Editors Note: Julia Berkey is the Fire Adapted Montana Learning Network Coordinator based in Missoula, Montana. Julia has a background in forest and fire ecology, and currently works in fostering fire adapted communities across the state of Montana. Here Julia shares some recent reflections and lessons learned she gleaned from recent research into wilderness fire management for the University of Montana and the Forest Service. 

At the end of 2021, I was lucky enough to publish a general technical report (GTR) with the Forest Service that covers the history of wilderness fire management in the Northern Rockies. Having finally pushed that publication out the door, I have been able to sit back and reflect on how profoundly that research project affected me. It shaped my career choices and has fueled my current pursuit of returning fire to our ecosystems to build more resilient landscapes and fire adapted communities. I want to share some of my reflections and lessons learned coming out of my research and my own personal experience with wilderness fire. 

The Problem & Beauty of Wilderness  

Since I’m writing about wilderness fire, I want to acknowledge that wilderness itself is a problematic concept. It fundamentally excludes humans, and as a result disavows the profound influence that Indigenous people have had on shaping landscapes for millennia. And nowhere is this paradox more evident than in fire: for nearly a hundred years, fire managers used suppression tactics that nearly eliminated fire from wilderness areas, simultaneously proclaiming that these were areas “untrammeled by man.” All this was done despite the clear evidence that Indigenous peoples had long set fire in wilderness areas such as the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana, just as they had done and continue to do in the neighboring Flathead Valley

Nevertheless, since the 1970s, wilderness areas in the United States have played a crucial role in shifting the fire management approach from one that focused solely on suppression to one that now allows for management of wildfire for resource benefit. And although the United States is far from managing fire for resource benefits as widely as we should, there is a great deal to be learned from the evolution of wilderness fire management, especially for those of us looking to expand the use of prescribed fire for community preparedness.

View of mountains in the distance with blue sky and a valley of short vegetation in the foreground

The ecosystem mosaics resulting from decades of fire managed for resource benefit along the South Fork of the Flathead River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Photo by author.

Learning Lessons from Wilderness Fire for Prescribed Fire

1. Importance of individual “sparkplugs”

The most immediately evident parallel between the wilderness fire program of the 1970s and those who are working today to build up local, community-led prescribed fire programs is that this work relies on key sparkplug individuals. For wilderness fire, a handful of visionaries pushed to overhaul the fire management program and move away from the 10 am policy, which stated that all wildfires had to be suppressed by 10 am the following day. These individuals were committed to the ecological role of fire in the ecosystem and were therefore willing to take the inherent risk involved in returning fire to the landscape. 

Just as folks like Orville Daniels once pushed for managed wildfire in the wilderness areas of the Northern Rockies, we now have people like Cindy Super of the Blackfoot Challenge working hard to implement more prescribed fire on private land in the Blackfoot Valley of Montana. And while we’re immensely lucky to have benefited from these visionary leaders, the reliance on a small group of key sparkplugs endangers prescribed fire programs across the country. 

A man puts his hand on a tree while three people observe

Mike Schaedel, Western Montana Forester for the Nature Conservancy, points to evidence of Indigenous bark-peeling and fire on a ponderosa pine in Primm Meadows, the site of a recent burn for the Blackfoot Prescribed Fire Working Group. Photo by author.

Cindy is fortunate to be surrounded by many private landowners, NGO employees and state and federal officials who share her passion. As a result, the Blackfoot Valley has seen immense strides in the application of prescribed fire over the past few years. However, the question remains: can this progress persist if some of these folks leave the area, take new jobs, or retire? Right now, the Blackfoot Prescribed Fire program relies on key individuals such as University of Montana fire and fuels professor and qualified burn boss Carl Seielstad. He has summed up the necessary devotion to fire nicely: “in the current environment, to put fire on the ground, you need to have fire in your belly.” As we look to build out prescribed fire programs, we need to hire individuals who have this fire in the belly to ensure continued success.

