april 2015

We asked a cross-section of presenters five questions about the why, what and what next of their topics.

Here are our questions …

(1) WHY? What prompted your research or inquiry? What is the challenge you’re seeking to resolve? (And why were you the right person to pursue this?)

(2) HOW? How did you frame and conduct your research?

(3) WHAT? What did you discover? And how does your key claim support the conference theme: “Managing Fire, Understanding Ourselves: Human Dimensions in Safety and Wildland Fire”?

(4) APPLY? How would you suggest we might apply what you’ve discovered?

5) NEXT? What do we need to ask (or do) next on this topic?

And here are few of the answers from a variety of presenters, in a variety of formats …

[To preview the entire range of talks, meetings, and topics visit the conference web page at https://inawf.memberclicks.net/upcoming-conferences.]

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Norton Point Fire, Shoshone NF, WY; 2011. Firefighters radio in a burn operation in Div Z with Wyoming High Desert Helitack. Photo: Kari Greer.
Norton Point Fire, Shoshone NF, WY; 2011. Firefighters radio in a burn operation in Div Z with Wyoming High Desert Helitack. Photo: Kari Greer.


TOPIC: Radio Technology Opportunities and Constraints: Using Dramaturgy as an Analytic Tool

Jennifer Ziegler, Rebekah Fox, Elena Gabor, Dave Thomas, & Anne Black

(1) WHY?

When someone keys the mic on a wildland fire incident, to what extent is this like stepping into the spotlight on a stage and performing to an audience who will interpret not only what is being said but how it is being performed? And, if talking on the radio on an incident is a series of performances, how does that affect how people who are distributed across space collectively make sense of and address the risks on a wildland fire?

This research is motivated by the need to understand the human side of communications on wildland fire incidents (beyond a focus on technology), and it engages a “theater” metaphor for human interaction in order to explore the usefulness of asking provocative questions like these to answer questions about collective risk assessment.

This paper is part of a larger project communication on wildland fire incidents by a team of five researchers, three communication professors and two Forest Service researcher-practitioners. Specifically, we are interested in how people communicate to collectively make sense of and address risk while being distributed across space. We begin with a focus on radio communications, although we are not necessarily limited to it. And, we are motivated by a desire to help improve incident safety and organizational effectiveness.

A vast majority of accident reports and other write-ups often identify “communication” as having been an issue on an incident. Often this is discussed in terms of technology: the availability of radios, dead spots, broken repeaters, etc. However, we are interested in understanding the human side of communications, or the interaction as it takes place over the radio and other devices. At a very basic level this refers to what is said (and not said), as well as the context in which it is uttered, interpreted, and understood. But it also includes how the technology enables (and limits) the talk that can take place, as well as how the culture that has grown up around a technology shapes interaction. As a familiar example, the telephone enables two way communications, but only one person can talk at a time, and there is a distinct beginning and end to the conversation. Because these constraints require some coordination, a culture has grown up around the technology such that young children actually need to be taught how to talk on the telephone. And, adults are evaluated not only for what they say on the telephone but also for how they use the technology itself.

For the larger project, we’re interested in applying this logic to radio communications in wildland fire: what do radio technologies (and other modalities) allows people to do (and not do) on an incident, and how do norms surrounding radio use affect what is said and not said? Ultimately, how do these practices and norms affect the way that people working on an incident share important information and make sense of what each other is saying in order to understand and manage risk?

(2) HOW?

For this particular paper, we are assessing the “theater” metaphor for communication for its usefulness in helping us to study the human side of radio (and other) communications on wildland fire incidents. For example, when someone keys the mic on the radio on an incident, to what extent is that like “stepping on stage”? How does being aware that others are listening shape a person’s “performance”? The specific research question we are asking – “what is the dramaturgy of radio communications in wildland fire?” – was actually inspired by an offhand comment made by a theater professor friend years ago: “What is the dramaturgy of…” struck me as an interesting way to ask a research question. A subsequent Joint Fire Science Program call for new approaches to risk assessment in wildland fire, along with renewed interest in radio communications in recent high profile incidents, provided the opportunity to study it.

(3) WHAT?

