december 2017

THESE STORIES WILL CHANGE US, the lives lost and houses burned, though it may take months or years for us as individuals, much less a profession, to absorb and act upon the change. We bear witness, assemble facts, ride herd on emotions and aftermath, and soon the resonance will surface and we’ll change course to navigate this new geography.

This is the change we are still processing when it comes to the paradigm-shifting fires of the past few years. Wander east or west, north to south, and you’ll land on a locale and a community where familiar wildfire scenarios have turned far wilder. Pick a locale—Chile, Indonesia, Portugal, Spain, Canada, Montana, Tennessee, Africa, and the long-echoing lessons of Australian fires—and you’ll witness fires re-shaping our regional, national and international relationship with landscape-scale fire. And in October, one could almost hear a collective gasp when the suburbs of Santa Rosa burned along with hundreds of square miles of surrounding homes, ranches, vineyards, grasslands, and hillsides. Again we gasped as the fires moved south amd into December, the 12th month of fire season.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn offered a vision of scientific process reduced in pop culture to the concept of a scientific “paradigm shift” (more at In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn observed that the making of scientific thought builds in part on where we place our frame. “The proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds,” Kuhn wrote. “One is embedded in a flat, the other in a curved, matrix of space. Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction.”

Some 55 years later, our science paradigms shift like wildfires (to borrow an over-used analogy), and as wildfires scale larger I sense our practices, some of our policies, and the public may be joining in a more cohesive frame, one already witnessed in fire science.

It is callow to observe that these new fires are proof of prior research claims. So first, let us offer our empathy and support for those who have lost so much. Yet it is the specifics of each human tragedy, scaled up and proofed by science, that make fire part of a new climate-era paradigm, along with its kin—drought, heat, deluge and flood. In part the fire-science paradigm we’ve been building is taking hold because the fires we’re witnessing are being seen with a similar frame, by so many. What has caught hold of us, the scientists and managers and communicators of fire, now resonates with the public and a growing cadre of political leaders who seek to fund what we know we should do, so we can understand (and manage) the fires that demonstrate the paradigm.

THE FLAMES OF SANTA ROSA and Santa Barbara are now part of our frame—call it the megafire paradigm. In this particular issue, we look farther toward the horizon, asking the question—how do our professional practices change, engage with, and seek to manage the evolving challenges of wildland fire? For answers, we explore the process of fire science, with an interview by Michele Steinberg of four fire-engineering scientists, to explore how fire engineering builds on the work of other fire disciplines to expand our frames. We invite Michael Kodas, author of Megafire, to reflect on his path toward understanding this paradigm, and ask long-time fire analyst Rich McCrea to apply the book’s lessons to our profession. We bring safety to the pages (and fireline) with articles on fireline medics and a review of Barcelona Fire Week, which melded a fire safety conference and prescribed fire congress. And articles and columns explore the lessons of our experts—with a closing column from the outgoing IAWF president Tom Zimmerman, thoughts on a challenging season by Mike DeGrosky, and dispatches, written and sketched, from Australians deployed to the Canadian fires this summer. We learn lessons from the work of IAWF award winners, and in our After Action column a firefighter-mother reflects on why she’s coming back to work and how we should support her return—so that “more mothers can love both fire and family.”

Think of this as our “matrix of space,” a paradigm curving together to help us live with fire—our vocation, avocation, and ever more our reality.