategies and methods to manage emissions from these sources.

Read more about wildland fire and statistics for prescribed and wild fire on Department of Interior Lands.


Related Links

Last Updated: August 21, 2014