Although many academics regard a theater metaphor to be useful for understanding human interaction, not surprisingly they don’t all agree on what it means and how it should be applied. Therefore, in this paper we review these different approaches and asses their usefulness for helping us to understand the human side of radio communications in wildland fire. For example, some theorists view all social life as essentially scripted such that the most interesting thing to study is how we manage to coordinate our various scripts at all. Others see a bit more creativity in human interaction and find drama to be a useful tool for breaking down what is said into act, scene, actor, etc., for analysis. Still others view performance itself as cultural practice, directing our attention to practices like repertoire, rehearsal, expertise, standards for evaluation in a culture: What does an excellent performance sound like and how do people learn how to do it?

(4) APPLY?

Identifying strong performances may lead to practical recommendations for training people how to talk over the radio. Unpacking how communication works and helping the fire community to understand its own communication practices can have practical applications in incident management, leadership development, and organizational practice. Finally, making careful distinctions among ways of thinking and talking about communication, as well as clarifying methods for studying it in the future, can contribute to the practice of research itself.

(5) NEXT?

This research will result in a set of propositions regarding the usefulness of regarding radio talk as performance. Therefore, the next step would be to test these propositions by applying them to data from actual wildland fire incidents.

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At the Large Fire Conference in Missoula, MT, partiicipants tour a forest restoration site. The tour offers one example of how scientists, managers, and other stakeholders produce and share scientific information for decision-making. Photo: Melanie Colavito.


TOPIC: Connecting Science and Decision-Making in Wildland Fire Management

Melanie Colavito

(1) WHY?

As wildfire professionals, scientists, and policy makers, we are increasingly encountering novel and challenging scenarios with respect to fire. And the social and ecological uncertainties presented by climate change, extreme drought, and large wildfires continue to mount up. In order to make effective decisions about fire management in this context, it is critical that we have access to relevant and usable scientific information. However, it can be challenging to effectively link scientific information with decision-making and management action due to issues ranging from poor communication of science to organizational limitations and barriers that prevent the effective incorporation of science and many more. To that end, my research is concerned with identifying the most effective ways to develop and apply scientific information for decision-making and on-the-ground management. The goal of my research is to better understand how scientists, managers, and other stakeholders produce and utilize scientific information for decision-making. I am also working to identify strategies that facilitate the effective development and application of scientific information for management, especially for issues with which there is still a great deal of uncertainty such as fostering resilience to rapidly changing environmental conditions. This research is part of my dissertation as a PhD student in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. I will be sharing my results in a variety of formats that may be useful to different audiences.

(2) HOW?

In order to better understand how scientists, managers, and other stakeholders both produce and utilize scientific information, I conducted interviews following a workshop called “Fostering Resilience in Southwestern Ecosystems: A Problem Solving Workshop”, which was hosted by the Southwest Fire Science Consortium. The purpose of the workshop was to help managers, scientists, and other stakeholders better understand and identify ways to foster resilience, especially with respect to fire. I conducted interviews with 9 managers, 8 scientists, and 4 stakeholders who work for non-profit or private organizations. The interview questions encouraged respondents to identify barriers and opportunities for developing and applying science for decision-making, especially with respect to resilience and fire management. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed for key themes and patterns.

(3) WHAT?

This research revealed that scientific information is used in both formal and informal ways in decision-making and management. Formal use of scientific information could include referencing scientific studies in planning documents, while informal use of scientific information could include loosely applying science-based concepts in the field. My analysis revealed numerous obstacles to effectively applying scientific information in decision-making and management. Additionally, obstacles to effectively developing scientific studies to directly address management questions and needs were identified. These obstacles are a result of institutional requirements and limitations, as well as personal preferences and approaches, for scientists and managers alike.

To that end, I identified two main types of scientific information needs, including the need for entirely new research to address evolving concerns, as well as the need for more effective communication of existing research. Each of these scientific information needs has its own pathway for informing decision-making and management action. Additionally, this research revealed advantages and disadvantages of different science communication strategies, including written and verbal approaches.

In sum, my research shows that the effective development and application of scientific information for decision-making and fire management requires ongoing engagement between researchers, mangers, and other stakeholders before, during, and after research. Research needs to be developed according to common goals and designed to meet those goals while allowing all contributors to focus on their strengths and skills. This discovery supports the overall conference theme by helping us understand how to effectively connecting scientific information with decision-making about wildland fire.

