Pandemic spreads, balloons fall, fires burn — and from chaos we build order
By Ron Steffens, Wildfire Magazine Managing Editor
CHANGE PERMEATES HUMAN EXISTENCE — in our world and in our profession, and in Wildfire magazine too. As the International Association of Wildland Fire explores its mission to unite our profession globally, it has become time to ask how a magazine like this can best serve our members, our profession and our communities in a global and online era. As board and committee members and so many others help to explore these new paths, I find it’s time for me to explore all topics wildfire from another lookout. And so with this issue I’ll be stepping aside as editor.
Over the years I’ve been honored to support hundreds of colleague-contributors as we’ve shared stories, ideas and images with our colleague-readers and the public beyond. As with any work of art, a magazine is a communal effort, and it’s been grand to improvise a bit of wildfire-jazz these past years. My gratitude would take an entire issue. I simply offer my thanks — to all.
I send my special thanks to all who’ve supported this issue, which explores the challenges of our pandemic times and the many ways we are beginning to adapt our work, our lives and our systems in response.
In rough order, the front part of this issue features IAWF president Toddi Steelman’s reflection on our profession’s response to the pandemic, followed by our always-awesome leadership column by Mike DeGrosky on how to lead by making “good trouble,” a lesson learned from the late civil rights leader John Lewis. Plus we have updates from our profession and our science, and a review of a book on using fire to manage fire in Australia.
Moving into the main features, a range of writers offer three approaches for building order out of our chaos — local and global — while enjoining us to act, and to act together. How can we (and should we) modernize our wildland fire organizations? How can a social-science approach guide us in our response to the pandemic and fire? And how can a burgeoning wildland fire professional’s travel fellowship guide us into a shared vision of how environmental governance may help us face our fire problems by building on our many fire solutions?
THERE’S ANOTHER STORY on my mind these days, a local one, of a strange morning when the terror falls to the ground, like a bird fledging a day too early, and it’s our job to put it back on a safe branch.
This morning felt the warmest of the season, still air with dark clouds flanking north and south. I came early to work to complete the month’s fire outlook and called in-service as Dispatch was reporting a balloon accident, County responding. Minutes later I was en route south to control highway traffic for a potential air evac. Not one balloon but three. A mass casualty incident. IC asking for triage — red, yellow, green? On scene the helicopter was already off with a Red patient, so I offered support as family members were escorted to a van. Leaning on each other, their eyes sharing a deep-stare of shock. Next, I co-led a crew of ski patrollers to sweep the wet willows and aspen thicket to make sure we’d left no one unfound. An ambulance was pulled from the meadow’s mud, the final of five transports plus the air evac. More than 30 folks had just fallen to a field, 11 transported with injuries — and from the chaos, order had been crafted, admirably quick, by folks I’m proud to call my colleagues.
This was not my trained-for job, except anyone trained in incident management may be called to improvise their support for an all-hazard incident. So I supported, nodding and smiling from behind my mask to the families, and doing the same with the many county responders, many of whom I’d worked with before.
An all-risk response is not wildfire. Neither is a pandemic a wildfire — yet somehow the fires we manage can be compared to the spread of pandemic. Fire is physics with bio-fuel added; the novel coronavirus is a bio-agent with us as the fuel. Far different, yes, but both share the risk of contagion and rapid transmission, and the jeopardy of a good day turning bad. And the pandemic can be compared to fire spread because fire is a process we actually know and can see. We feel its heat — plus it’s a terror we’ve shown we can manage, albeit not as well as we’d like. And most of us know campfires and wood stoves, or wildfires in our media or our backyards, or controlled burns on the back forty — while the spreading novel coronavirus is an infection that lives within and among us, invisibly transmitted, signaling its presence with a fever (which we should monitor for twice a day), or by no sign at all.
When we respond to an emergency there are common protocols, yet each vector of our many hazards requires a unique, technical and often urgent response. This response-adjusted-to-vector is worth noting. Even an emergency of some scale — a multiballoon accident, a wildfire rising into pyrocumulus, a flood, a hurricane — can be isolated as an “incident” and managed with specific actions adapted over time. But a pandemic or climate crisis can only be managed with community, state and global responses.
First responders, wildland fire managers and technical and scientific experts are committed to respond to incidents, but in 2020 we do our work amid a societal-scale triage, responding amid the pandemonium of global stressors from COVID-19 and climate change. While we’re assigning a crew to build fireline or drag a drip-torch, we’re also recruiting everyone to work the COVID fireline by, at a minimum, wearing our masks and urging others to join us.
Which is why it’s so important, in this issue of Wildfire, that we ask — how can we change our systems? As Mike DeGrosky observes: “Damn, but I love [John] Lewis’s idea of ‘good trouble!’ Leadership requires risk. Leadership requires courage. Sometimes leadership requires a willingness to get in good trouble.”
SOME OF WHAT I EXPERIENCED in the balloon response echoed what I’ve learned about ourselves and our profession while editing a decade of Wildfire. Should the unplanned event occur — a balloon (or three) falling during our shift, or a seismic social deflation, the pandemic “spreading like wildfire” — we will respond, both in the field and as leaders in our profession and communities
And on our shifts this year (and into the future) we must work to sustain the lands we’re responsible for, and the colleagues and communities we work with. Yet we live in a world beyond firelines and controlled burns — so we also must bust our tails to limit viral infections amid the pandemic; we must support an urgent struggle for equity and justice for all; we must find a safe escape route and know our safety zones for our crew from our current economic and political turmoil — and we must find ways to face the epoch-defining climate crisis as we work our day (and night) shifts, managing wildland fire.
These are giant challenges, but I sense, I hope — and I’ve learned from a thousand and more pages of your ideas in Wildfire — that we will build from and share our profession’s strengths to help make our days better, and safer.
We must do our best each day.
We will wake up, make our beds (or pack our sleeping bags, if we’re on assignment), and put on our personal protective equipment — with some new PPE this year, a mask (or a thick bandana, already familiar fireline wear). And when we get close enough to the flames we can check our COVID safety zone — a fire swatter’s length of social distance — and take off our masks, swing a tool or light a burn, and be home again in our good work, with a foot in the black as we share a smile with the sisterhood and brotherhood, our wildland fire family.