The management of natural fire and fuels in wilderness areas of the United States presents a significant dilemma to federal land managers.Wilderness fire management requires balancing mandates to both preserve natural conditions and minimize the impacts of human activities.It also requires consideration of ecological and social values both within and outside of wilderness. In many wilderness and similarlyprotected areas, decades of fire exclusion have resulted in conditions of unnatural vegetation and fuel accumulation. Resulting fires areincreasingly of sizes and intensities unprecedented in fire history records. Although current federal interagency fire policy facilitates the useof natural ignitions (wildland fire use for resource benefits) to restore more natural fire regimes, concerns about damage to natural resources,smoke impacts on surrounding communities, and threats to life and property on adjacent lands result in the suppression of most naturalignitions occurring within wilderness. In addition, natural ignitions outside of wilderness that would otherwise burn into wilderness arecommonly suppressed before they reach the wilderness boundary.
If natural ignitions are not used to restore fire frequencies and intensities characteristic of pre-settlement conditions in wilderness, firemanagers must decide whether to actively manage fire and fuels to restore more natural fire and fuel conditions. Althoughprescribed firemay be an effective means of restoring fire as a natural process, it is done at the cost of sacrificing the important value of wildness, thefreedom from human control or manipulation-one of the core values of wilderness. We review this dilemma about the management andrestoration of fire and fuels in wilderness, and the challenges in determining appropriate and acceptable actions in wilderness.