Fires in humid tropical forests are increasingly frequent due to severe dry seasons, forest degradation and agricultural expansion. One agent implicated in current discourse surrounding tropical forest fires is the small-scale farming peasantry who rely on fire in swidden (shifting cultivation, slash-and-burn) agriculture. The environmental degradation associated with fire has led to government responses at multiple scales (international, national, state, regional) via policies aimed mainly at managing ignition sources. However, continued increase in forest fires suggests that these policies may be having limited impact and a fresh evaluation of current policy approaches to fire management is needed. We review fire policy measures with insights of caboclo farming practices and perspectives from Eastern Amazonia and examine the congruence between policy and practice. We demonstrate a significant disparity between policy requirements such as firebreaks and actual fire management practices, in which measures rarely meet requirements outlined in legislation. We explore the origins and the impacts of these disparities, focussing on smallholder farm-level management measures and local capacity. Incomplete knowledge coupled with marginal awareness of legal requirements served to propagate widespread erroneous beliefs in what these are. This analysis at multiple scales (international, national, state, regional) will contribute to developing greater congruence between fire policies and smallholder farming practices.