The History and Evolution of Wildland Firefighting

Wildland fire suppression and fighting within the United States has had a long and complex history. The concept of wildfire suppression refers to the specific firefighting tactics trained professionals utilize in dealing with wildland fires. Firefighting efforts in wildland areas generally require specialized techniques, training, and equipment in comparison to the more traditional and familiar realm of structural firefighting used in populated areas. Often working alongside carefully designed aircrafts, these trained crews work to construct fire lines, suppress flames, and extinguish areas of heat in an attempt to preserve and protect as much natural wilderness and resource as possible. 

For the majority of the 20th century, any type of wildland fire was quickly suppressed out of fear of destructive and uncontrollable situations as seen in the events of the 1871 Peshtigo fire and the 1910 Great Fire of Idaho. Since then, technological developments and ecological studies have permitted wildland firefighting measures to change and grow. Today, some policies even recognize the need for wildland fire as a part of necessitating new growth with controlled burns. Below, we will discuss some of the major events in the history of wildland firefighting in an attempt to offer a greater insight into the evolution of a dangerous and highly unpredictable occupation.


The first aspects of fire prevention came about in Boston during 1630 when the Selectmen demanded that no man be allowed to cover his house with thatch or build his chimney using wood. In 1648, the Governor of New Amsterdam (New York City), Peter Stuyvesant, became the first man to appoint fire inspectors, who would have the authority to enforce fire code violations. Building codes were adapted, and when a fire was spotted within the city, a brigade would be formed to the cry of "throw out your buckets." This came to be the first fire organization created in America.


On August 20th 1886,  Captain Moses Harris from Troop M of the 1st United States cavalry took over command at Yellowstone National Park. The task of the group was to manage the administration and protection of the park, and the cavalry stayed there for the next 32 years. A number of days after their arrival at Yellowstone, soldiers had started to fight wildfires taking place around the park and emerged as the nation's first wildland firefighters to be paid for their service. In an attempt to reduce dangers within the park, the soldiers began to enforce new regulations, including the requirement that camping parties would only ever build fires when it was deemed to be absolutely necessary.


In 1910, wildland fires destroyed over five million acres of forests across Arizona, Montana, and Idaho. The famous flames consumed over three million acres of valuable forest, along with numerous businesses and homes. The fire also claimed the lives of  over 80 people—the majority of these victims were firefighters.

Following the devastation, the United States Congress realized that more measures needed to be implemented in controlling and preventing forest fires, and additional funds were appointed to the Forest Service to help them carry out that task. The new funding enabled the forest service to purchase many of the essential items needed to construct new telephone lines for better communications and fire lookout towers for improved awareness. The funds also allowed the Forest Service to promote the creation of forestry departments within non-Federal lands. 


During 1919, a policy of Forestry for the Nation, created by Henry B Graves, was presented before the Forestry conferences, outlining the direct objectives of fire protection. The objectives were as follows: 

  • To safeguard young growth that had already been established on cut-over lands and within old timber 
  • To prevent injury and destruction to standing timber as a result of fire 
  • To promote natural reproduction using fire protective measures 

The policy put forth that effective fire protection at a wildland level could only be achieved through the joint undertaking of private and public agencies, wherein all lands, regardless of their ownership, would be connected within an organized system.


Smokejumping, a solution intended to quickly provide initial attacks on forest fires, was first proposed by  T.V. Pearson in 1934. Self-sufficient firefighters could parachute into a scenario from above, ready for the strenuous work of dealing with dangerous fires in rugged terrain. The program for smokejumpers started in 1939 as an experiment in the Northwest Pacific Region, and the very first jump was made in 1940 on the Idaho Nez Perce National Forest. Today, smokejumpers are still utilized as a national resource.


According to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), since 1933, every state had been given permanent projects from the Roosevelt Tree Army in an attempt to fight back against wildland fires. Some of the accomplishments that the Corps managed during its existence include:

  • The development of 97,000 miles of fire roads 
  • The creation of 3,470 fire towers 
  • The devotion of 4,235,000 days to fighting fires

The CCC is also recognized for their outstanding contributions to recreational facilities in county, state, national, and metropolitan parks.


In 1957, The U.S. Forest Service created a special task force to study fires where the most fatalities to firefighters occurred so that they might develop safety guidelines. Among other recommendations, Richard McArdle, chief of the United States Forest Service, released the  ten standard fire orders, modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps general orders. This document represents a milestone in the development of the incident command system and the national advanced resources training center.


The first NFPA standard was introduced in 1993, intended to specifically address the needs of the wildland firefighter. These newly developed standards referred to the equipment and protective clothing that should be used within wildland firefighting missions.

Wildland Firefighting History

Although we have covered some of the major milestones in wildland firefighting history within this blog, it's important to note that developments are continuously being made in regards to effectiveness and enhanced safety measures. The more research that is done in the realm of wildland firefighting, the more knowledge we will glean as a whole, and the more we will be able to develop firefighting practices. What do you consider to be the most important developments in wildland firefighting history, and where do you think we're heading next? Let us know your thoughts.

Resources: developments.cfm

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