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May 2022 was an eventful month for wildland fire activity in the United States; the southwest and Rocky Mountains experienced early and more-active-than-usual fire activity for spring. 

Prescribed fire, its importance and the controversies that come with it, was in the forefront of the news as U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore called for a 90 days moratorium on the practice following the escape of two prescribed fires that have had devastating consequences in New Mexico. The pause will allow a full review of practices, decision support tools and protocols.

Historic drought added to the expectation of another challenging fire summer, if not the whole year. And yet, as we have often experienced, necessity is the mother of invention. Humans are endlessly creative, adaptive and resilient. So, while the conditions are challenging, they have also provided a living laboratory for innovation.    

At the IAWF Fire & Climate 2022 conference in May, a panel of four speakers representing diverse perspectives addressed policy opportunities and challenges. 

  • Kelly Martin, is co-founder and president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters
  • Bryan Petit, is a senior professional staff member, United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
  • Carol Baldwin, is the project co-ordinator, Great Plains Fire Science Exchange and faculty at Kansas State.
  • Sashi Sabaratnam is program manager, Wildfire Vegetation Mitigation Division for UC Cooperative Extension, founding board member of the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority and a Mill Valley city councilmember. 

I had the pleasure of posing questions to these leaders and have distilled their insights.

Where are we making policy progress and what is left for us to work on? 

The United States has made progress on policies to support living with fire and to encourage putting more good fire on the land. We are making constructive distinctions around what we can do with prescribed fire and the use of wildfires to help meet land management resource objectives. Further, these changes suggest the need for broader workforce development so we have the staffing, expertise and talent needed for a transformative change in how we learn to live with wildland fire more holistically. And we are making progress to this end.  

Martin pointed to the strides toward bringing attention to workforce retention and recruitment. For instance, Office of Personnel Management is working on a new unique job classification that establishes and affirms a professional career progression as a wildland firefighter from “hire to retire.” Pay disparity with similar emergency responders in other fields occupies much of the current media attention. There is recognition of needed reforms to address benefits such as mental health support for people when they are both on and off the job, including affirming Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) support and other physical and mental health resources that wildland firefighters require for peak performance during emergency operations. All these support systems are essential if we are to build the workforce necessary to live with fire, do more hazardous fuel reduction, and put more good fire on the ground. 

But we need to do more. In broad strokes, we know we need more beneficial fire on the landscape. We are overly focused on the western United States and tend to ignore the significant fire challenges in our grasslands and other areas. We need homeowners and communities to take a greater vested interest to prevent their own homes from burning down. And while we have ideas and initiatives to chip away at these, the map of how to actually get there is not straightforward.  

Most fire mitigation work happens at the local level, with public agencies and private landowners working together to identify the local hazards and assets at risk. This can be overwhelming, and local and state regulators need to make sure they are supporting homeowners with good data, inspections, and tools without creating regulations that are at odds with scientific research or that discourage the often difficult community-wide conversations that are needed to inform planning decisions.

For instance, Baldwin noted that smoke from prescribed fire is being categorized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as simply another pollutant, the same as if it were a smokestack belching industrial waste into the air. Baldwin suggested that the smoke produced by prescribed burning, which is critical for ecosystem maintenance, should be considered differently from industrial airborne pollutants for regulatory purposes. Currently, the ability to accomplish the needed prescribed burning is and will continue to be severely hampered by these kinds of regulatory standards that do not discriminate. Additionally, there needs to be greater support for gross negligence law protection at the state level for those who engage in prescribed fire.  

Martin suggested to further develop our workforce the United States needs to move beyond the current low level job classification of forestry technician. The next step is to create a professional career ladder progression, in four distinct career time phases such as entry, mid-level, senior, and executive level jobs. Creating clear and established pathways would greatly reduce the current labor-intensive friction experienced when hiring, retaining and promoting wildland firefighters while also providing incentive for employees to know that when their qualifications increase, they will be eligible for non-competitive grade promotions.