(4) APPLY?

Applying the lessons learned from this research can be relatively simple. Most notably, it is important for scientists and managers to spend time together on the ground or in the field.

Researchers need to better understand managers’ concerns and needs, and managers need to better understand the scope and pace with which researchers can address their questions. Other structured opportunities to interact in-person, like workshops and meetings, are also critical for effectively connecting science and decision-making. It is also essential to develop open and sustained lines of communication and to be clear and consistent about what one can or cannot contribute to addressing a particular scientific or management question.

(5) NEXT?

The next step is to identify examples in which researchers and managers have successfully worked together to develop and apply scientific information to address management questions for wildland fire. By sharing success stories, lessons learned, and approaches that have worked in different contexts, future collaborators can identify the strategies that will work best in their own unique context. Future research on this topic should seek to identify concrete ways to facilitate ongoing communication and in-person engagement between researchers, managers, and other stakeholders.

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Workshop participants exploring burn sites. Photo: Andi Thode.


TOPIC: Fires of Change: Art, fire and community in northern Arizona

What happens when you bring artists, land managers, and scientists together and ask them to camp on the North Rim and talk about fire? That’s what we wanted to find out. Turns out, really good things emerge.

Carolyn Kimball, Collin Haffey, Andrea Thode, Barbara Wolfson

Fires of Change is a collaborative project with the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, the Flagstaff Arts Council, and the Landscape Conservation Initiative (LCI) funded by the Joint Fires Sciences Program and the National Endowment for the Arts. It aims to translate the complex social and ecological issues surrounding wildfire science and management into art. Our hope is that art will educate and invigorate people about the beauty and ecological necessity of wildfire. As climate change shifts the historic fire, vegetation, and hydrological dynamics of the Southwest, we are trying to create a fire culture that is acutely aware of the impact that human activity has on the ecological checks and balances that have developed in the Southwest.

Through a competitive process the Flagstaff Arts Council selected 11 talented artists who work with a variety of media. In September, we ventured with this group of artists to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where numerous fire managers, ecologists, and fighters, spoke with us about the past, present, and potential futures of fire in the Southwest.

Perhaps more than anything, the participating artists were asked to engage with the complexity surrounding fire. They grappled with conundrums about smoke impacts on visibility and respiratory health, the challenges associated with managing fire in the wildland urban interface, how to cope with the effects of decades of fire suppression, and how to manage fire in the context of changing climate and the potential for dramatic shifts in ecosystem type. A challenge the artists took head on, taking in a semesters worth of information in only a few days. Next they will face the even bigger challenge of turning that information into a work of art.

Our understanding of fire has come a long way since Smokey Bear’s “all fire is bad fire” message was first rolled out, yet few Westerners fully understand the nuance of fire and how pivotal it is to ecosystem health, and the health of communities that depend on the services those ecosystems provide. Indeed, the effects of fire are seen everywhere on these landscapes; without fire the stunning ponderosa pine forests we treasure wouldn’t exist. As Collin Haffey, former LCI student and current USGS Jemez Mountains Field Station fire ecologist points out, it’s time for us to not just tolerate fire as a necessary evil, but to celebrate it as the crucible that has made Western landscapes and people ruggedly beautiful and unique.

The artists have a deeper understanding of fire and they are invested in the idea of communicating about fire science and conservation issues in innovative ways. After spending three days drinking from a firehose of information about fire history, different vegetation types, ecology, and the social implications of different fire management decisions, they began distilling what they’d heard into eye-opening and insightful works of art.

Back at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, we sat with the artists in a circle of folding chairs, each of them describing their initial responses to the week and discussing what they’d begun envisioning for the art they’ll be creating over the coming months. The ideas that they are incubating are fantastic, and it was an amazing experience to see them unfold in front of everyone. The lenses through which they see the world are so different from many scientists and managers, which is precisely why we believe this exercise in interdisciplinary understanding and communication is so valuable. Their perspective on these issues is fresh and creative and not bogged down in the day-to-day bureaucratic headaches that have clouded our vision of the future of conservation. This serves as a reminder to challenge our assumptions about what is possible for the future of managing our public lands and resources.

