Stranded Land Constrains Public Land Management and Contributes to Larger Fires

Abstract

Wildfire activity in the western United States has been increasing since the 1970s, with many fires occurring on land managed by government agencies. Over six million acres of public lands are surrounded by private land and lack road access, making them legally inaccessible to federal and state agencies and potentially constraining management and suppression of wildfires. In this paper, we assemble data on all fires that started on public lands in the western US over the period 1992–2015 and estimate the effect of legal accessibility on fire size. We find that ignitions are 14%–23% more likely to become large (greater than one acre) if they occur on inaccessible land. We provide evidence that this effect may be driven in part by agencies’ inability to conduct fuels management and in part by slower suppression responses on legally inaccessible land. Our results suggest that wildfire prevention and suppression could be bolstered by improved access to public lands and underscore the need for ongoing research on the relationship between land ownership and wildfire.

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