Fire Policy & Law
Background: Current guidance for implementation of United States federal wildland fire policy charges agencies with restoring and maintaining fire-adapted ecosystems while limiting the extent of wildfires that threaten life and property, weighed against the risks posed to firefighters. These ostensibly conflicting goals can make it difficult to clearly communicate specific response objectives of a given incident. Inherent ambiguity can expose land management agencies, like the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS), to scrutiny when once remote, lightning-ignited wildfires burn across boundaries and result in damage. One such incident was the 2021 Tamarack Fire, ignited by lightning in a remote USFS wilderness area and ultimately burning 27,776 ha across multiple jurisdictions and destroying 25 structures. Intense sociopolitical interest developed around this incident, reigniting a “let burn” policy debate of the USFS despite this policy not formally existing. We provide a first approximation at quantifying the base rates of potentially consequently lightning-caused fires like the Tamarack Fire. We use multiple sources of fire-reporting data to characterize USFS fires from 2009 to 2020 by management-strategy to identify Tamarack Fire analogs. Within Incident Command System 209 (ICS-209) reports for fires originating on USFS lands, we identified 32 wildfires with similar key characteristics to the Tamarack Fire; nearly half ignited within wilderness areas.
Results: Initial strategies were driven by resource objectives for only six of the 32 wildfires; firefighter hazard mitigation was the primary driver of all others. No fire exhibited every characteristic of the Tamarack Fire. Analog fires accounted for a small percent (3.4%) of large (> 121 ha) USFS lightning-caused ignitions. These fires were responsible for 61.6% of structures destroyed and 25.8% of total personnel commitments of large lightning-caused USFS fires.
Conclusions: Lightning-ignited wildfires that could have resulted in sociopolitical controversy are rare, and those with strategies driven by resource objective are even rarer. More commonly, risks posed to firefighters from terrain, snags, or accessibility are factors driving strategy, even when fires ignite within wilderness areas. These results suggest that simple definitions of strategy such as those reported within the ICS-209 lack clarity and may increase s