Alaska has a fairly progressive plan for wildland fire management. Two-thirds of the lands under the plan are now placed in the Limited Management Option, where little action is taken on most fires. However, therein lies the rub: fires are being more effectively suppressed than ever on the one-third of the land where people live, recreate, and harvest resources.
Demands for fire protection due to suburban sprawl and increasing access to recreational properties in spruce forest are creating new areas of fire exclusion faster than managers are able to implement prescribed burning and mechanical treatments to replace natural burning. Both alternatives have proven to be too costly and politically charged to implement on the scale necessary to keep pace with human developments.
The solution to this dilemma is to integrate wildland fire management with prescribed burning and mechanical treatments. Fire prevention programs have traditionally encouraged homeowners to remove vegetation adjacent to structures to create a "defensible space." Managers are only beginning to take the next logical step: manipulation of forest fuels on lands immediately adjacent to subdivisions or communities. This approach now needs to be extended to include active management of wildland fires outside the mechanically treated areas.
The role of fire suppression must be redefined to allow managers the latitude to use existing fires to balance long-term protection needs against short-term expediencies and to balance fire benefits against protection needs. Proactive management of wildland fires can reduce the area where alternate treatments are needed, making treatment of the remaining acreage feasible.
First, policies must be changed to allow wildland fires to be actively managed to meet longer-term protection needs and resource management objectives. Every fire is an opportunity: ignition has already occurred, and firefighting forces are onsite or coming. Allowing the fire to spread naturally on less critical flanks or actively spreading the fire with aerial ignition should be routinely considered.
Second, historical funding constraints on proactive fire management must be removed if urban interface fires are to be managed wisely. Burning that occurs during suppression often provides ecological benefits, and burning for ecological functions often reduces future threats to human life and property. State and federal "suppression funds" should be simply "fire funds."