Wildland Fire Suppression Strategies and Tactics

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U.S. Government Accountability Office




District of Columbia

Organization Overview:

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the "congressional watchdog," GAO examines how taxpayer dollars are spent and provides Congress and federal agencies with objective, reliable information to help the government save money and work more efficiently.

Project Name:

Wildland Fire Suppression Strategies and Tactics
Project Type: 
Policy Analysis

Project Overview:

While wildland fires play a critical role in the ecology of natural landscapes, fires burn millions of acres each year, cost billions of dollars, damage homes and critical natural resources, and result in deaths. Five federal agencies are responsible for wildland fire management: USDA’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. Over the past decade, these agencies have made strategic changes to how they manage wildland fires. For example, these agencies have started to place greater emphasis on using wildland fires to help reduce vegetation (rather than seeking to suppress all fires)—a practice intended to improve the ecological health  of forests and grasslands and reduce the intensity of future wildland fires. Some observers have also stated that the  agencies’ use of particular firefighting tactics has changed over time, and that these changes have contributed to fires causing more damage than previously.  For example, observers have noted that agencies are using more indirect tactics such as allowing fires to burn toward preconstructed fire containment lines instead of trying to suppress them directly and that agencies have increased their use of “back burning” operations, in which fires are intentionally set to reduce  vegetation between a fire containment line and a fire.  In some cases, observers have claimed that fire suppression tactics such as back burning may cause more damage than the fire itself would have caused.

Data on the use of various firefighting strategies and tactics and the effects of firefighting actions are not readily available. This project would use semi-structured interviews of a cross-section of knowledgeable individuals to qualitatively describe

(1) various perspectives of the firefighting and research communities about the use of firefighting strategies and  tactics,

(2) the extent to which the use of particular strategies or tactics has changed over the past 20 years, and

(3) the potential benefits or drawbacks those changes may have had on firefighter and public safety and the protection of communities and natural resources.

In addition, the project will incorporate quantitative data to the extent it is available to supplement interviews.  Project supervisor can help student refine research objectives and interview questions and identify individuals to interview.


Student will prepare a research paper, including a statement of the issue, background information, scope and methodology, analysis of interview results, and any conclusions or suggestions for future work.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326