february 2016

As we review the 2015 fire year and progress into 2016, we see trends continuing in areas such as longer and more severe droughts, increasing numbers of fires, and increasing areas burned by wildfire. Disturbing and truly unfortunate events have unfolded and it is with great sadness that we acknowledge that wildfires have affected firefighters and the public tragically and unbearable loss of life has occurred in a number of countries around the world.

Global wildland fire and land management encompass a wide spectrum of situations and consequences. In many ecosystems, fire is a positive factor vital for plant health and survival while in others it can be a primary source of negative impacts such as biodiversity loss, ecological impacts, and social and economic consequences. Increasing wildland fuel loads, expanding wildland-urban interface areas, increasing human caused fire numbers, climate altered fire regimes prone to longer fire seasons, higher fire intensities, and greater fire severity of fire impacts are heightening overall fire complexity. At the same time, demands on and expectations of fire management response resources are rapidly mounting, risks to firefighters and fire management costs are reaching unprecedented levels, and aging equipment and infrastructure are becoming more difficult to upgrade or replace.

How do we address these challenges? The future of wildland fire management cannot be predicted with a high degree of reliability but there is little doubt that we have entered a very transformative time. A review of and an adherence to the wildland fire framework of policies, strategic plans, land and resource management plans, and other guiding documents are important. This information framework varies across political boundaries and organizational missions but universally provides in-depth information and guidance to the wildland fire management program. It frames program planning and implementation and carries far greater value than ever before. It allows for greater flexibility, keeps pace with a dynamic situation, and embodies the state of the knowledge, the state of the art, and latest science and technology.

Fire policy has been quite responsive to changing situational dynamics. It has progressed to a point where it is the most comprehensive policy yet for wildland fire and decision-makers have more flexibility than at any previous time. Accepted strategies are more sophisticated and thorough and tactical spectrums span a wider range and implement multiple objectives; this is extremely important since a viable one-size-fits-all option does not exist.

Large-scale strategic planning is becoming more important and its value in providing direction and setting a national or even international vision for wildland fire management cannot be overstated. National level strategic planning has been pursued in the United States over recent years and has produced the 2014 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, (http://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/strategy/). Many other geographic areas worldwide have also identified a number of strategic recommendations very similar in content to the USA Cohesive Strategy and have been presented at the 2015 International Wildland Fire Conference (http://www.fire.uni-freiburg.de/korea-2015.html – see Regional Statements mid-way down the page).

Strategic thinking and planning must recognize and accept fire as a natural process necessary for the maintenance of many ecosystems and endeavor to reduce conflicts between fire-prone landscapes and people. The USA Cohesive Strategy states its vision for the next century as:

To safely and effectively extinguish fire, when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a Nation, live with wildland fire.

This vision is not only highly relevant, logical, and supportable in the United States, but is applicable in many countries around the world. It can in reality, be viewed as and has been called an international wildland fire management vision. Recommended necessary goals to achieve this vision have been provided in the documents referenced above, and can be grouped into six broad categories: fire management; fire prevention/suppression; science; technology/information systems; risk management; and cooperation and collaborative planning.

These goal areas include but are not limited to the following principles and core values:

Fire Management

  • Restore and maintain landscapes:
  • Wildland fire, as an essential ecological process and natural change agent, must be incorporated into the planning process and wildfire response.
  • Actively manage landscapes across all jurisdictions to make them resilient to fire related disturbances in accordance with management objectives.
  • Improve and sustain both community and individual responsibilities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from wildfire through capacity-building activities.
  • Human populations and infrastructure are able to withstand a wildfire without loss of life and property.

Fire Prevention and Suppression

  • Rigorous wildfire prevention programs are supported across all jurisdictions, cannot be reduced in favor of suppression activities, and constitute long-term efforts.
  • Safe aggressive initial attack is often the best suppression strategy to keep unwanted wildfires small and costs down.
  • Fire management programs and activities are economically viable and commensurate with values to be protected, land and resource management objectives, and social and environmental quality consideration. The principle of total fire extinguishment should be questioned in specific cases.