2. Leadership support is key

Beyond keeping an eye out for sparkplug individuals when we hire, local prescribed fire programs would benefit from clear statements of support from all levels of leadership. In the wilderness fire program, this leadership has often faltered, leaving risk-averse fire management officials less willing to manage wilderness fires for resource benefit. As one interview subject stated, “it’s hard for somebody to come out and have a full throated, ‘yes, we’re gonna do this’ if they feel like they’re all alone.” The same is true for prescribed fire programs. 

The time involved in building up these local programs is immense, and includes investing in personal relationships, crafting MOUs, and conducting public outreach. This immense workload, combined with the risk of potential fire escape, has left only those with “fire in the belly” willing to pursue such a program; otherwise, it is far too easy to throw your hands up in defeat. Should federal, state and local leaders choose to emphasize prescribed fire and allow for novel approaches to getting the work done, this could increase the priority of building prescribed fire programs at the local level. 

3. Investment in public education

As the wilderness fire program grew, the necessity of keeping the public informed of fire activity, as well as the benefits of managing fire for resource benefit, became immediately evident. A fire manager from the Bob Marshall Wilderness put it this way: “we really had to get good at providing up-to-date information on a routine basis to the public as well as political representatives … they may not agree with what we were doing, but they were informed.” 

This remains true today for prescribed fire: the more public buy-in you have, the more successful your prescribed fire program will be. As Dr. Sarah McCaffrey has highlighted repeatedly with her research, public buy-in relies on early, transparent and interactive communication, particularly around the ecological benefits of prescribed fire, planning for smoke and building trust in the local prescribed fire practitioners. And the Washington Prescribed Fire Council has applied this research effectively with their Put Fire to Work campaign, crafting a modifiable outreach campaign aimed at increasing public awareness and acceptance of local prescribed fire work. 

It is possible

Overall, nothing I have said above is particularly new or revolutionary – anyone working in building up a local prescribed fire program is familiar with these concepts and is likely already working towards these goals. What I find comforting and inspiring in the comparison between wilderness fire and prescribed fire, however, is that we do have a functioning wilderness fire program in place. It is not perfect, and still suffers from a lack of leadership support at times, but the work of those early sparkplug individuals has paid off to where the public generally understands and supports the concept of wilderness fire management. And in ecosystems such as the Bob Marshall, Selway Bitterroot and Frank Church Wilderness of No Return of the Northern Rockies, fire has been restored to the landscape as an ecosystem process.

A group of people in hard hats stand outside with mountains behind them.

Fire Adapted Montana Learning Network members participate in a tour of the Rocky Mountain Front near Augusta, Montana, where building fire adapted communities has long required consideration of the impacts of wilderness fire management in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (background). Photo by author.

This is all very inspiring to me. While there are certainly many hurdles in the way of building up sustainable and vibrant community-led prescribed fire programs, those of us working to develop these programs can take solace in the fact that such immense barriers have been overcome before. And while our challenges may be different from those faced by the wilderness fire program (we are burning in folks’ back yards vs. remote wilderness areas), there are enough similarities that we can learn from those that came before us to further our own efforts and keep up hope even when facing a persistent uphill battle. 

Whenever I feel the problem is too immense, I think of a recorded interview I watched of Bob Mutch, who fought vehemently for wilderness fire management, talking about the amazing work of the late Dave Campbell. Throughout his tenure as a district ranger on the Bitterroot National Forest, Campbell had managed over 300 fires for resource benefit in wilderness areas. Mutch is visibly moved to tears as he remembers Campbell’s hard work, “really swimming upstream against that strong current [of the 10 am policy] and allowing 300 fires to burn to the point where now it’s more typical.”

Mutch’s emotional moment serves as inspiration to me: do I want to give up, or do I want to keep swimming upstream until community prescribed fire programs are the norm? I take inspiration from the Bob Mutch and Dave Campbells of the world, as well as from my current colleagues Cindy Super and Carl Seielstad. With that inspiration, I keep working towards a day where a videographer is interviewing Cindy as she reminisces about her group’s revolutionary work in the Blackfoot Valley, and how it helped to change the conversation around prescribed fire for our state and the rest of the western United States. 

Additional Resources

The Benefits of Hard Decisions: Applying Lessons from Wilderness Fire (video)

Research perspectives on the public and fire management: a synthesis of current social science on eight essential questions (PDF)

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