october 2012

How fire leaders can help the public — and their leaders — engage in discussions key to wildfire issues.

It’s an election year in the United States and wildfires are burning year-round, from sea to shining sea. With fire in the news and our conversations, we wondered, what should fire professionals be talking about when we talk about fire? How can we help engage the public (and their leaders) in the large-fire era?

This year, the United States fire season started early. Or did it ever end? Texas’s traumatic 2011 season closed with rains in November, and by February 2012 wildfires were burning on the Arizona border. The memories of the 2011 season (Wallow, Horseshoe 2, Los Conchas Fires, the Texas campaign) served as metaphorical holdovers from the 2011 season as New Mexico burned again, plus Colorado, Utah, Nebraska and South Dakota … Wyoming’s August fires arrived in June, and by August, fires were burning in California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Oklahoma. The August 7 drought monitor placed nearly 80 percent of the country in some stage of drought.

In the media and conversations, we talk of wildfires and firestorms, evacuations, lives and homes lost, drought and climate change — the winds align with slope and fires race across our wildlands, with the 2012 election cycle magnifying the heat of concern.

Whether you think of the public’s current concern with wildfires as a public policy debate or simply politics, our work as fire managers is more actively framed by the political this season. The debate over air-tanker funding was invigorated, in small part, by earlier reports that some House staffers had hosted an office pool to guess how many acres would burn in the US fire season, with the ties decided by the number of tankers that crash or are grounded. In February, Al Qaeda training materials offered lessons for igniting landscape-scale wildfires as tools for terror, reminiscent of Japan’s unsuccessful use of incendiary balloons to burn Northwest forests in World War II.

There was no need to wait for the rumor of terrorists to come home. Lightning and carelessness, reports of arson and at least one incendiary pipe-bomb, would provide ignitions enough.

In late June, the national map of wildfires in the United States showed fires burning from the East Coast to the West and from New Mexico to Montana. Thousands of homes burned in an uncountable number of major fires; year to date (as of August 14), the nearly 43,000 fires were 10,000 fewer than average, yet the 6.5 million acres burned were up 1.5 million acres than the 10-year average.

Of these fires, two of concern were escaped prescribed burns (with homes and lives lost in Colorado in March, and homes threatened in North Carolina). Other events framing the season: two of the 11 remaining federally contracted air tankers crashed in a single day, leaving two aviators dead. A second crash in early July of a North Carolina National Guard MAFFS-equipped plane killed four and injured two.

At least one message from this intense season is familiar: fewer fires are burning more acres. Yet, this growing acreage per fire occurred in a year when the U.S. Forest Service implemented an emergency suppression policy, aimed to catch fires in initial attack, in response to the effects of drought and budget constraints.

In a presidential election year we publicly review and debate our priorities, often with the priorities shaped by whatever catches fire (pardon the pun) in the news cycle. And while mid-season monsoonal moisture calmed the season by mid-July, fires rekindled by August, making this one of the more active fire seasons during a presidential campaign since the 1988 fires.

This summer is also the first year of many when federal budget limits will directly ask fire managers (and firefighters, and communities) to prioritize how to manage fires with less support — in some cases, with far less support than our accepted staffing levels call for. We’re asking, how do we safely implement a suppression directive with limited resources? How to manage acceptable risks with scarce resources and fires that grow (to apply the often misapplied metaphor) like wildfire when drought, beetle-killed timber, and under-managed fuels combine?


If someone offered up a tool that could recruit, fund and deliver the needed firefighters and planners, logistic support and circling aviation in the sky, we’d order it up in a minute. We have such a tool — call it public opinion, good will, the political process, or just plain and simple “politics.”

As fire professionals, we typically stay safely (and often wisely) within our team of fire managers and out of the public arena — except in sanctioned planning processes, such as while pre-treating or evacuating neighborhoods, or in communication and education programs (think Smokey Bear, Firewise, and others).

There’s good reason to refrain from the political — we’re often not trained or authorized, and for federal employees, it can be downright illegal (e.g. the Hatch Act). Yet there are effective and ethical ways to apply our expertise in the public arena. Some call it “framing” — to engage in dialogues, ethically and apolitically, as experts and facilitators, tooled up with terms and concepts that are likely to resonate with an audience’s concerns and frame the discussion.

