june 2013
The eastward spread of the 2011 Hell’s Half Acre Fire is halted by the 1999 Devil’s Storm Fire on the right. Photo courtesy Bob Mutch.

For the 2012 fire season, a USFS “Fire Ban” directive raised concerns that a return to a “suppression” only response to fire would undermine long-term fire management strategies and policies. Bob Mutch responds with a 40-year perspective and a call for communicating our fire expertise.

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“If Americans had a National Register of Historic Places for fire, the Selway-Bitterroot region would rank among the early entries.” —Steve Pyne, “Fire Call of the Wild,” 2012

Steve Pyne penned these words following a July 2, 2012, flight over the Selway-Bitterroot

Bob Mutch, Dave Campbell, and Steve Pyne about to fly the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Wilderness (SBW) hosted by West Fork Ranger Dave Campbell. The flight celebrated 40 years of free-burning fires in the Selway Country, following approval of the White Cap Plan in 1972 by Forest Service Chief John McGuire. Steve was referring to the trajectory of fires in the SBW from the 1910 “big blow-up” to the massive Pete King Fire of 1934 to the recent four decades of free-burning fires.

Despite the historical significance of this “fire place,” the Forest Service’s Washington Office chose to commemorate the auspicious occasion of the 40th Anniversary with a Fire ban disseminated to Regional Foresters in a letter dated May 25, 2012. Due to budget issues, suppression costs and firefighter exposure, the May 25 letter emphasized initial attack as the standard operational procedure. Accompanying the Fire ban was the statement: “We acknowledge, and emphasize, that such an approach is not sustainable over the long run. It would contribute to deterioration of ecosystem health and the vulnerability of communities to catastrophic wildfire.”

So why even go there? The ban was an attempt to extinguish the very spark that keeps the momentum of the Selway Country ecosystems alive, well and healthy, while reducing firefighter exposure and reducing costs.

It actually contradicted the state of fire ecology knowledge and more than 50 years of fire science research, leaving agency personnel with the feeling that they had been returned to a known, flawed, historic “10 a.m.” policy of suppressing all fires, at any cost. Adding to this confusion, after hearing of the content of the May 25 letter, members of the public asked, “If this is not sustainable over the long run, why are we doing it?” The irony of the fire ban is that it actually increased suppression costs and increased firefighter exposure in large western wilderness areas such as the Bob Marshall and the SBW where past fires regulate the size and severity of new fires.

Prior to the July 2 flight over the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Campbell briefed the two passengers from a map

Fire history map of the West Fork Ranger District in the Selway-Bitterroot. Map courtesy Dave Campbell.

that looked as though it had freckles. The freckles were the extensive distribution of past fire perimeters that had accumulated over 40 years of positive wilderness fire decisions. Campbell, himself, has made 260 decisions to allow lightning fires to burn freely in the SBW during his tenure on the West Fork Ranger District. All of those fires produced meaningful wilderness benefits while reducing costs and firefighter risks.

The historical fires witnessed during the July flight were represented by every size, shape and description as they burned under a multitude of fire weather and fire behavior conditions. What we saw unfolding below us on this flight back through time was the repeated scenario of a recent fire being regulated in terms of size, spread and intensity by earlier fires. In other words, so many fires have been allowed to burn in the Selway Country over the years that a self-regulating system has emerged–a system whereby the health of these ecosystems is more within the range of historical variability rather than far outside it. Allowing the continuance of such fires substantially reduces firefighter exposure and costs, both now and in the future.

A Thesis for Enhanced Future Communications

Let there be no mistake about the intent of the May 25 letter to all Forest Service Regions. It was perceived by people in the field as a fire ban and its direction was implemented in a manner that emphasized aggressive initial attack. For example, then Intermountain Regional Forester Harv Forsgren issued a letter one week later to his National Forest Supervisors underscoring the fact, “Our default response will be to aggressively initial attack all wildfires where safe to do so, including those in Wilderness areas.”

In an AP article (8-18-12), Susan Montoya Bryan reported: “This season is different. Now firefighters are
trekking deep into the Gila National Forest with trains of equipment-carrying horses and one overriding goal: snuffing out all fires, no matter how small or remote.” She went on to say, “Across the West, only one fire – deep in the Teton Wilderness in Wyoming – is being allowed to burn (for resource benefit).”

Countering the fire ban could easily fall into the trap of pointing fingers at high level officials and asking, “How could you?” But a far more productive response places each of us in fire science, fire management and resource management squarely in the limelight as those who have responsibility to ensure more sustainable fire policies in the future. Consider how the following thesis might place us in a more proactive communication role in the future:

We, the fire community, have failed to tell our story in a manner that policy makers get it, resulting in the recent enactment of unsustainable fire policies that produce catastrophic outcomes in fire-adapted ecosystems. 

If we want to avoid a repeat of the 2012 fire ban, we need to step forward, individually and collectively, to better frame our story so that policy makers, politicians and the public develop, implement and support sustainable fire management policies and programs. Pyne framed our story many years ago when he said that we have too much of the wrong kind of fire and not enough of the right kind of fire: in other words, too much wildfire and not enough prescribed fire. Professor Emeritus Harold Biswell of UC-Berkeley weighed in on this same topic years ago when he chided agencies for not having a balanced fire management program. He had a “rule of thirds” that suggested that agencies invest a third of their fire budget in fire prevention, a third in prescribed fire and a third in fire suppression. One could debate his proportions based on local conditions, but one cannot argue with the importance of a balanced fire management program.

