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Improving outcomes: A researcher’s perspective on large-fire response

Reseacher Heather Simpson asks a simple question: How many wildland firefighters does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer is complex. 

by Heather Simpson

When you lift and turn the table to change the light bulb, make sure someone accurately records the event – provide clear documentation of your plans, objectives, outcomes, and observations.

People say once you get a taste for the smoke in your face, you’re hooked. My hook was a tree candling: the sound, a crackling whoosh, not quite a roar. I felt the heat on my face and shielded my eyes from the glare of the flames. As quickly as it started, it was over, leaving me captivated by the power of the fire. Ensnared by a candling tree, my fascination grows when I think about firefighters’ audacity and how we interacted with and controlled that fire.

I first set foot on the fireground as a 16-year-old girl. Growing up in a British Columbia logging town, I had not thought of myself as a firefighter. Yet in the summer of 1998, I became one. I remember that the Village of McBride, located just across the border from Jasper, Alberta, was under an evacuation alert, and there was ash falling in the town like snow. I called my older brother, a firefighter, and told him about the fire. His response? A question that changed my life: “Why aren’t you helping?”

I borrowed my mom’s work boots and signed up alongside one of my girlfriends. As emergency firefighters, initially, we were more of a hindrance than a help. Logging was shut down during that hot, dry summer and many of the out-of-work loggers were hired as firefighters too. They had skills and experience in the woods, whereas the two of us were high-school girls armed with enthusiasm and not much else. Still, the BC Wildfire Service fit us into its suppression plans, and soon the fire was out. That one candling tree was a non-event in the context of a large fire, yet it changed my life trajectory. More than two decades later, I am still captivated by the power of fire and the courage and capacity of fire fighting.

Relationship to fire 

I have a close and lasting relationship with fire. Fire shares its warmth and light, it cooks my food, and it has purified my water. Fire is welcome at celebrations and birthday parties, and we sit together, camping with friends and family. Carelessly, fire burned me, but I healed. For 10 summers, I worked with fire to remove fuels and achieve containment; I’ve stood up smoke columns and burned the landscape to renew ecosystems. Now, fire takes centre stage in my research. Fire doesn’t think, feel, nor perceive: people do, and people have been left out of the fire-behavior equation.

The fire environment was elegantly captured with the fire-behavior triangle back in 1972, by Clive Countryman, in The Fire Environtment Concept. A symbolic representation of the fire, fuel, weather, and topography interactions, the triangle’s simplicity tends to obscure its profundity. This seminal work obscures another critical variable: the people. Countryman acknowledges that people impact the fire environment, yet he failed to make our impact symbolically explicit. With people external to the model, we can conceptualize fire as the wild other, an opponent to fight. This is evident in our language and our management, and reflected in our research. Within quasi-military organzational structures, we define command and control environments to battle blazes. Yet, our effect is mostly unquantified. We spend billions of dollars globally on suppression every year, the vast majority on large fires. We assume that there must be an effect. If not, why would we devote so much time, money, and effort? As we move past harmful fire elimination strategies and recognize fire as an intrinsic part of the ecosystem, can we see ourselves in the fire ecosystem as well?

Our knowledge of fire has been shaped and influenced over time by past doyens. We can trace the fire-behavior triangle’s iconic symbology (fuel, weather, topography) to another iconic triangle in fire management, the fire triangle (heat, fuel, oxygen). The fire triangle  predates Countryman’s fire-behavior triangle by two decades. These concepts were derived when people viewed fire as a menace – an era with a dogged emphasis on the initial attack and simplistic fire elimination strategies. The fire-elimination strategy was codified with the 10 a.m. concept – extinguish all fires by 10 a.m. of the day following discovery – in 1935. These tenets have reverberated through fire-management agencies for generations. Agencies have excelled at the initial attack and have irrevocably changed ecosystems. With more toys, tools, and technology, it is now possible to be even faster in the initial attack. The question is, should we?

Many fire-management agencies have become response focused. Yet, response (fire fighting on unplanned fires) is part of a broader fire-management equation; it sits together with planning, preparedness, and recovery. When you add resilience, you will arrive at integrated fire management. With our adversarial suppression focus, we continue to escalate our spending on the response, in absolute terms and as a budget proportion in agencies worldwide. We create professional firefighters to headline in a title fight. We ban the community from interacting with fire while amplifying a hero-firefighter culture in a vicious cycle that inevitably sidelines planning, preparedness, recovery, and resilience to post-match commentary.

When I started fire fighting, large fires were described simply as large. Then some of these fires were differentiated as extreme and mega fires (100,000 acres or more). More recently, the fire community coined the term gigafire (more than 1 million acres). Once rare events, these large fires are now standard, with impacts such as smoke and resource shortages felt worldwide. Climate change plays its part in this escalation. It’s also clear that fire-exclusion policies have an impact. People have always been part of the fire environment. We cannot walk away from the relationship because the landscape still needs fire. Integrated fire management is fire inclusion; we choose the when, where, and severity of the fire. We also choose who will be involved. People are integral to the fire environment. To be effective, we need to co-ordinate many perspectives and balance disparate interests.

How many firefighters?

And now I ask, how many firefighters does it take to change a lightbulb? A joke and outwardly a simple question. I ask people this question because their answers illustrate the many human factors at play in the fire environment. My favourite responses thus far: 

“Only one; the firefighter will hold the bulb, and the world will revolve around them.”

