june 2017

Our voices were warbling over WhatsApp, one colleague to another, continents apart, when I realized, during one of those pauses when the bytes are racing to reconstruct into voices, that her pause after I said “Swiss Cheese Model” wasn’t because of the balky internet but rather she hadn’t heard of the concept.

I offered this explanation. The Swiss Cheese Model, as I understand it, is a simplified if potent model to understand risk and failure. If our incidents and our lives were a block of swiss cheese, there are times when first one hole and then the next and the next align — hole after hole after hole lining up in this metaphorical block of cheese until you may find yourself moving, in a risk environment, beyond your existing hazard controls and entering a risk zone you’re not prepared for.

It’s a concept that makes a field-worthy image of the complexity that occurs when systems fail, when the small holes become more frequent and larger and more likely to align, and each little step through the cheese-maze (which seem so seemingly safe) can move us closer toward disaster. Little steps and events build an unintended and often invisible route toward catastrophe.

Why I mentioned the swiss cheese model in the first place was because, in my conversation with this far-off colleague, I had heard her recount the outcomes of a multi-year project where the holes in the cheese had aligned for success. Sometimes, the variety of conscious actions and unplanned surprises align for good. Which led to an ah-ha moment for the both of us. She learned of a new risk model, and I realized that the complexity of risk, if managed with alertness to its pitfalls and swiss-cheese holes, might just as well lead to success.

In some ways, this issue of Wildfire displays such a fortuitous “good news” alignment of all the varied routes through the cheese. We offer stories of incidents and strategies that connect the holes, beginning with a reflection on prescribed fire by IAWF president Tom Zimmerman, who suggests that prescribed fire is key to our renewed and proactive steps as fire managers. And with this introduction, we then share witness to such positive steps — to manage the entwined work of prescribed fire and wildfire — in two articles from the US South: photos from the Saguaro Wildland Fire Module’s work in longleaf pine in Texas and Georgia, followed by a report by Michael Scott Hill ( a Virginia native) on aerial ignition as a key tool for longleaf pine restoration. We also profile a new approach to resiliency in the form of a new fire team— the Waldbrandteam from Germany — as this issue’s Fired Up honorees.

Alongside these field reports, we offer Mike DeGrosky’s Thoughts on Leadership, who offers hints on how to lead in uncertain times, with advice on how we must help our teams maneuver around the alignment of more holes than ever — the result of a chaotic political climate. And perhaps, as our climate warms and our fuels and weather align, the holes in our swiss-cheese-model incidents are growing larger, more frequent, and more likely to align. (Though oddly enough, the “holes” in real swiss cheese are more likely due to flecks of hay, and as we become more antiseptic in our cheese production the holes become smaller and less frequent.)

In this issue, we also share guidance on linking the best tools of science and practice, with a how-to on using LANDFIRE fuel data to capture changing fuels. Finally, we begin our coverage of the Cohesive Strategy conference and movement (another key tool for leading in changing times) with insights by Rob Galbraith on how insurance incentives might offer tools to engage communities in their own fire management.

With all this praise for our contributors, I must note that this issue’s production found the swiss-cheese holes aligning in a less than productive way. Some of us (this “us” being me, the editor) found our way into holes aligning into holes — technology troubles, time crunches, travel without internet, a local high water event, and a fire assignment — until all the cheese holes aligned to delay this issue by far too many weeks. And we (I) apologize to those whose messages we’ve delayed.

Our thoughts now are with Portugal

The stories and images gathered here are all about the potential for positive alignment — what might occur if we reverse and offer a retro application of the Swiss Cheese Model. As we share our mastery and “situational humility” of wildfire and bushfire management, might we also be able to craft and share recipes to help us bake risk into a fine menu of resilience?

The answer, we believe, is yes. Yet the Swiss Cheese Model exists to help us understand how catastrophes occur, and that with this understanding we may be able to prevent such catastrophes. Yet for all our focus and action on prevention, there are too many places where the holes have so tragically aligned. This past year, too many places have become symbolic for wildfire catastrophes: Fort McMurray, Gatlinburg, Chile, South Africa. And now Portugal.

Portugal has already taught the world much about fire. Today, just days after so many lives have been lost, it is premature to understand the fire storm and fatalities. What we know for certain is that this loss, like those in so many burnt communities, is the loss of family members and livelihoods, homes and landscapes. It is a loss that is unfathomable yet it is a loss that has occurred, and thus we shall seek to fathom it. To begin to comprehend, we offer an initial reflection on Portugal in the closing pages of this issue.

Like the authors of this reflection, ( for whom Portugal is either home or close to home), I’ve traveled the forests and fire landscapes of Portugal, met with fire scientists and professionals there. What they taught me is that a fire landscape may sometimes teach its lessons with an impartial physics — fire is fire and we must understand, manage and be certain we can escape its physics. Together we’ve learned that the risks we seek to understand and manage can feel, on these worst days, so unforgiving and consuming that we may think we’ve lost all ability to act with fortitude and impact. This is understandable, and it’s a tactical pause we’ve all experienced. But the fire challenge demands that we continue. So we think of you — anyone from Alberta to Tennessee, from Chile and South Africa and Portugal, and wherever the next fire tragedy strikes — and we wish to share with you the strength to manage these fires, and we wish for fortitude in our preparedness and sadly our recovery in the months and years to come. May we master these hole-and-cheese incidents with so many unpredictable holes.

Many of our members have worked through such a tragic swiss-cheese route when the worst holes have aligned. As witnesses and fire leaders, we offer our support. Give a call, WhatsApp or whatever. Or better yet, let’s simply talk — face-to-face. Until we can connect, please know that we are with you.