february 2016

When animals gather in large groups, we give them names: a “charm of finches,” a “bike of hornets.”

Crows come in a murder, horde, parcel, or my favorite — a storytelling of crows. In folktales, crows gathered to pass judgment (and capital punishment) on their peers. Other eytomologies claim that this dark side of crows and ravens come from their attendance as scavengers on the battlefield or cemeteries.

After the 6th International Wildland Fire Conference in Korea this past October, I wonder if a gathering of wildfire and bushfire experts should also be called a “storytelling” — though not due to a crow’s harsh judgement or cacophony.

If you work closely with any large groups of animals — firefighters included — one can hear the power of shared stories. And as we gathered this issue of Wildfire, it was the storytelling that resonated.

From the Korea conference, writer Lindon Pronto focuses on the the many ways we might manage “local” fires, since without such management we collectively face a global worry. And it was a global worry that focused the stories (and the science and policy) of the Korean conference into a new fire paradigm, combining fire suppression with fire management with appropriate fire use into “integrated fire management” or IFM. From Korea, these fire messages were delivered to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in November. And the COP21 agreement returns an essential task to fire leaders: we must use fire as an appropriate tool and curtail the misuse of fire. And do so quickly. Before the next IWFC, scheduled for Brazil in 2019, we will potentially cross the tipping point on climate change. It’s urgent that we act on any climate drivers we can. To manage unwanted fires and return the appropriate torch of managed fires to the land is as much “a moral equivalent of war” today as the initial motivation to suppress ALL fires (and too many fires) that first launched US firefighting efforts in the early 1900s.

But fire is not simply a threat to our climate; we lose lives of firefighters and community members, and communities burn, when we fail to manage our human relationship with fire. From years of firefighting experience in the US West, long-time hotshot sup Matt Holmstrom writes of the many stories that collectively offer a new set of cautionary warnings — from tragedy fires, we must listen to the human factors in order to prevent injuries and deaths on the fireline.

A key lesson from Pronto and Holmstrom: wildfires and bushfires are a part of our lives — yet beyond the destruction of ill-managed fire there is a magic in the science of fire-adapted landscapes, and a mesmerizing power in the flames and the work of fire management. Witness the art and commentary by Tonja Opperman, a long-term fire analyst with an artist’s eye, featured in “Fire in the Media.” In our “After Action” column, writer Joshua Daniel Bligh shares a story of redemption on the fireline. One of many inmate firefighters key to firefighting efforts in the US this past summer, Bligh writes: “Mustering the courage to push oneself to his or her mental and physical limit … You discover things inside yourself that you didn’t know you possessed.” Including a career, he hopes, in fire management.

Add our regular columnists — IAWF president Tom Zimmerman offering perspective on strategy, executive director Mikel Robinson on the transition of IAWF board members, and Mike Degrosky on the value of civility in leadership — plus wildfire innovations and products from leading industries in our field … and we truly have a storytelling of firefighters.