This framing need not be (nor should it be) in support of a candidate or a specific policy. When done right, framing connects an audience’s concerns with the communicator’s concepts, using familiar language that lead audiences toward their own insights and engagement. Helping the public talk about the choices that fire managers face today, by talking about the need for fire planning and policy reform, is not politics; this is our job, as much as facing the fire.

A media truism claims that what is selected for print or broadcast (or in tweets and blogs) may shape the discussion but not define the answers. With enough mass in the media, a widely covered topic helps guide the public toward what to think about, not what they actually should think. Media this year has covered air crashes, megafires, firestorms, public and firefighter deaths, and threatened or burnt neighborhoods. Less so the growing scientific consensus that increased wildfire activity may be correlated to climate change, with less than three percent of media coverage discussing the growing consensus that climate change is affecting fire regimes, length of burning seasons, and the intensity of both drought and resulting fires.

Some media are exploring the depth, details and frame-changing elements of this season. In a more policy-oriented focus, the Boulder Daily Camera investigated the Fire Program Analysis (FPA) budgeting process that guides everything from how we staff engines to what fuels projects are prioritized. From the reporters’ perspective, the planning program appears stalled, ready to be reinvented to face the fire challenge.

From The Guardian, Suzanne Goldberg’s reporting highlighted a 15% reduction since 2010 in federal funding for prevention and management of wildfires. And The Christian Science Monitor offered this frame:

Climate change has left vast swathes of land tinder-dry, controlled burns to manage undergrowth have been discontinued, and more homes are being built in previously wildland areas. The result: “Over the past 10 or 15 years, we have more megafires than in the past,” says Mr. Smurthwaite.

The factors leading to more megafires are unlikely to change unless addressed, leading to a sense of urgency within the firefighting community.

Within the political realm, we’ve seen two presidential addresses on fire (one on lost homes in Colorado from the Waldo Fire, one to memorialize lost firefighters). The President and secretaries of Interior, Agriculture and Homeland Security visited  firelines. Both the Ag and Homeland Security secretaries offered statements tying climate change to wildfires.


Framing works, as shown in a few specific results that seek change amid the topics in the political limelight: an online petition calling for health insurance for seasonal firefighters gathered more than 100,000 signatures, resulting in a presidential decision to add red-carded federal seasonals to federal health-care eligibility. A bill proposed by three senators may transition surplus but modern Air Force planes to the tanker fleet, and the fleet of available tankers was increased mid-season.

Think of these framing topics not as policy statements, nor the sort of pre-season “talking points” that agencies circulate to help frame the work of public information officers. Rather, how might our fireline expertise — the questions and insights we raise on the fireline and at conferences — be applied to frame public dialogue about the jobs we’re asked to do.

We can’t offer a comprehensive list of concerns (that is all our jobs), but a primer on framing can help us connect our concerns to the public. A few details, digested from “Framing Public Issues” by the Frameworks Institute, suggest a few techniques.

Their guide reminds us to not start with the claim you seek to disprove — since if you plant the “bad idea” with the audience first, you’re embedding the very frame you seek to disprove. Don’t start with “Air tankers are expensive but worth the cost.” Instead, a “framed” dialogue might be: “When used in initial attack, air tankers within range can help contain costly interface fires. Too few air tankers mean they’re often out of range, and the lack of air support has been one factor that’s led to homes burning — which is both a community and a financial loss.”

The next “framing” sentence might mention the cost-effective way to manage urban interface fires — for homeowners, communities and governments to manage their fuels.

The basic tenets of framing, according to the Frameworks Institute guide, are rooted in three key questions to ask when you seek to communicate on public policy:

  • How do we get people to think about our issues?
  • How do we get them to think about our issues in such a way that they will want to solve them through public policies, not only through individual actions?
  • How do we get them to think about issues in such a way that they want to solve them through our public policies?

Additionally, their summary of research outlines how the framing process works:

  • People use mental shortcuts to make sense of the world.
  • Incoming information provides cues about where to “file” it mentally.
  • People get most information about public affairs from the news media which, over time, creates a framework of expectation, or a dominant frame.
  • Over time, we develop habits of thought and expectation and configure incoming information to conform to this frame.