Science and Technology/Information Systems

  • Fire management plans and decisions are based on the best available science, knowledge, and experience, and used to evaluate risk versus gain.
  • Research supports increased scientific knowledge of biological, physical, and sociological factors.
  • Scientific results and new management tools must be made available to managers in a timely manner and must be used in the development of land management plans, Fire Management Plans, and implementation plans.
  • Updated data sets and advances in technology are necessary to improve decision-making processes.

Risk Management

  • Sound risk management is the foundation for all management activities.
  • Reducing risk to firefighters and the public is the first priority in every fire management activity.
  • All jurisdictions participate in making and implementing safe, effective, efficient risk-based wildfire management decisions.

Cooperation and Collaborative Planning

  • Local, state, tribal, national, and international organizations support one another with wildfire response, including engagement in collaborative planning and the decision-making processes that take into account all lands and recognize the interdependence and statutory responsibilities among jurisdictions.

The following figure shows how the principles and core values of the six listed goal areas can contribute to — and are essential to — an efficient and responsive wildland fire management program.

Figure 1. Wildland fire management efficiency dynamics.

Efficiency is maximized at the top of the chart in the small circle when all the goal areas are incorporated into fire management business. But when these activities receive diminished attention, efficiency decays. A Situation Blindness phase first occurs where it is not know there is a problem. Wildland fire management can move from a multi-faceted, dynamic program addressing multiple objectives with actions based on the best available science to a single focus program of fire exclusion. This occurred in the USA early in the 20th century and is attributed as one of several principal causes of altered fuel conditions and increased megafires.

Continuing on this pathway, the Passive Awareness phase occurs where it is known that there is a problem but it is either not known what to do or no actions are taken. Gifford Pinchot, the first US Forester, in 1899 in “The relation of forests and forest fires,” inferred the lack of understanding and scientific information in regard to the role of fire as an essential ecological process when he said,

“It is unfortunate that our acquaintance with the creative action of forest fires should be so meager, for only through a knowledge of this relation and through the insight which such knowledge brings can there be gained a clear and full conception of how and why fires do harm, and how best they may be prevented or extinguished,” and “Remarkably little attention has been accorded to the study of forest fires as modifiers of the composition and mode of the life of forest.”

These statements reflect the lack of full understanding and that such understanding could improve management, but provides no action to remedy the situation. Continuing to move on from Situation Blindness progresses into the Active Awareness phase. Here it is clear that there is a problem and something needs to be done about it. During these first three phases, actions can easily turn back to a fire exclusion strategy through what can be called the Fire Control Loop. This is where actions are directed toward short-term fixes and represent passive approaches that place an over-reliance on past practices, processes, applications, experience, and state of knowledge.

To move forward, it is necessary to develop flexible policy, long-term strategic plans, and land management plans with clear objectives. Once this is done, a guiding framework exists and the program can progress into a stage of Social and Professional Acceptance. However, in the face of increasing fire complexity and negative impacts, even with a solid framework in place, it is easy to shift to an attitude that every wildland fire is an emergency and extinguishment is necessary. Resistance to change can be very strong at times and external pressures can come to bear and force a return to a fire exclusion strategy – the Firefighting Trap. In the USA in 1910, one of the most momentous fire events and loss of life occurred. Despite what Pinchot had offered about learning more about the natural role of fire, the significance of the 1910 fires fueled statements like: “That the fire menace is a real one needs no emphasis,” and “The record shows a periodic recurrence of bad fires” (F.A. Silcox. 1910. Fire Prevention and Control on the National Forests). This reaction how falling into the Firefighting Trap drove the program into a fire exclusion strategy under the “10 AM Policy” where all fires were to be suppressed as quickly as possible.

If thorough planning and preparation are completed and Social and Professional Acceptance occurs, an active, balanced fire management program can be achieved and implemented. Balance implies program focus on preventing wildfires; extinguishing fires where needed; using prescribed and natural fires where allowable and desirable; managing natural resources and restoring landscapes; conducting research and linking science and technology with management; incorporating risk management as an integral part of wildland fire management; gaining cooperation and participation by all involved organizations; and living with fire.

A well-planned course of action can make substantial and well-needed differences in the fire situation. Long-term strategic planning, patience, and commitment is necessary in order to affect needed changes. Strategies for wildland fire management must be proactive into the future and not just reactive.