The Fires of Change art and science exhibit at Coconino Center for the arts will open to the public on September 4, 2015, running in conjunction with the Flagstaff Festival of Science and closing on October 31, 2015. Please check out the project video. Between now and the exhibit opening, we will have periodic blog updates at L-C-Ideas to highlight the progress of each of the individual artists who are taking part, so please check in for more!

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A mural on the side of Bombeiros Voluntarios de Almocageme, Portugal, commemorates the work of  forest firefighters. Photo: Ron Steffens
A mural on the side of Bombeiros Voluntarios de Almocageme, Portugal, commemorates the work of forest firefighters. Photo: Ron Steffens


TOPIC: Wildfire risk management in Europe — the challenge of seeing the “forest” and not just the “trees”

Fantina Tedim (Portugal), Vittorio Leone (Italy), and Gavriil Xanthopoulos (Greece)

(1) WHY?

In Europe, the fire suppression oriented approach (command and control chain approach) is not able to reach the roots of wildfire problems as it is an asymmetric approach acting symptomatically and not etiologically. Even though it has been able, for the time being, to stop the increase in annually burned area, it has not been able to address the diversity and complexity of fire causes which are the result of various social processes and to prevent the appearance of extreme fire events that result in major disasters.

This approach neglects the importance of the relation of social systems with fire, on which control activities are often imposed with a costly top-down approach, based on an urban-centric perspective that all fires are bad. This has eroded the traditional capabilities of people to manage space and reduce fire hazard which was common in the past, when fire control was not existent. In that time wildfires rarely affected large areas, although their containment was carried out by countrymen with simple tools.

Signs of the necessary change in European countries wildfire policies are already going on but they still focus on “trees” (the discrete factors) and not on the “forest” (the entire social-ecological system), i.e. not following a holistic perspective of problem solving.

The pervasive reach of human activities and interests in earth’s systems, makes wildfires inherently and dialectically tied to social systems (Coughlan, 2015, pers. comm.). It is necessary to get a better knowledge of the interdependencies between fire, landscape, climate, communities and societies. Without this knowledge it is unlikely to develop integrated and efficient strategies and measures to contain the possibility that fire can became a detrimental disturbance or hazard.

This knowledge is particularly important in Europe, where the small geographic scale, the presence of historical, diffuse cultural landscapes and of cultural heritage of the past, the high density of conservation areas and habitats of community interest and the relatively reduced extent of forests, must co-exist with new trends in settling, lifestyle, and recreation demand, that play complementary roles in the development and thus the management of wildfire risk.

Our challenge was to identify a feasible, new model geographically coherent with the wildfire/society problems in order to solve the surge of wildfire, supported by an adequate governance structure.

Our research resulted in a comprehensive conceptualization able to develop innovative nature and social based solutions integrating landscape and the social matrix at a territory level. Fire smart territory is the theoretical model we propose.

The serious issues associated with the current erroneous approach cannot be identified and pointed out easily by people approaching wildfires solely from the perspective of fire suppression. A broader perspective is required. The complementarity between the authors in regard to their specialization (geography, forestry, forest fire science) and experiences in forest fire research and management, allow them to see the flaws in adopting sectorial and short-term approaches unable to understand and predict the complexity and the dynamics of the “forest”.

(2) HOW?

We framed our research to European Union Member States, where we live, also considering the difference in social behaviours, cohesion, individualism or collective feelings of belonging which characterize our respective countries. The geographical geo-political space to which our model of fire smart territory applies is therefore the European Union, although the concept could be exported and adapted in other situations. We underline that territory and not landscape is our target, because the territory is the dynamic reflection of communities in the geographical space whereas landscape is the result of perception.

(3) WHAT?

