april 2016

We continue to talk much about wildland fire management. We know what the past shows us, where we are today, and what the future holds. Each year, we further understand escalating complexity, we gain appreciation of capricious risk, and we take comfort in describing fire management as a year-round global activity with formidable future challenges.

We have seen wildland fire management expand from a single-objective driven program (fire exclusion) to one having multiple objectives responsive to land and resource management plans. As a result, we’ve also seen dramatic maturing in the program basis, planning and implementation capabilities, science and technology, and policy framework. Yet resting on these gains may limit how well the program can meet future challenges. Certainly, our knowledge has never been greater in many areas of fire management — such as the natural role of fire; fire behavior and fire effects; science, technology, and operational capabilities; policy dynamics; and management strategies and tactics. We are proud that planning, decision-making, and management response take place commensurate with knowledge, experience, and capabilities.

But wildland fire management cannot respond to the challenges of the future without actively continuing to grow in its body of knowledge, experience, and capabilities. A passive approach to wildland fire management characterized by such attributes as an over-reliance on past experiences, failure to incorporate new science and technology, continued increases in and support for failed strategies, rigid program requirements, dated training and education, and failure to fully capitalize on lessons learned cannot be endured. We must anticipate and plan for changing situations.

So, is the wildland fire situation becoming more complicated? Frequent news reports during fire seasons foretell of approaching firestorms exceeding anything ever experienced or seen before. Climate change discussions often lead to descriptions of worsening fire activities in terms of numbers, area burned, burning intensities, and duration of wildfire activity. Annual reports highlight increasing numbers of fires, areas burned, and structures destroyed. Many of these things are happening and are complicating management needs and activities.

What can be done about a more complicated program? We refer to increasing wildland fire complexity and risk. Perhaps a review of these areas could help define the wildland fire situation and areas for attention. If complexity is defined as the degree of difficulty in accomplishing objectives, then numerous factors can be viewed as influencing complexity, including:

  • How specific circumstances surrounding a particular fire will affect implementation activities, (such as the potential fire duration, factors affecting management responses in terms of planning, ground and aviation tactical activities and safety, and the management response decided upon).
  • How difficult and involved the decision is for the specific situation (like the type of objectives to be accomplished, specific land ownership, and external influences that may exert strong influences on the responsible fire organization).
  • What the values, concerns, and specific fire, fuel, and weather characteristics are involved.

Risk is becoming an increasingly referenced topic and certainly warrants a prominent position in fire management decision-making. Risk can be defined as the probability and consequence (good or bad) of uncertain future events. Many elements can influence risk and include, but are not limited to:

  • Types and quantities of values in a given area around fire origin.
  • The number of jurisdictional organizations are involved.
  • Fuel conditions, weather, and resource availability that shows potential for significant fire activity.
  • Social/political concerns or other external factors that could have direct influence on activities.
  • Relative effectiveness of assigned resources.
  • Types and quantities of aircraft on a fire compared with workload and historic accident rates to gain an indication of potential accidents.
  • Protection needs.
  • The likelihood that suppression resources (assumes that resources are assigned and direct suppression is the strategy) will achieve progress toward containment or have an effect on protection of threatened structures.

If complexity and risk are an accurate gauge of the wildland fire situation, then increases in these areas power a more complicated fire program. The following simplified diagram of complexity across land uses in and around our wildland areas shows that over the last five decades, complexity has increased. It shows marked increases in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas and management lands categories. Complexity has also broadened from being highest in the wildland areas primarily to now being a concern in the WUI and outlying communities. This is representative of the increasing WUI area, altered fuel conditions across most landscapes, and changing protection by wildland and community fire organizations.

The one area that does not show an appreciable increase in complexity is in the wilderness/roadless areas where considerable attention has been given to managing natural fire over the last 40 years. Such management and fire restoration activities have shown positive effects on fire sizes and intensities (Gila NF in New Mexico, USA; Yosemite NP in California, USA; Bob Marshall and Selway Bitterroot Wildernesses in Montana, USA; and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho and Montana, USA, as well as other National Parks Monuments and public lands in North America).


So, can we say that the wildland fire management program is really a learning program, a knowledge-based program, responsive to science and technology, and a dynamic organization able to meet changing situational dynamics? If it is to meet future challenges, it must be all of this, and more.

A significant number of research reports, national leader presentations, political hearings, accountability reports, strategic plans, and forward-looking plans already state the problem and actions for the future, although follow-up and implementation is inconsistent. A common statement is that the most extensive and serious problem related to the health of wildland areas is the over-accumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable and catastrophically destructive wildfires.

But there are other issues — like why we cannot find a way to effectively fund wildfire suppression in the USA, why we cannot accelerate fuel treatments, why we cannot better prepare communities to withstand wildfire, and why we cannot accept and implement the benefits of managing wildfire where applicable instead of full suppression? When we look at the fuel accumulation situation, its impacts, and our level of commitment to resolution, are we disregarding learning, science, and knowledge? Slightly modifying some of the lyrics from AC/DC’s classic song, “Thunderstruck,” gives an apt feeling of our current state.

We were caught
In a fire matrix way out of whack
We looked round
And know its hard but have to get back
Our minds raced
And we think what can be done
And we ask
Is there any help, any help to come
Plight of the fuels
Fires on the lands
Thunder and lightning
Tear us apart
We’ve been – thunderstruck!!!

We know that the future of wildland fire management will necessitate escalated and diverse actions. We have identified many actions, but have a number of questions facing us. If we are a learning organization, then how do we actively learn? If we are a knowledge organization, where do we get information and how do we apply it? How do we prepare land and resource management professionals to better do their jobs; how do we advance their skills. Can we anticipate and prepare for what the future skills, education, and training needs will be?

The International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) recognizes these needs. We are committed to promote increased involvement, improved communication, escalated research, focused education and training, and active management support to help mitigate future outcomes, promote success, and elevate safety in wildland fire management. The 2016 5th International Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference, co-sponsored by IAWF and Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC of Australia in Portland, OR, USA, and Melbourne, Australia, is being presented to bring focus to the many issues associated with fuels, fire behavior, large wildfires, the future of fire management, and over two dozen other wildland fire subject areas.

This conference is designed to provide platforms to facilitate discussion of the latest relevant research findings, learn about and from management treatments, stimulate policy discussions, and inspire global fire management interaction. They represent a significant step to assist in the proactive advancement of wildland fire management knowledge, awareness, and capability. There will be over 250 presentations and 50 poster presentations of new research information, practical experience lessons, and case studies; numerous knowledge and skill building workshops; on-the-ground learning field trips and tours; keynote and plenary presentations; and panel discussions by notable experts in wildland fire management and those with firsthand experience of problems, solutions, and outcomes.

These conferences represent the single best source of up-to-date focused learning, continuing education for fire professionals, program currency, and presentation of research and new knowledge information.

However, also associated with these events are the limitations that bureaucratic rules and budget processes place on participation both as presenters and participants. Performing as learning and knowledge organizations, and striving to function at the highest professional levels, are limited by such systems. It would seem that the quest for wildland fire program advancement, professional development, and increased knowledge would drive, not turn away attention; and promote not limit involvement and participation. The bewilderment that comes from problem identification with seemingly conflicting resolution and action seems again to render that feeling — thunderstruck.