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Title: The scientific value of fire in wilderness
Abstract Background

Wilderness areas are important natural laboratories for scientists and managers working to understand fire. In the last half-century, shifts in the culture and policy of land management agencies have facilitated the management practice of letting some naturally ignited fires burn, allowing fire to fulfill its ecological role and increasing the extent of fire-related research opportunities. With the goal of identifying the global scientific advances enabled by this paradigm shift in wilderness fire management, we conducted a systematic review of publications that either (1) selected protected areas for investigation because of an active fire regime enabled by wilderness fire management, (2) studied modern fires or fire regimes deliberately located in a wilderness area, or (3) conducted applied research to support wilderness fire management.


Our systematic review returned a sample of 222 publications that met these criteria, with an increase in wilderness fire science over time. Studies largely occurred in the USA and were concentrated in a relatively small number of protected areas, particularly in the Northern Rocky Mountains. As a result, this sample of wilderness fire science is highly skewed toward areas of temperate mixed-conifer forests and historical mixed-severity fire regimes. Common principal subjects of publications included fire effects (44%), wilderness fire management (18%), or fire regimes (17%), and studies tended to focus on vegetation, disturbance, or wilderness management as response variables.


This work identifies major scientific contributions facilitated by fire in wilderness, including self-limitation of fire, the effects of active fire regimes on forest and aquatic systems, barriers and potential solutions to wilderness fire management, and the effect of fire on wilderness recreation and visitor experiences. Our work reveals geographic and bioclimatic areas where more research attention is needed and highlights under-represented wilderness areas that could serve to fill these gaps. Finally, we identify priorities for future wilderness fire research, including the past and potential role of Indigenous and prescribed burning, the effects of changing climate and fire regimes on ecosystem processes, and how to overcome barriers to wilderness fire management.

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Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
Springer Science + Business Media
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Fire Ecology
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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