“It depends; you first have to know whether the lightbulb wants to be changed.” 

Or a classic that I think we can all understand:

“Seven: one firefighter to stand on the table and hold the bulb, four firefighters to safely lift and turn the table, one to direct operations, and one to record the events.”

One firefighter can change one lightbulb. On a small fire, you put the wet stuff on the hot stuff, smother it, burn the fuel, or create fuel-free barriers and let it burn out. As the fire grows, basic firefighting principles are unchanged – remove one side of the triangle. The challenge is when you have to co-ordinate efforts with other people; then, you need to understand the human factors. With good co-ordination, we share the load and effortlessly lift and turn a table and teach the rookie how to change a lightbulb. 

For integrated fire management to succeed, we need to understand ourselves better; this requires the integration of a wide range of perspectives, which is especially challenging during time-critical events. People belong in the fire environment, and I’d like to see our effect explicit in the fire-behavior triangle. 

The Ten-Fire Project

Historically, response research focused on the simplicity of the initial attack, and thus our large-fire analyses are woefully inadequate. There is a growing body of fire-behavior focused case studies. While capturing fire behavior is crucial, we need to examine how we change fire behavior and how fire behavior changes our response. We can examine the complexity; on the human side, there are helpful tools available, such as the Cynefin framework to evaluate decisions. On large fires, the human factors, ecology, and fire behavior all come together. Large fires burn across borders, and through fuel types, weather conditions, and management teams.  

I have a research idea that is currently a mere spark, yet, in the right conditions, one spark can change the landscape. The idea that I call the Ten-Fire Project is a day-by-day comparison of large fires from agencies worldwide to examine the firefighting response at a division or sector level. Fire-management agencies would each need to contribute information about 10 fires, which would allow the research to step beyond the case study and gain statistical power. With fire, we shape our environment, and our environment also shapes us. A global examination of fire management requires a comparative analysis of our effort. 

The aim is to assess the impact of the human effort. To do so, we have to assess whether one firefighter can be equated to another. Does a South African firefighter working with a fire-beater equal a U.S. hotshot with a Pulaski? What about the cultural context of the agencies? Are the efforts of the BC Wildfire Service, an agency spawned from the logging industry, comparable to the Rural Fire Service in Australia, a volunteer agency that stems from mateship and rural necessity? What can we learn by comparing the firefighting practices on taiga fires in Russia to Indonesia’s tropical fires? What about the myriad countries in which Indigenous fire use has been banned or vilified? The Indigenous voices are still there; we need to listen. We already deploy firefighters and resources worldwide, and we know that fires are getting worse; we need to identify universal and shareable good practices. 

The Ten-Fire Project aims to examine the large-fire response. It would need to be a multi-disciplinary project that examines fire behavior, fuels, weather, topography, and the human element to complete the fire-behavior triangle. If this project were to come to fruition, I’d ask for three things from the people involved in fire management:

  1. Generate quality data.
  2. Share your perspective.
  3. Connect.

The data is what you record during fire management. I use operational data (for example, situation reports, operations notes, plans, resource tracking – the data generated during response) to reconstruct what happened during a fire. I applaud the expansion of spatial resource tracking data, which is valuable for its accuracy and improving situational awareness and safety. I know the fire response needs to be fast. Firefighters often work with incomplete or inaccurate information, and uncertainty is part of the job. Response can be flexible, but research needs precision and accuracy. 

When you lift and turn the table to change the light bulb, make sure someone accurately records the event – provide clear documentation of your plans, objectives, outcomes, and observations. If you know about errors, correct them and then make the data accessible. The value of this extends beyond this idea of mine: accurate records and detailed descriptions make for smooth, effective operations, and numerous other fire researchers ask and answer many questions with fire data.

I encourage you to share your fire-management perspective, especially if you’ve ever found yourself saying, “you had to be there.” Over time we develop tacit knowledge, which is the knowledge gained through experience. These are the skills and abilities that are difficult to codify and transfer to other people. Invite people to experience what you do. Take the time to teach them and keep them safe. To truly understand the fire environment, we need to share the fire. Have a conversation, give a talk, bring a researcher along to a wildfire or prescribed burn, arrange a ride-along for a journalist. Pass the torch.

Finally, please reach out and connect with any number of existing research groups and organizations. My proposed Ten-Fire Project joins a global movement to improve fire-management outcomes. At this point, it is an idea, a spark, a way to start a conversation. We all recognize that the current situation is unsustainable. Stretching fire seasons and the omnipresence of the word unprecedented tells us that we can’t keep doing the same thing, but harder. Let’s rekindle the fire environment and examine our effect on large fires.

About the author

Photo of Heather SimpsonHeather Simpson has hands-on experience that bridges the gap between the scientific pursuit of answers and a boots-on-the-ground understanding of fire. For 10 seasons, Simpson worked as a firefighter with the BC Wildfire Service; she started as a unit crew member and progressed to fireline command roles, such as division supervisor. Simpson now lives in Wollongong, Australia, with her Australian husband and their rambunctious toddler. She is a is now PhD candidate with a rambunctious toddler and an Australian husband, who is examining the suppression of large fires in Victoria, Australia.