Wildfire and wildland fire are often interchangeable words heard on the news during the fire season but it can be important to differentiate in the fire research community because of their meaning. The National Wildland Coordination Group (NWCG) provides a glossary of terms for the fire community (link).
Wildland Fire: any non-structural fire that occurs in vegetation or natural fuels. Wildland fire includes prescribed fire and wildfire.
Wildland fire describes the overarching concept of fire in natural fuels. These fuels do not need be in the wildland, but can include other areas such as plains, prairies, fields and green-spaces.
All fuels will burn given the right conditions, and many natural habitats require fuels to burn for a healthy ecosystem. This understanding has led to the concept of natural fire, where vegetation fuels become dependent on and thrive because of fire events.
Wildfire: an unplanned, unwanted wildland fire including unauthorized human-caused fires, escaped prescribed fire projects, and all other wildland fires where the objective is to pull the fire out.
Wildfire describes a situation where the fuels are burning creating an undesirable condition. They may start as natural fires but grow to a point where they become unmanageable and threaten things we do not want to burn, referred to in the research community as highly valued resources and assets.
Prescribed Fire: any fire intentionally ignited by management actions in accordance with applicable laws, policies, and regulations to meet specific objectives.
Land managers use prescribed fire to support natural habitats that depend on fire. By introducing fire in a controlled manner the ecosystem can reap the benefits and the fuel loading reduced to prevent high-intensity fires.
Using the correct terminology helps to understand that not all fire is bad and that, in some cases, the lack of fire can be harmful. This is important for fire research as we explore the causes and effects of fire in natural fuels and communicate our findings to the public.