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Trends in Landscape Fire Patterns in Wilderness Areas With and Without a History of Fire Use


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Project Description

One of five problem areas in the program of work for the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute focuses on wildland fire. Specifically, “there is a need for improved information to guide the stewardship of fire as a natural process in wilderness while protecting social and ecological values inside and outside wilderness.” To develop effective strategies for allowing natural disturbances to more freely function in wilderness, wilderness managers need to understand natural disturbance regimes, how human actions have altered these regimes, the effects of that alteration, and the consequences of management options for reversing or mitigating these effects. The orientations toward wilderness fire management that are held by the public and government agencies need to shift away from fire suppression as the dominant fire management strategy and toward a stewardship of the process of fire that includes natural (i.e., wildland fire use) and prescribed fire. This study will help support this shift by increasing our understanding of the natural role of fire in wilderness, and the options available for restoring fire as a natural process and the consequences of these actions on the wilderness environment.

Within many wilderness areas, naturally ignited fires are selectively allowed to burn with the recognition that natural disturbances can meet management goals. These goals include perpetuating a wide variety of native species, as well as the structure and function of wilderness ecosystems. Because this practice has occurred since the 1970's in some areas, the allowance of natural burning in those areas may have changed the characteristics of local fire events and their contribution to broader-scale fire regime properties. This study will improve our understanding of the consequences and sustainability of fire use strategies.

Determining the effects of management is complicated by the interaction of several factors that vary in space and time. First, fire size and frequency are linked to climate conditions (e.g., drought), as well as weather during burning (e.g., winds and temperature). Second, topography and fuels influence ignition locations, fire spread, and behavior which play a role in determining fire frequency, as well as size and severity of individual fire events. Finally, characteristics of both fire events and fire regimes vary with scale of measurement.

The theoretical framework of this research project assumes that changes in fire frequency, severity, and area burned correspond to processes that interact across spatial scales. Our test areas include: Yosemite, Selway-Bitterroot, Gila, Mesa Verde, and Mazatzal Wilderness Areas.

Project Sponsor and Co-Principal Investigator

  • Carol Miller, Aldo Leopold Institute, U.S. Forest Service, Missoula MT


  • Haire SL, and K McGarigal. 2010. Trends in lanscape fire patterns in wilderness areas with and without a history of fire use. Study Plan [pdf]

Slide Presentations

  • Haire SL, K McGarigal, and C Miller. Scaling of fire regimes across a gradient in wilderness management, presented at the US International Association of Landscape Ecology Annual Meeting, Athens Georgia, April, 2010 [pdf]


We thank the following organizations for providing support for this project: Aldo Leoplold Wilderness Research Intitute, US Forest Service; and University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

For more information, please contact:
Dr. Kevin McGarigal
Department of Environmental Conservation
University of Massachusetts
304 Holdsworth Natural Resources Center
Box 34210, Amherst, MA 01003
Fax: (413) 545-4358; Phone: (413) 577-0655

Copyright 2000 University of Massachusetts Amherst, Massachusetts, 01003. (413) 545-0111. This is an official page of the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. All material in this website is made available according to the Fair Use Statute of the U.S. Copyright Act