4 quarter

By Toddi Steelman, IAWF President

Creating a new and more resilient path will begin by acknowledging the changes in the ecological systems in which the wildland firefighting community works so we can set everyone up for greater success.

I woke up this blistering mid-August morning where I live in North Carolina to a wrenching tweet from a wildland firefighter in British Columbia: “Help us, help your neighbors, help everyone get through the next six weeks of what has been the most challenging summer.” It was accompanied by a plea: “It is time to remind yourself that when you post something out of anger, frustration, fear, or heartbreak, there are other families out there feeling all those same things and reading your words that may be hurtful.” This is a reminder that we face two crises — one that is primarily ecological and one that is deeply human.

This tweet could have come from a wildland firefighter in any number of countries this summer given the conditions not only in Canada but Greenland, Turkey, Greece, Algeria, Siberia and the United States to name a few. 

Two questions are imperative: What are we really witnessing? What can be done about it?

Change in our ecological conditions, primed by warming climate, is accelerating at a pace incommensurate with our current institutional responses, namely our wildfire-management systems that were put into place decades ago. This means the wildland fire community needs to take a hard look at the current conditions under which we work and realistically assess the assumptions under which we operate and can be successful.  

The temptation under these conditions, especially with deeply emotional responses of anger, frustration, fear and heartbreak that come with witnessing them as noted above, is to double down and respond by thinking if we had more resources, only worked harder and longer, and exercised more control, we could vanquish the fire. This is reasonable because for many years we have had success with a management system that sought to tame a huge percentage of fires with the sheer force of funding, human power and will. Moreover, society has come to expect this from the wildland fire community and celebrated its well-earned successes. But we ignore the underlying ecological changes taking place at our own professional and emotional peril.

The current wildland-fire management system evolved according to a variety of assumptions that are suspect under the current conditions we face. These assumptions include: 1) wildfire behavior that is always understandable; 2) resources sufficient to support firefighters who face these wildfires; 3) a management system rooted in a belief that all fires are manageable.

We are getting very clear signals that these assumptions no longer hold. 

First, the wildland fire behavior of the past is no longer always a good predictor of the future. This has implications for our mental models for managing wildland fire. It is now common for us to hear statements from front line wildland firefighters who say “we’ve never seen these conditions before” or they are “witnessing fire behavior for which we have no slides in our slide decks” or “this is something that I have never witnessed in my 30-year career.” Yet our management assumptions and socialization rests on a model of believing current fire behavior is stable and predictable and therefore understandable and controllable. 

Second, we have a mismatch in the supply of and demand for resources to deal with the current problem. The demand for resources, especially at peak times during the year, outstrips the supply given the current task definition. The wildfire-management system evolved during an era when the potential for equilibrium between supply and demand was possible. Fires were smaller, climate was more stable, and fewer people lived in the wildland urban interface. The current disequilibrium means we have a mismatch given the sheer amount of wildland fire activity both at a national level and globally. This mismatch leads to negative feedback loops for wildland firefighters, who are blamed for not doing their jobs or not getting on fires fast enough. This backlash results from under-resourced conditions that set them up for failure, as the tweet from British Columbia so poignantly reminds us. Under extreme conditions, there are few things that can be done under human control to address the current challenges. In many cases, we need wait for weather to change; this is difficult for the non-firefighting community to understand and accept. We have become dependent on and expectant of a model that that places the wildland firefighter as the hero of the story. The public is demanding greater intensity of response. But we are ignoring the change in the underlying system that is setting everyone up for failure. 

Transitioning to a more sustainable wildfire-management system is challenging because there is so much inertia maintaining the current system — something known as path dependence. Creating a new and more resilient path will begin by acknowledging the changes in the ecological systems in which the wildland firefighting community works so we can set everyone up for greater success. We need to recognize the ecological system is changing, but we do not yet know into what it is changing. This is very challenging for a wildland fire management system founded on the need for stability to secure appropriate resources to succeed in its mission.  

A more resilient approach would begin by adapting to the more uncertain realities taking place in our ecosystems, acknowledging that we cannot put out all fires, enhancing the shared responsibility for preparedness in at-risk communities, working to communicate these complexities to the public, and devoting more resources to members of the wildland firefighting community for their own professional and emotional resilience as they weather these ambiguous and extraordinary times. 

Wildland firefighters are under huge pressures. The physical risks are clear and present, but so too are the emotional and mental health risks. As if the risks from fire aren’t enough, we are also dealing with a global pandemic. Please take time out to care for yourselves, your families, your work colleagues and those you love and care for. Take strength and confidence from those many people in the community who are behind you and who are supporting you. No matter where you are in the organization, you do good work. On behalf of the wildland fire community, we sincerely thank you and applaud your efforts.

This is my final column as president of the IAWF. Of course, I would have preferred to end my tenure with answers to all the issues I have just outlined. But it is not as simple as that, and, in the middle of a global pandemic, more complex for us in wildland fire than it has ever been on so many levels. Simplistic answers to complex problems are not what is needed. 

Next year, the IAWF hosts the Fire and Climate 2022 conference both in Pasadena and Melbourne, two regions that are all too familiar with the impacts of both climate change and uncontrolled wildfire. This timely conference, perhaps the most important IAWF event in our 30-year history, will bring in physical and the social scientists along with the operational wildland firefighters and managers to look at the complexity of the problem and ask the most important questions: What are we really witnessing? What can be done about it? I hope to see you there.