If framing is a tool, then what topics should we work with it? We’ll leave the prioritizing to you. But to sense how a framed communication process might help, here are a few topics and a scratch-line version of a frame:

(1) Fuels. Forests without fire and fuels management plans may burn with consequences we’ll regret. If we learn from the forests we’ve lost, we can avoid future losses. 

FRAME: America is a nation of forests. We cherish shade, habitat, protected watersheds, and the fuel and timber they provide. Yet as forests age and climate changes, we must act to save the forests and recreation lands we own and share.

(2) Shrinking budgets impact training, interagency coordination, staffing and integrating science.

FRAME: Fires cross borders. We firefighters work across forests and boundaries and communities. But we need to know each other if we’re to help each other. So we train together, plan together and apply the best science we can to face the challenge of wildfire and forest management.

(3) Urban interface. The problem isn’t fires, it’s people living amid under-managed fuels. Is this a valid statement, or have fires and fuels in the climate-change era changed in their buildup and potential intensity? And if so, should we change our strategy, tactics and policies?

FRAME: We’re changing our strategies to manage these megafires. Are you?

(4) Climate change. The problem is fires — and climate change is in part the cause of larger and more intense fires, and longer and more intense fire seasons. Regional or national carbon-management plans might maintain a more stable fuel base, both sequestering carbon (a net value to offset the cost) and mitigating fuel hazards to communities.

FRAME: Our children’s forest will be different from our parents’ forest. We’ve seen change in wildfire intensity and size, and our changing climate is one cause of this. The forest is changing, and we’re working to apply prescribed fire and fuels management to prepare our forests and communities for more fire.


Wherever we want our profession to go, it will involve long-term but urgent policy review and revision. But what we can immediately impact is our relationships between fire managers and their constituents.

When you do, refer to authoritative journalism that covers fire in your area of concern and discuss the policies that our professional organizations support, such as IAWF’s and the Association of Fire Ecology’s statements on climate change and fire. Ask what people think about the recent media coverage. And refer to IAWF President Dan Bailey’s commentary in response to the New York Times’ question, “Does the Government Cause or Prevent Wildfires.” Bailey suggests that:

This debate clearly articulates that it is time for a thorough examination of U.S. wildland fire programs, including the costs, the duplication of efforts between agencies, who is actually in charge, what are we paying for and most importantly have past efforts begun to make a difference? With billions of taxpayer dollars expended over the past several decades, the simple and undisputable fact is that we are not seeing less wildland fire or a substantial reduction in fatalities, homes lost or costs.

Bruce Courtright of the Institute for the Elimination of Catastrophic Wildfire expanded on Bailey’s concern, echoing the core concepts of another planning tool, the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy:

Fire is good and it’s important to be managed for that. But with fuel buildup and climate change — when we get to catastrophic fires, we’re finding the fires are destructive. The soil turns to silica. One million acres were treated [in fuels and forestry management programs] this year, but we need something like 80- to 100-million acres to be treated.

Courtright and others are looking at “innovative game-changing legislation” that might propel us into this new fire regime with guiding law and polices to match the era. And Bailey is sending an IAWF letter to the White House calling for a national fire forum. This is an expanding national crisis, Bailey notes, with “70,000 communities with 46 million homes where 120 million people live, work and recreate … in areas at high risk of wildland fire.” To face this crisis, “We need a serious and fresh approach to this issue that includes an examination of forest restoration and management.” And one lesson to frame from this season: “It’s time to make wildland fire policies work better,” Bailey writes. ”Many in the wildland fire field wonder if the time has come for an overhaul and streamlining of efforts dealing with this crisis.

To paraphrase Woody Guthrie — the century-old Dustbowl singer who would’ve recognized our drought — if this land is our land, then aren’t these fires our fires, from sea to shining sea? And if we are to own these fires, as communities and professionals and as a nation, shouldn’t we, as experts, be actively inviting the public to share our concerns and join us to face our national fire challenge?

(Edited: Online version September 10 2012]