2G – Fire Management

Management Measure

Prescribe fire for site preparation and control or suppress wildfire in a manner that reduces potential NPS pollution of surface waters

  1. Intense prescribed fire should not cause excessive erosion due to the combined effect of removal of canopy species and the loss of soil-binding ability of subcanopy and herbaceous vegetation roots, especially in Streamside Management Areas (SMAs), in streamside vegetation for small ephemeral drainages, or on very steep slopes.
  2. Prescriptions for prescribed fire should protect against excessive erosion or prevent sedimentation.
  3. All bladed fire lines, for prescribed fire and wildfire, should be plowed on contour or stabilized with water bars and/or other appropriate techniques if needed to control excessive sedimentation or erosion of the fire line.
  4. Rehabilitation and salvage logging areas burned by wildfires should be managed to minimize erosion and prevent sedimentation.

Management Practices

Fire management practices are changing as the benefits of fire to forest ecosystems are becoming more widely accepted. Prescribed burning reduces hazardous fuels and reduces the potential for crown fires that kill timber trees. Fire is also essential for forest management where tree species are ecologically dependent on fire for regeneration or maintenance of healthy stands (USEPA, 2002). However, prescribed fire used for site preparation, fuel hazard reduction, and activities associated with wildfire suppression can sometimes create NPS pollution and erosion. Costs associated with prescribed fire depend on the size of the fire crew, the amount of heavy equipment needed at the site to control the burn, the areal extent and intensity of the burn, and the topography of the area being burned. Costs for prescribed burning vary from approximately $80 to $500 per acre; costs are higher in mountainous terrain than on flat land (USEPA, 2002).

The following management measures can be used to reduce the adverse impacts of fire on water quality:

  • Fire intensity
    High-intensity fires should be avoided, especially severe burns on steep slopes or highly erodible soils. High-intensity fires that remove vegetation and litter down to the mineral soil are most likely to adversely affect water quality. Furthermore, chemical changes in the soil following fire may create an increased resistance to water infiltration in the upper soil layer, and this can increase surface runoff and sheet erosion (USEPA, 2002). Periodic, low-intensity prescribed fires should be used to reduce the forest fuel loads. Low-intensity fires usually have little effect on water quality because burned areas with an intact litter layer yield little sediment and revegetate more quickly.
  • Timing of prescribed burns
    Burning should be planned to take into account weather, time of year, and fuel conditions so that these factors help achieve the desired results and minimize effects on water quality.
  • Logistics of prescribed burns
    The prescribed burn should be executed with an agency-qualified crew and burn boss. Burning permits must be obtained before burning. Every year, if required, either before April 1 or before the start of timber operations, a fire suppression resources inventory should be submitted to the CDF.
  • SMAs and wetlands
    Prescribed burning and site preparation activities that involve piling and burning for slash removal should not be conducted in SMAs. When applying prescribed fire in wetlands, burns should be conducted in a manner that does not completely remove the organic layer of the forest floor. Prescribed burns conducted in wetlands have the potential to be the most severe because of the increased fuels available. The fire should be conducted to minimize the potential to increase surface runoff and soil erosion. Fire lines should not be placed in sensitive areas such as wetlands, marshes, prairies, and savannas unless absolutely necessary.
  • Fire lines
    Fire line construction involves removing all organic material to expose mineral soil, and this can result in excessive erosion and water quality degradation. Natural or in-place barriers (e.g., roads, streams, and lakes) should be used to minimize the need for fire line construction in situations where construction of artificial fire lines could result in excessive erosion and sedimentation. Conditions that require extensive blading of fire lines with heavy equipment should be avoided when planning burns. Hand lines, firebreaks, and hose lays should be used to minimize blading of fire lines.

