Fuels Management

The fuels program supports the strategic removal of grasses, shrubs, and trees to restore and maintain ecosystems and limit the negative impacts of wildfires.

A fire burns in dense vegetation across a road from a group of houses

Managing fuel and risk: prescribed fires like this one at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge reduce the chance of a catastrophic wildfire destroying nearby homes. (Michael Good/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Quick Facts

1.9 million: number of acres treated by Interior in Fiscal Year 2021
$220 million: money spent by this program in Fiscal Year 2021
1,344: number of FTE* funded by this program in Fiscal Year 2021

* FTE (full-time equivalent) is the annual number of "work years" produced by employees. A "work year" is roughly 2,080 hours. Reporting personnel in this way enables a common view of the workforce across government agencies.

What are fuels?

Anything that can burn is fuel for a fire. During a wildland fire all kinds of plant material can act as fuel, including grasses, shrubs, trees, dead leaves, and fallen pine needles. As these burnable materials pile up, so do the chances of catastrophic wildland fire. In the right conditions, excess fuel allows fires to burn hotter, larger, longer, and faster, making them more difficult and dangerous to manage.

Why manage fuels?

We manage fuels to restore and maintain ecosystems.

Wildland fires can be devastating, but not all fire is bad. Fire plays a natural and necessary role in many landscapes. Periodic low-intensity fires speed up the process of forest decomposition, create open patches for new plants to grow, improve habitat and food for animals and deliver nutrients to the plants that survive. Some research indicates fire may also improve ground water recharge and water flow to aquatic habitats.  They build resilience to fires by reducing immature trees, brush, dead branches and limbs  (a.k.a. ladder fuels) and creating a mosaic of burned, partially-burned, and unburned areas (which makes it less likely that future fires will torch an entire landscape). Some trees, like lodgepole pine, require the heat of flames to open up their cones and disperse new seeds.

We manage fuels to reduce the chances that lives or property will be lost to wildfire.

Houses and other developments near grasslands, forests, or other undeveloped areas (a.k.a. the wildland urban interface) are vulnerable to wildfires because they’re essentially surrounded by fuel. The extent and density of vegetation around a structure influence the ability of  firefighters to prevent it from burning in a wildfire. Wildfire can also damage or disrupt utility services (power, gas, communication, transportation).  Fuels treatments make unwanted wildfires less likely and easier to manage. By learning to live with fire we improve public and firefighter safety and reduce the impacts of fire when it occurs. Learn more about fire-adapted communities.

We manage fuels to improve the efficiency and safety of wildfire suppression.

The cost of putting out unwanted wildland fire remains the biggest line item in our annual budget. Reducing fuels makes wildfires less intense and easier to control with fewer people, making it one of the most effective ways to build an efficient, proactive program to safely manage wildfire.

Two firefighters monitor burning piles of debris in a forest.

Reducing the fuel load: firefighters tend burn piles left from a forest thinning project at Grand Canyon National Park. (Michael Quinn, National Park Service)

How do we manage fuels?

Managing fuels means reducing their availability to feed a wildfire. We do this by: 

  • Deliberately starting a fire (a.k.a. prescribed fire) under favorable conditions (so we can manage where and how the fire burns) in order to remove excess vegetation and other fuels, such as leaves, pine needles, branches, etc.
  • Thinning forested areas with chainsaws or heavy equipment.
  • Removing brush and small trees by hand.
  • Reducing the quantity of grasses and shrubs mechanically or by placing domestic, grazing animals (e.g. cows, goats) on a landscape.
  • Chemically treating an area overgrown with invasive plants using herbicides.

Fuel treatment projects occur year-round depending upon location, vegetation type, weather, and many other factors.

How are projects planned and evaluated?

Since wildfires burn without regard for administrative boundaries or land ownership, we plan fuel management projects with multiple partners, including other Federal agencies, Tribes, States, counties, local organizations, and private landowners. These partnerships foster a holistic, "all hands, all lands" approach to wildland fire management that recognizes the importance of shared goals on shared landscapes. Through partnerships we work more efficiently, cost taxpayers less money, make sure projects meet local needs, and help communities become more resilient to wildland fire.

We evaluate projects based on the following objectives:

  • Integration with Resource Management: proposed projects must demonstrate how they drive key natural resource benefits through an integrated, programmatic approach that incorporates active vegetation management to achieve program goals and objectives.
  • Stewardship-Based: proposed projects have shared stewardship values demonstrated by joint, mutually agreed upon priorities with partners at all levels that includes the coordination of assets, skills, and resources.
  • Geographic Landscape-Based: proposed projects contribute to a landscape-based approach to achieve mutually agreed upon active management goals and objectives that are coordinated locally.
  • Outcome-Based: proposed projects are strategically placed to achieve the following objectives: 
    • mitigate significant wildfire risk to Department and Tribal values; 
    • protect, maintain, or improve wildfire resiliency; 
    • avoid costs if tested by wildfire; or 
    • meet Bureaus' statutory obligations for wildland fire management responsibilities. 

Staff in the Office of Wildland Fire help manage a number of interagency planning tools to support this work. The Landscape Fire and Resource Management Planning Tools Project (known as LANDFIRE) provides detailed maps and data about vegetation and fuel types for the entire country so we can identify where work needs to be done. The Interagency Fuel Treatment Decision Support System helps us plan and model the effects of a project by analyzing the effectiveness of past treatments and estimating future risk reduction. And the National Fire Plan Operations & Reporting System helps us track the work across public and Tribal lands. Learn more about the technology behind wildland fire management.

Who does the work?

Fuel treatment projects are carried out by staff in the four Department of the Interior bureaus with wildland fire management responsibilities: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We also work in tandem with our many partners.

Community Assistance

Helping individuals and communities to adapt to, prepare for, and respond to wildfire is an important part of what we do. The Department of the Interior fosters and supports this by:

  • Developing educational materials about wildland fire ecology and prevention.
  • Presenting educational programs at local businesses, events, parks, and schools.
  • Helping communities develop and update wildfire protection plans.
  • Help landowners create fire-resilient landscapes. 

These efforts support the goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which emphasizes an “all-hands, all-lands” approach to managing wildland fire through community engagement and partnerships. Learn more at forestsandrangelands.gov.



Was this page helpful?