For millennia, Indigenous communities managed forests in the American West with fire to produce a range of environmental and cultural benefits. This long history of cultural burning combined with frequent lightning produced fire-adapted forests, woodlands, and savannas. For more than a century, however, the federal government and states pursued an aggressive policy of fire suppression that effectively removed fire from the landscape. While this policy has mostly been abandoned, its effects linger in the form of overgrown forests, policy barriers, and cultural obstacles to restoring beneficial low-intensity fires at the scale needed to improve forest resilience and reduce wildfire risks.
The growing wildfire crisis makes this need to restore “good fire” all the more urgent. Frequent, low-intensity fires are essential for bolstering forest health, maintaining wildlife habitat, and reducing smoke and other air pollutants. Today’s catastrophic “megafires,” however, scorch forests, degrade water quality, decimate habitat, and choke the air with smoke. Since 2005, the United States has three times eclipsed 10 million acres burned by wildfires in a year—an unfathomable total just a few decades ago—with the vast majority of that acreage concentrated in the West.
Modern wildfires are not only burning larger areas but are also more harmful for people, forests, and the environment. Nearly 100,000 structures have burned in wildfires since 2005, with two-thirds of that destruction occurring since 2017. Wildfires have killed between 13 and 19 percent of the world’s remaining giant sequoias in the past few years. And they have released massive quantities of harmful air pollutants, including 112 million tons of carbon dioxide in California alone during 2020—the equivalent of adding 25 million cars to the state’s roads.
As with any large, complex phenomenon, no single factor explains the growing wildfire crisis. Past management decisions led to a dangerous accumulation of dead and diseased trees, small trees and shrubs, and other fuels. A changing climate has lengthened the wildfire season, the period of the year in which dry and hot conditions make it more likely a fire will ignite and spread. And development in the wildland-urban interface, the place where human development and wild areas meet, has increased the potential for human-caused ignitions.
Expanding the use of prescribed fire on state, private, and tribal land would have significant benefits for forest resilience, community protection, and environmental conservation.
The critical question is what’s to be done to tackle the wildfire crisis. Some of these factors require long-term policy and economic changes that will take decades to affect fire regimes. But as recent wildfires have shown, other factors can be addressed now, producing immediate benefits. One such factor is the use of prescribed fire, in which low-intensity fire is carefully applied to a landscape under controlled conditions to improve forest resilience, reduce extreme wildfire risks, and achieve other land-management objectives. Time and again, when wildfires have spread to areas where cultural burning practices have been restored or that have otherwise been intentionally managed with prescribed fire to increase resilience, those fires have become less destructive and easier to fight.
The benefits of prescribed fire were evident in Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, which burned more than 400,000 acres in 2021. In the wake of the fire, the landscape revealed huge differences between areas that had been unmanaged, mechanically thinned, or both mechanically thinned and managed with prescribed fire, with the latter producing the most resiliency. (Because of the unnatural buildup of fuels, prescribed fire often cannot be applied unless western forests are first thinned to produce safe conditions.)
The benefits of prescribed fire could also be seen in real time. When the Bootleg Fire moved from the Fremont-Winema National Forest to The Nature Conservancy’s privately owned Sycan Marsh Preserve that had been thinned and burned, the fire’s behavior changed dramatically. Katie Sauerbrey, a fire manager with The Nature Conservancy, described the fire as producing 200-foot flames on neighboring federal lands. But when it crossed onto the conservation group’s private land, it went from “the most extreme fire behavior” that she “had ever seen” to a lower-intensity surface fire that spared the forest and could be fought effectively.
Much of the wildfire debate understandably focuses on the role of national forests, which make up a majority of forested acres in many western states. But expanding the use of prescribed fire on state, private, and tribal land would have significant benefits for forest resilience, community protection, and environmental conservation. In western states, non-federal lands make up between 4 percent (Nevada) and 56 percent (Washington) of forested acres, with an average of roughly 45 percent. Importantly, private lands are often located between the wildland-urban interface and more remote public lands, or within the matrix of remote fire-prone wildlands.
State policymakers and private land managers may be able to ramp up use of prescribed fire more quickly than the federal government, especially considering recent controversies over the U.S. Forest Service’s use of prescribed fire. And as the experience in Sycan Marsh demonstrates, even pockets of well-managed areas within larger forested landscapes can make a difference in mitigating the consequences of wildfire. By producing areas that are more resilient to fire, private lands can also conserve wildlife habitat, water quality, and other ecosystem services. For these reasons, several states have identified making it easier for private landowners to use prescribed fire as a critical step in tackling the wildfire crisis.
Landowners should have good incentives to restore “good fire” to western forests. Prescribed fire not only benefits their land but can also be a more cost-effective management tool than mechanical thinning and other methods. Prescribed fires also produce numerous benefits for surrounding landowners and communities, although landowners may receive no reward for producing these benefits. Surveys suggest that, for these and other reasons, landowners are interested in ramping up prescribed fire.
Despite these benefits, there’s limited use of prescribed fire in the West and little public data available about what burning does take place. The lack of the practice has deprived the West of a culture of burning among landowners and communities—especially compared to the Southeast, which maintained the practice through the 20th century and is currently responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s prescribed burning. Many landowners lack the experience and resources needed to be comfortable embracing the tool. And there are too few expert practitioners available to plan, organize, and supervise the most complex burns, which both limits the number of ambitious burns and drives up their costs.
State policies, many of them holdovers from the era of aggressive fire suppression, can further discourage use of prescribed fire. Landowners must invest time and resources in understanding a state’s permitting process and applying for permits. The limited number and unpredictability of “burn days” in which states allow burning can make it difficult for landowners to plan and implement a prescribed fire. Training opportunities, including state certification programs, are limited, relative to demand. And state liability laws can make prescribed fires excessively risky compared to other, less ecologically effective management practices. Reforms to reduce these obstacles and provide better incentives for landowners are needed to expand the use of prescribed fire, improve forest health, and tame the wildfire crisis.
This report is a collaboration between the Property and Environment Research Center, the national leader in creating market solutions for conservation, and Tall Timbers, an internationally recognized organization with over 60 years of experience using prescribed fire science to solve land management problems. Informed by a workshop featuring leading prescribed fire experts from across the West, this report is the most comprehensive analysis of prescribed fire policy in the 11 western states, with a focus on state-level policies affecting the use of prescribed fire on private lands. It analyzes in detail the most significant obstacles to prescribed fire in the West, describes western states’ recent progress on these fronts, and proposes reforms that could unleash private landowners and entrepreneurs to scale up prescribed fire. Below is a summary of the report’s key topics and recommendations. Each topic is analyzed in more detail in the sections that follow with more detailed recommendations for how these reforms could be implemented.
- Improve permitting systems to remove bureaucratic obstacles to prescribed burning.
- Develop more flexible approaches to setting “burn days” in which different types of prescribed fires can be implemented.
- Design training opportunities and other resources to educate and support, rather than regulate, landowners’ use of prescribed fire.
- Clarify and improve liability regimes to reflect the public benefits of prescribed fire.
- Harness private investment to benefit forest health through catastrophe bonds.