    Fire lines need to be constructed in a manner that minimizes erosion and sedimentation and prevents runoff from directly entering watercourses. When crossing water bodies with plowing equipment, the plow should be raised to prevent connecting the fire line directly to the water body. Water bodies can be used as fire lines to avoid unnecessarily disturbing riparian zones. Also, construction of fire lines straight up and down hill should be avoided. The location of fire lines should be balanced with the potential for a larger fire that would consume greater amounts of material. Where possible, alternatives to plowed lines such as harrowing, foam lines, wet lines, or permanent grass should be considered.
  • Revegetation
    Once the fire is put out, vegetative cover on fire lines and disturbed areas should be reestablished as soon as possible using native species, as feasible, to control soil erosion.
  • Runoff controls
    Grades, ditches, and water bars to fire lines should be installed as soon as it is safe to begin rehabilitation work. Water bars should be installed on any fire line running up and down the slope, and runoff should be directed onto a filter strip or sideslope, not into a drainage area.
  • Fire retardants
    Whenever possible, a 300-foot buffer should be left on both sides of a waterway when fire retardants are applied from the air. If it is necessary to apply retardant within the 300-foot zone, the application method that most accurately keeps the retardant from entering the stream should be used. Fire retardant chemicals that contain sodium ferrocyanide should be avoided because a recent study revealed that mixtures with the chemical can decompose to produce amounts of cyanide that exceed USEPA water quality guidelines for freshwater organisms.
  • Fire detection/prevention
    A diligent aerial or ground inspection should be conducted within the first 2 hours after cessation of felling, yarding, or loading operations each day during the dry period when fire is likely to spread. The person conducting the inspection should have adequate communication available for prompt reporting of any fire that may be detected (CDF, 2003). Laws and ordinances prohibiting or otherwise regulating smoking should be obeyed and smoking by persons engaged in timber operations should be limited to occasions when they are not moving about and are confined to cleared landings and areas of bare soil at least 3 feet in diameter.
  • Public safety
    Management practices for fire lines, road construction, and stream crossings should be suspended during wildfire emergencies to benefit public safety and should be restored as soon as possible. Remediation should begin after the emergency is controlled.


  • California Department of Forestry (CDF), Vegetation Management Program (VMP) is a cost-sharing program that focuses on the use of prescribed fire, and mechanical means, for addressing wildland fire fuel hazards and other resource management issues on State Responsibility Area (SRA) lands.
  • CDF, California Fire Plan incorporates concepts of the National Fire Strategy, the California Fire Plan and individual CDF Unit Fire Plans, as well as Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs). Fire Plans outline the fire situation within each CDF Unit. CWPPs do the same for communities. Each identifies prevention measures to reduce risks, informs and involves the local community or communities in the area, and provides a framework to diminish the potential loss due to wildfire. Planning includes other state, federal and local government agencies as well as Fire Safe Councils. CDF staff access a variety of tools in the planning processes including California fire history statistics, fire weather, fire mapping, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Information Resources

  • California Fire Alliance is an association of cooperating agencies addressing fire issues in California.
  • California Fire and Resource Assessment Program, Vegetation Management Program discusses the use of an ecosystem management focus for fire management.
  • California Fire and Resource Assessment Program, Prefire management projects change fire risk, fire hazard and exposure of values at risk before a major fire occurs, thereby reducing potential fire costs and losses. Fire prevention programs generally target reductions in the rate of ignitions in an area, leading to a lower risk of a fire occurring. Prescribed fire, thinning, fire and fuel breaks and other forms of vegetation management generally reduce the intensity or the rate of spread of a fire once it does occur, leading to a lower fire hazard. Firesafe regulations governing clearance around structures and road access, as well as land use planning governing the location of new developments, affect the likelihood that a fire will cause significant losses, thereby lowering the exposure of those values to fire..
  • California Forest Stewardship Program, Forestland Steward Newsletter provides information on protecting private land from wildfires.
  • USGS, Ecological Effects of Fire Retardant Chemicals and Fire Suppressant Foams research study was the result of a joint effort by scientists at the Columbia Environmental Research Center (formerly Columbia National Fisheries Research Center [Columbia, MO, and Field Research Station, Yankton, SD]), Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center [Jamestown, ND], and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (Laurel, MD). The research was initiated in 1993 when the three Centers were part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was carried on when they were moved to the National Biological Survey (later renamed the National Biological Service), and finally combined with the U.S. Geological Survey as the Biological Resources Division in October 1996.


CDF. 2003. California Forest Practice Rules. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Resource Management, Forest Practice Program, Sacramento, CA.

USEPA. 2002. National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Forestry. Pre-Final Draft. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Washington, DC.

NPS Encyclopedia Site Map