In the September/October 2012 issue of Wildfire, Ron Steffens provided some useful insights on how we might better “frame” our story for improved understanding by the public. In addition to the public audience, we need to add the policy makers and politicians who have a key role to play. Ron cited principles to better framing that include the need to engage in public dialogue; to act openly, ethically and apolitically; and to use terms that resonate to frame the discussion. He went on to explain the basic tenets of framing: first, how do we get people to think about our issues, and, secondly, how do we get people to think in such a way they want to solve our issues through public policies?

How can we frame the earlier thesis in a manner that provides a positive incentive for all of us to communicate more productively in the future? Such framing might look like this:

We, the fire community, need to tell our story so convincingly that policy makers, politicians and the public develop and support fire management policies that produce a balanced program, sustaining the health of fire-adapted ecosystems while reducing suppression costs and risks to firefighters.

The need to fulfill our responsibility in framing a more clearly understood, compelling and receptive story that will build and maintain trust in our land management is an urgent one. In the same September-October issue of Wildfire, IAWF President Dan Bailey sounded the alarm, an alarm that is emphasized by the onslaught of megafires almost every fire season. “It is time to make wildland fire policies work…,” Bailey said, or see the status quo “… continue to result in larger, more deadly, and more costly wildfires.”

In the need to better frame our story, it is important to remember that at times we can be our own worst enemy. For example, a May 2007 workshop at the Lubrecht Forest in Montana presented the message that wildland fire use is the riskiest type of fire one will ever manage. As true as that statement is at the outset of a program that allows long-duration fires to burn freely amidst uncertain future weather conditions, this high-risk message becomes less and less relevant as the program matures.

The agency’s current emphasis on risk management is conditioning decision makers to the fact that risk implies a negative situation. We must approach risk from wildland fires correctly. It should not automatically project a negative perception, but should be a welcome addition to the information that aids decision making. New tools and technologies now afford managers greater risk assessment and long-term management planning capability than ever before, placing us in a favorable situation to better manage fires.

Finally, as in the case of the SBW, 40 years of free-burning fires have produced the positive situation where fires become self-regulating and low-risk events. That outcome needs to be better communicated to policy makers to allay fears that we may have helped instill in them by our static framing of an emerging wildland fire use program as inherently risky.

Fire Behavior Experience and Science Help Frame our Story

Phil Omi (2005) reported that scientists had speculated for years that natural fires might become self-regulating as burned areas created buffers that would regulate the size and severity of future fires. Also, for years close observers of the SBW fire program experienced a similar gut reaction that past fires were accruing positive interest in the future’s fire ledger. Simply stated: Past fires were regulating the size and intensity of future fires without human intervention. Teske et al. (2012) gave scientific credence to this gut reaction in their analysis of fire-on-fire interactions in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. They reported evidence from remote sensing that large fires generally inhibit the spread of subsequent fires, while small fires appear to have little impact on the spread of other fires.

Byron Bonney framed a SBW Success Story for the Western Region of the National Cohesive Strategy (2012). He indicated that the most important contributions to the success of the SBW program are threefold: (1) allowing fire to return to the wilderness ecosystem to accomplish the restoration and maintenance of resilient landscapes on a much larger scale, (2) contributing to and increasing the safety of firefighting resources by reducing exposure, and (3) reducing, over the past 40 years, the size and intensity of future fires, producing a self-regulating ecosystem where new fires burn into older fire areas.

The numerous fire behavior and fuel workshops at the 4th Fire Behavior and Fuel Conference in Raleigh, N.C., in February 2013 attested to the fact that we know a lot about the fire environment of the ecosystems we manage. We have a depth of science to draw upon as we frame our fire story. I am reminded of one Forest Service intern from Florida who attended the Raleigh conference. He clearly understood his responsibility to tell his prescribed fire “success story” and promised to make it available in the near future. The rest of us need to follow his good example.

How to Frame a Better Fire Future

Day One, Williams Fire. Angeles NF, Calif. Wildfire Photo Finalist by Felix Valle.

First, the Forest Service Washington Office needs to conduct an After Action Review of the fire ban and share the Lessons Learned widely with all partners. Second, management practitioners and fire researchers must become more active in framing the fire story so that policy makers allow enough fires of the “right kind.” Third, heed the call of IAWF President Dan Bailey for an outside review of sustainable fire policy issues (similar to the review that followed the Yellowstone fires of 1988). Finally, return to the strength of interagency partnerships as we frame our story and implement balanced fire management policies.

If we do not rise to the challenge of telling our story more clearly, others will tell our story for us – and we will deserve what we get. For example, author Michael Kodas said in an onearth website essay (Aug. 30, 2012): “…the agency is quickly responding to almost every blaze in an attempt to keep small fires from raging out of control. That’s despite the long-term harm to forest ecosystems and the likelihood that the new policy could prime forests for even more destructive fires in the future.”

We find ourselves in the enviable position to contribute our own stories – to document our fire experiences and science in a manner that produces credible fire policies and sound practices for a more sustainable resource management legacy.

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Editor’s Note: With 60 years of experience in fire management, Bob Mutch offered his insights on fire history and policy at IAWF’s 4th Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference in Raleigh, NC. At the close of the conference, US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced that the 2012 “fire ban” letter was rescinded and a new directive affirming a range of fire responses was issued for the 2013 fire season.

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Bonney, Byron. 2012. “Success stories from the Western Region. The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Fire Program.” Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

Omi, Phillip N. 2005. Forest Fires. ABC-CLIO, Inc., Santa Barbara CA.

Pyne, Stephen. 2012. Essay: “Fire’s Call of the Wild.” 7 p.

Steffens, Ron. 2012. “State of the flames, 2012: When firestorms meet politics.” Wildfire, Volume 21, No. 5:14-19.

Teske, Casey C., Carl A. Seielstad, and Lloyd P. Queen. 2012. “Characterizing fire-on-fire interactions in three large wilderness areas.” Fire Ecology, Volume 8, Issue 2:82-106.