Types of Fires

The Forest Service does not manage all wildfires the same way. Response can range from monitoring a fire that is beneficial to an ecosystem to aggressively putting out a fire that threatens people or resources they need. Safety is the highest priority on every fire. People often mistakenly consider all fires to be negative, destructive forces. However, properly managed, fire can be an effective natural resource management tool. Fire is recognized as an instrument of change and a catalyst for promoting biological diversity and healthy ecosystems. Fire does not imply death, but rather change.

The following is a brief description of the types of fire we manage.


Two firefighters stand aside looking at a fire.

Wildfires on the Stanislaus National Forest are usually started by lightning or people. Some wildfires ignited naturally may be managed for multiple objectives, which mean they can be monitored, or if management feels it is necessary, contained and extinguished. When it comes to human-caused wildfires, however, the Forest Service has only one strategy: direct, aggressive suppression.

Prescribed Fires

Fire blazing on a hillside.

A prescribed fire is ignited by humans under a pre-determined set of conditions and is used to manage certain types of landscapes. These uses include (but are not limited to): reducing fuel buildup around wildland urban interface areas or other areas with infrastructure, manipulating vegetative succession to increasing forage for game species such as wild turkey, deer, or elk, and removal of exotic, or non-native, species. The prescription indicates the acceptable fuel and weather conditions, which will meet the desired objectives.

Some other common terms:

Wildland Urban Interface. Wildland Urban Interface refers to homes and communities which are intermixed within wildlands such as forests, grasslands, parks, mountains, and watersheds. Human-caused fires are even more likely to start with the increase of people. Wildfires in those areas are more dangerous and difficult to put out. The opportunity to use prescribed fire and fuel reduction as fire prevention tools, within the forest and urban interface, greatly reduces the risk of large fires within these areas.

Defensible Space: An area either natural or manmade where material capable of causing a fire to spread has been treated, cleared, reduced, or changed to act as a barrier between an advancing wildfire and the loss to life, property, or resources. In practice, "defensible space" is defined as an area a minimum of 100 feet around a structure that is cleared of flammable brush or vegetation.

Initial Attack: The actions taken by the first resources to arrive at a wildfire to protect lives and property, and prevent further extension of the fire.

Prescription: Measurable criteria that define conditions under which a prescribed fire may be ignited, guide selection of appropriate management responses, and indicate other required actions. Prescription criteria may include safety, economic, public health, environmental, geographic, administrative, social, or legal considerations.

Red Flag Warning: Term used by fire weather forecasters to alert forecast users to an ongoing or imminent critical fire weather pattern.

Smoke Management: Application of fire intensities and meteorological processes to minimize degradation of air quality during prescribed fires.

Wildfire: Any nonstructure fire, other than prescribed fire, that occurs in the wildland.