Further, there are many nuances that complicate the federal government’s ability to recruit, retain, and promote highly qualified individuals and keep the wildland firefighting community out of the burnout cycle we are experiencing. For instance, USAJOBs, the federal government’s hiring website, favors individuals with computer access and savvy. This means a potential large candidate pool is overlooked, especially in more rural areas. Many wildland firefighters spend their first 10 years working in entry-level wage positions that require an extraordinary amount of overtime just to make ends meet; this leads to burnout and loss of expertise as these firefighters exit their federal careers for more lucrative and stable positions with state and municipal fire departments. The situation is compounded by the housing circumstances. Government and local housing, if available, can and often does put people into an extreme rent burden. When this burden cannot be mitigated, firefighters find themselves in an untenable situation camping in public campgrounds, sleeping in their cars or having to pay for poor housing conditions. There is no current policy solution, but the wildland fire community could examine the General Services Administration requirement to raise government rental rates to match those of surrounding communities. This arcane policy no longer serves the American public and needs to be reviewed and omitted as a public policy requirement.

What difference will the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law make for wildland fire personnel and current wildland fire challenges? 

Petit was a in a good position to lay out the details on this question and outlined five big “game-changers” in the law.  

  1. Funding associated with PODS workshops (Potential Operational Delineations). PODs involves people huddling around a map and deciding ahead of time the strategies and tactics that would be preferred for future wildfires in an area, including deciding where to contain them. This type of collaboration and co-ordination can facilitate more strategic placement of future fuels work and other mitigation efforts that can be used during the wildfire.  
  2. In the law, the U.S. Congress has made the biggest allocation of fuels-reduction funding available to areas that have finished a PODS workshop. This initiative creates the right incentives to do the pre-wildfire planning. 
  3. Congress provided the largest investment in home-hardening ever, but tied much of the funding to areas that have local ordinances regulating flammable building materials. So again, financial incentives are tied to the places that are institutionalizing the change that is needed. 
  4. The law refocused the federal agencies’ treatments to those areas in which a large wildfire would be hardest to stop once started, and that have communities nearby. This provision will result in half of these most problematic areas of the United States having their fire risk changed over the next few decades. Congress also directs the federal fire agencies to map all of the federal fuels treatments in the United States alongside all of the wildland fires. This information will be useful for fire operations, so the wildland fire community can more objectively see how treatments interact with wildfires and accelerate our learning in a way that is more than just anecdotal about how fuels treatments really work.  
  5. Lastly, Congress required a new job series with a new pay regime be established for federal wildland firefighters.   

Of particular interest to the panelists was the fact that most of the big policy wins in recent years were the products of bi-partisanship, which was notable on two levels. First, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides an alternative narrative of possibility when the wildland fire community typically hears only narratives about the rancor and intransigence that pervades Washington, D.C. Important work can get done when we compromise and maintain focus on common sense solutions. The Great American Outdoors Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law were the result of a handful of dedicated elected officials from both parties putting together concepts they thought others from their parties could support. Second, these successes may lay the groundwork for tackling even more controversial challenges that have eluded coalition building in recent years. 

There are a dozen other bills related to vegetation management or wildfire management. For example, Senator Cortez-Masto has introduced bill to update the list of at-risk communities. The National Prescribed Fire Act would address the liability issues faced by prescribed burn bosses and EPA’s regulation of smoke emissions from prescribed fires. More policy is on the horizon, including bills related to land management plans, firefighter classification, retirement, health and fair pay, response protocols, forest collaboratives, and issues pertaining to agency culture. 

In short, while there are plenty of challenges given current trends with climate change, human settlement patterns, existing forest- and grassland-management conditions, and what these issues mean for threats to people and the places we care about, there is also a lot of creativity, innovation and solutions moving through the U.S. legislative processes into implementation. A window of opportunity has opened and there are many dedicated professionals, practitioners and legislators working to create the building blocks for the paradigm change we know we all need for the next 2 to 3 generations.