Considering wildfire as a socio-ecological disturbance or a socio-ecological hazard promotes the achievement to coexist with it. On the opposite, considering it as a natural hazard, reinforces the perception of wildfire as an unavoidable event of nature (which is the support to the dominant suppression approach of fighting fires) which can be hardly explained when at least 95% of the fires in Europe are man-made; In this context the challenge is not “re-naturalized” fire but to find and match its role as both an ecological process, a land management tool and a tool for survival and well-being of several communities in sustainable ways. It is not possible to restore fire as a wide scale natural process in Europe, given the fine mosaic of landscape, and not least the difficulty of acceptance by politicians and stakeholders. We must on the contrary, exploit the capacity of social-ecological systems to coexist with an attenuated and mitigated wildfire regime, given the impossibility of eliminating wildfires. Fire in the Mediterranean is an unavoidable cultural and ecological phenomenon, but an avoidable catastrophe (FAO 2008).

We think that firewise communities, fire adapted communities, fire smart communities, fire smart landscape, are “patchy” and at a small scale models : referring to territory, as we propose, means to rely on communities and on their connate capacity of management and modifications of landscape connectivity at a wider scale.

We propose to take advantage of the residual capabilities of rural peoples to manipulate fire in a knowledgeable way. This demands many changes in the general perspective, first of all deleting the anti-fire bias which characterizes our conflictive relationship with fire, thus hampering relying on it as a beneficial and economic tool. The negative perception of burned landscape, amplified and magnified by mass media, is often at the base of prioritizing the suppression oriented approach, which is more politically expedient because of its visibility, leaving the local communities more exposed to wildfire attacks should the defence apparatus fail its intervention (Huffman 2014).

The fire smart territory model tries to reframe the relationship between society and territory, where fire use has been an integral component of the human livelihood. It tries to reduce fire incidence by making a wise and knowledgeable fire use a broad, allowed and accepted practice, and not by putting fire out of law.

Our model strategy is conceptually similar to scorched earth, which means to reduce by a multiplicity of tools and coordinated interventions by involved local communities, at territory level, the general fire-spread potential at a point where the suppression apparatus can easily intervene and successfully cope with it.

We propose society-based solutions through the valorisation of communities’ capacities, resources and traditional knowledge supported by a bottom-up approach. Our proposal promotes the coexistence with wildfires limiting and decreasing its impacts on society and reversing the increasing trend of fire-prone landscapes. This is fully in line with the Conference theme.


We sketched guidelines for the operational implementation of fire smart territory in Portugal the most fire-prone country in Europe, in the frame of a proposal for a project called FIREXTR that we submitted to the Portuguese Science Foundation (FCT). This, as we hope, will permit to shift from the theoretical model to an operational one, where the problem is mainly in terms of governance, since all the transformations, adaptations of the living spaces must be understood, accepted and executed by local communities, in the perspective of shifting from a check list of actions to be done to an organized process of capacities development and raising awareness.

We want to popularize simple solutions, neither spectacular nor complicated ones, but nature based solutions, in which a wise fire use recovers a role and the dignity of resource, and a tool to improve livelihood. This will be a shift from the permanent condition of criminalised practice in which urban-centric perspective confined fire use. This means to understand it, to raise awareness of people in the rural space but first of all to consider the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) as a resource. Thus, they will be recovering their TEK in manipulating fire in a knowledgeable manner, limiting risks and making fire a useful and cheap tool of modification of landscape connectivity: this means to profit of agricultural practices (straw burning, elimination of residues, pasture regeneration with fire, shrubs elimination, but mainly ploughing) integrating them in a planned way with forest landscape management, prescribed burning in crucial sites, different scheduling of agricultural activities, use of grazing as integrative tool to reduce fire hazard and avoiding blanket forestry cover for industrial purposes. All this means to reshape the pattern of land-use and uniformly reduce fire hazard.

(5) NEXT?

We ask to review the anti-fire bias and to accept that coping with a phenomenon which is mainly anthropogenic can be done with and not without or, worst, against people.

Sustainable coexistence with wildfire is both a process and a long-term goal, such that policy, planning and management are adapted and refined through time (Moritz et al. 2014) but mainly demands that wildfire management is declared and politically accepted as a priority. The most difficult step is to motivate political structures to change from the command and control chain model to a new one, a community-based model, and shifting from fire suppression tactics to long term strategies.

Fire-related problems must be considered in the context of coupled socioecological systems (SESs), since sustainable solutions to most environmental problems will be impossible if the links and interdependencies between humans and ecosystems are ignored (Moritz et al. 2014; Paton et al. 2014; Pyne, 2007).

[For references see the online version of this article.]