Ryan, K.C., E.E. Knapp, and J.M. Varner, 2013: “Prescribed fire in North American forests and woodlands: History, current practice, and challenges.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, v. 11, pp. e15–e24, doi: 10.1890/120329.
Whether ignited by lightning or by Native Americans, fire once shaped many North American ecosystems. Euro–American settlement and 20th-century fire suppression practices drastically altered historic fire regimes, leading to excessive fuel accumulation and uncharacteristically severe wildfires in some areas and diminished flammability resulting from shifts to more fire-sensitive forest species in others. Prescribed fire is a valuable tool for fuel management and ecosystem restoration, but the practice is fraught with controversy and uncertainty. Here, we summarize fire use in the forests and woodlands of North America and the current state of the practice, and explore challenges associated with the use of prescribed fire. Although new scientific knowledge has reduced barriers to prescribed burning, societal aversion to risk often trumps known, long-term ecological benefits. Broader implementation of prescribed burning and strategic management of wildfires in fire-dependent ecosystems will require improved integration of science, policy, and management, and greater societal acceptance through education and public involvement in land-management issues.