Presidents Desk: A New Year and New Opportunities
By Toddi Steelman
2020 will live forever in our memories as a year without precedent. The COVID-19 pandemic. A global recession. A generational reckoning over racial inequity. And one of the hottest years on record.
The year was bookended by historic wildland fires in Australia and in the United States. But those were not the only places to witness momentous fire events. Siberia experienced “zombie fires”, underground smoldering fires resurrected from the previous year, which were driven by record setting heat in the Arctic. The Amazon experienced a second year of record burning in the last decade. The Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, also experienced record setting wildland fires.
In 2021, we will be looking for what our next “normal” will be. I believe we have an equally historic opportunity to reset our expectations across numerous dimensions, including wildland fire.
In 1920 after the Spanish flu ravaged the globe, the roaring ‘20s were ushered in as an era of innovation, risk taking and originality. In many ways, it was an era that shifted the mark on what was possible. And if we are clever, we can once again capitalize on a moment in history where transformational change is imaginable.
Change is most likely to happen when we achieve alignment among what our broadscale culture will support, what our institutional structures (laws, policies and established procedures) are set up to achieve, and when we have individual champions who will drive the change forward.
Culturally, coming into 2021 we are primed for the public at large to be in greater support of change to improve wildland fire due to the attention over the previous wildland fire year and the mounting attention to climate change. Compared to where the world was a decade ago, climate change and wildland fire are more in the news and have captured the attention of a public that is eager to see greater action.
Institutionally, we need to be ready to push forward with the best practices, policies, and activities that we know work. Individual champions drive change in numerous ways and we need to be prepared to continue to learn from their efforts, offering them support, while also pooling our knowledge to mutually inspire each other to maintain the momentum for change.
IAWF is poised to assist in efforts to bring people together through our networks, foster dynamic environments for continuous learning and inspiration, and create the opportunity for a more sustainable wildland fire paradigm. IAWF will do this by holding key conferences in this coming year, such as the 16th Wildland Fire Safety Summit and 6th Human Dimensions of Wildland Fire (May 24-27), which will take place online on three continents simultaneously, the 4th National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy Workshop (October 4-8) in Asheville, NC, and Wildland Fire Canada (October 25-29) in Edmonton, AB.
In addition, new ideas and new voices will be supported through the pages of our International Journal for Wildland Fire and our quarterly magazine Wildfire.
It is a New Year and one filled with opportunity and promise. The wildland fire challenges we face today developed over decades and they will not be changed for the better overnight. Working together, one year at a time, we can bolster each other into not only imagining, but realizing, a world where wildland fire and humans coexist more easily. I look forward to working together in this coming year as we all strive to be champions of driving forward change on this worthy vision.
TODDI STEELMAN is president of the International Association of Wildland Fire and Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, North Carolina, USA