february 2017

The Doubting Thomases who parley “climate skepticism” into their own self-promotion have joined together into a club, some of whom are moving this month into a few wings of the White House and the US federal government.

As fire professionals, this does and should concern us — as we either engage in and work to shape policy or we are shaped by it. So the national leadership transition in the US — moving from an administration that pursued climate science despite partisan gridlock and to an administration and Congress that anchors aspects of their victories in the obfuscation or outright denial of accepted climate science — has been on our mind as we gather the pages of Wildfire Magazine, because it’s on many of our minds, and the focus of many a conversation at work and among friends.

But before we think of the potential impact of shifting US policy on climate change, and how it may influence our profession, we should think of the facts.

When my colleagues who practice environmental journalism gather to discuss their reporting on climate change, you will often hear a phrase: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

In this case, the phrase is attributed to the sociologist turned senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as quoted by outgoing President Barack Obama in “The Audacity of Hope.”

But a version appears earlier, in 1946, voiced by financier turned presidential adviser, Bernard Baruch, who offered this:

On the question of principles, it is an inalienable right each of us has to express opinions on every policy animating this country, whether national or international. That is the highest function of those who live under a political democracy; of those who cherish the right of free speech. Every man has the right to an opinion but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts. Nor, above all, to persist in errors as to facts.

When wildfire managers and scientists gather, one will hear echoes of this same phrase, whether you are joining the print-and-virtual gatherings that are collated in the pages of Wildfire Magazine and the International Journal of Wildland Fire, or in actual gatherings, such as the 3rd Southwest Fire Ecology Conference, sponsored by the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and the Association of Fire Ecology. This meeting, focused on “Beyond Hazardous Fuels: Managing Fires for Social, Economic & Ecological Benefits,” was the first large-scale public gathering of US fire professionals after the November election. And I was heartened to hear a dogged commitment to correct errors and persist in the facts of climate change.

I took far too few notes for an environmental journalist, but in a concise 1000 words of notes over four days, the phrase “climate change” occurs 10 times in my notes, with the word “policy” appearing with equal frequency (though not always in the same sentence). Oddly, variants on “resilience” and “resilient” only appear four times, balanced perhaps by variants on “resource” and “resource objectives,” which appear seven times.

What I did hear goes something like this, from a wide range of experts whose reputation for being right on their facts.

Elizabeth Reinhardt (recently retired fire scientist from the US Forest Service) offered a baseline overview, as we enter into climate change impacts, that we must focus our actions on the level of risk we incur and might mitigate. “In the arid west, biomass accumulates faster than it decomposes. Fire is an intrinsic, unavoidable component of these ecosystems. We simply can’t do enough to get in sync with historical patterns. Since we can’t hope to do fuel treatment to the extent that there were historic occurrence, we need to prioritize our work. A risk-based approach has potential to maximize our hazardous fuels dollars.”

And Peter Fule, professor at Northern Arizona University, suggested that we not “take notes on what the temperature will be in 2080. But develop questions for managers” on how they will respond. His take home messages:

  • Management does make a difference.
  • Within climate thresholds, future management makes a difference.
  • Fuel structure makes a greater difference than fire weather.
  • Need to use all our tools.
  • For the Southwest United States, we can and should work with Mexican managers and ecologists.
  • We need to grapple with interactions of climate disturbance and vegetation — it is what we have to do in order to adapt to the sort of climate and world we’re living in, in this century.

At the conference close-out, Tim Sexton, Program Manager for the USFS Wildland Fire Research Development & Applications Programs, offered facts but also the sort of lessons that can only be gained by 47 seasons of fire experience. His suggestion:

“We need a call to action. Current actions aren’t enough. Fuel accumulation is occurring faster than treatments.”

In part, he observed, we’re behind because we still suppress so many fires. “Did we really abandon the ‘10 am/10 acre’ standard [in the early 1970s]? With our current 96% success rate, we’re still beating the 1936-39 standard.

“Meanwhile, in California, we’re observing drought-related impact — all age classes are dying. And we may see the extinction of ponderosa pine and replacement by oak savanna or just savanna.

“In years to come we expect to see huge risk to firefighters in the southern Sierra, with more stems competing for the diminished moisture out there.”

He closed with this logic for “Why we must act.”

  • Firefighter safety
  • Threats to public and property
  • Not meeting resource objectives.
  • And asked, “What’s in it for you?” If you find a follow a call to action, you will:
  • Make a difference. You want to participate in solving this “wicked problem.”
  • Be a good steward of the land.
  • Leave the land better for your successor by reducing risk under your watch.
  • Improve your situation for your next fire. (Which he demonstrated with a WFDDSS analysis map – the Cedar 2012 fire burning into Bridge 2007 Fire and diminishing in intensity and spread, the Elizabeth 2012 burning into Black Canyon fire.)

What will our call to action look like?

Opportunism is not leadership but a mere tactic du jour. We need strategies guided not by an urge for power but by science that is infused and polished with our practical knowledge, earned by decades of engaged fire scientists working with fire managers. That is what we should all be seeking — in our publications, as we enter Year 26 of Wildfire and IJWF, and in our practices.

Throughout this year you’ll see our tagline and occasional reflections, with this goal: “Building on 25 Years as a Global Wildfire Community.” A tagline and goal which applies to Wildfire Magazine, but just as much to our sister publication, the International Journal of Wildland Fire (which reflects on its 25 years in their pages and here in this issue too). And it applies to all wildfire professionals, who must ask the question: What will be build in our times and our places, in the next 25 years?

There is no doubt, our profession is living with and leading a frontline response to the impacts of climate change. But are we leading the policy? From the conversations and presentations we’ve witnessed in our conference and in our pages, from the work of IAWF and AFE and so many others in our profession, I sense that we are indeed leading, and doing so successfully.

“Is science shaping policy?“ This is what Bill Kaage, chief of the National Park Service Division of Fire and Aviation Management, asked at the Southwest Fire Conference. His answer was yes, and he added that we should use science “to test policy, to come up with better ways of doing things. That’s how policy is changed. The role of science for why you might do things differently is critical. Change percolates up from field. You have a role in doing that and it must be science and data driven. The WIldland Fire Leadership Council — they base their work on science.

But he also reminded us about “the importance of relationship building with your constituents. Stuff will always go wrong and you don’t want to be alone at that microphone.”

Another speaker, University of Arizona professor Don Falk, observed that “For those of us who pledge allegiance to reality … climate change is a genie that’s gotten out of the bottle and won’t be going back in. On the research front we must continue to speak regardless of policy. For example, we must recognize the relationship between persistent drought and fire.”

Yes, our leadership will be challenged in years to come, not unlike the challenge we face when the wind turns and a flanking fire shifts to a head fire. But we have strong relationships. And in policy as on the fireline, it may be time to fall back to the basics.

Anchor and flank.

With concern for our welfare and the welfare of the public and the management of fire’s impact on resources as well as the benefit that fire brings to our fire-adapted landscapes.