IAWF Issue Papers
The Board of Directors of the International Association of Wildland Fire have developed a range of Issue Papers that engage discussion of the key issues facing our profession today: Climate Change, Extreme Fires, Fire Suppression, Competing Resources and International Cooperation.
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POSITION PAPER ADVOCATES LONG-TERM USE OF APPLIED FIRE
The International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) is an independent, nonprofit organization. For more than 30 years, the IAWF has facilitated global communication on wildland fire and provided objective leadership through a neutral forum of diverse experts who consider and address all important, and at times controversial, wildland fire issues. IAWF membership spans all continents; the association is a primary global voice of wildland fire personnel, land managers, and scientists. IAWF’s goal is to tackle contemporary issues confronting wildland fire communities to achieve a sustainable wildland fire paradigm.
1. OVERVIEW AND PURPOSE
This IAWF position statement articulates the critical importance of intentional burning as a landscape management tool, including the skilful application of fire to meet multiple resource objectives.
For almost 400 million years, fire has shaped our planet. Humans have used fire for millennia – for land clearing, cultural practices, agriculture, hunting, migration corridors and travel pathways, and even warfare.
Across the globe there are multiple perspectives on human-environment relationships and the role of fire, and the notion of prescribed fire incorporates western perspectives on nature combined with scientific principles and methods. Prescribed fire is applied for a range of outcomes that can include managing fuels, maintaining a carbon balance, ensuring the supply of clean water, sustaining ecosystems and conserving biodiversity.
Globally diverse Indigenous groups may have different understandings of the interconnectedness of fire, people and other phenomena and those viewpoints and insights shape their use of fire for particular cultural purposes.
Contemporary uses of fire for land management broadly fit into three categories:
• fuels management (often called prescribed burning or hazard reduction burning);
• landscape and ecosystem management (often called prescribed fire);
• Indigenous cultural fire practices. (Note: many Indigenous, First Nations or Aboriginal Peoples do not consider cultural burning to be a category of prescribed fire.)
According to a 2013 article “Perspectives of prescribed burning” by Jeremy Russell-Smith and Richard Thornton, in Frontiers in the Ecology and the Environment, the use of fire for land management has been controversial almost everywhere it has occurred, for various reasons, from the impact of smoke on human health and agriculture to the anti-logging position that fires are visible symbols of post-harvesting debris removal.
For humans to aid ecosystems in adaptation to climate change and mitigate the impact of changed fire regimes on landscape values, the role of fire as a management tool must increase in importance.
Climate models predict drying and warming trends across many parts of the world. According to the “Sixth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2021,” the trends are likely to exacerbate wildfire risk, both the likelihood of fire and extreme fire consequences. Warming and drying trends will have a significant impact on the use of prescribed fire as the only broad-area management tool. It is predicted that around the globe, traditional weather windows for prescribed burning will shift and change.
2. AIMS, EFFECTIVENESS AND ISSUES ASSOCIATED WITH TYPES OF PRESCRIBED BURNING It is widely accepted by wildland-fire managers that burning vegetation, whether through prescribed burning or leaving an appropriate wildland fire to burn, can mitigate the negative impacts of wildfire.
Challenges to conducting prescribed fires include funding, workforce capability and capacity; lack of comfort among residents with fire and smoke; and in some countries, fines for smoke pollution. In addition, many agencies are risk averse (often as a result of an escaped prescribed burn) and reluctant to allow prescribed burns, based on political and social fear. Increasing the application of prescribed burning, in some regions, will necessitate broad agency interaction to balance the risk of poor air quality from a wildfire with the risk to air quality and health under conditions during which prescribed fire can be used. Social science research can, and has, advanced the understanding of the barriers to and opportunities for prescribed fire for landowners and the public. Prescribed burning can reduce the severity of future fire behaviour, create safer communities, increase the potential success of containment efforts for wildfires, improve biodiversity, and maintain and improve the health and resilience of ecosystems.
Prescribed burning can be completed at scales ranging from small site-specific projects of less than five hectares to large, landscape burns totaling more than 50,000 hectares, with a treatment range from single to combinations of burns with various aims, and single to multiple applications over several years.
Prescribed burns can be carried out over multiple jurisdictional boundaries involving many landowners and managers. The common goal is to enable more successful landscape outcomes, which often requires significant political and social awareness for the expanded use of wildland fire to minimize fuels, support biodiversity and adapt to climate change.
i. Fuels / hazard reduction
The purpose of this type of prescribed burning is to reduce fuel levels (fuel hazard, change in structure and continuity, decrease fuel load) to
:a. enable easier control of fires during an initial attack
b. reduce the likelihood of fire ignitions (for example, roadsides)
c. improve community and firefighter safety, and reduce potential economic losses
d. provide areas of decreased fire intensity and reduced ember production for safer firefighting operations, including backburning and burnout, for increased opportunities for containment and operational safety
e. reduce fire exposure and potential impact on firefighters, biodiversity, cultural values, communities, assets, and key infrastructure.
f. minimize the potential for large fire runs.
Wildland fire managers have developed and refined prescribed fire as one of several modern and efficient tools to reduce future wildfire intensity and severity. While climate change is altering some of the parameters, prescribed burning remains a critical process in managing the future impacts of wildfire on our landscapes and communities.
Although prescribed fires can reduce the severity and intensity of future wildfires, the level of effectiveness decreases under extreme hot, dry, and windy weather conditions. Under these conditions the fire and atmosphere are coupled and therefore promote increased drying of fuels, fire spotting, and the generation of pyro-cumulous and pyro-cumulonimbus clouds.
Most wildfire incidents occur under moderate conditions during which litter and understorey / fuels are the primary driver of fire behaviour. The impacts of such fires can be substantially mitigated if there is an existing network of fuel reduced areas. Between 95 per cent and 98 per cent of fires are brought under control during the initial or extended attack.
A case study of the 2003 fires in Victoria, Australia, showed that reduced fuel hazard decreased fire severity sufficiently to lessen impacts on wildlife, soil, water and cultural values compared to the impacts of the same fire burning through heavy fuels, and even a wildfire burning under extreme conditions.
Managing any parcel of land for multiple values will cause potential conflict in many cases, so tradeoffs between values are necessary. For example, burning will favour some species over others. Equally, more frequent burning to protect watersheds, critical infrastructure or residential areas will have a negative impact on some species and biodiversity.
Another tradeoff is the impact of a prescribed burn measured against the severe and devastating impacts of a future wildfire. Even if a prescribed burn has some substantial undesirable effects, these should be evaluated against the damage potential of an uncontrollable wildfire.
There is a possibility that prescribed fire implemented for hazard reduction will have negative effects on biodiversity or other values if prescribed fire is too intense, too frequent or conducted in an inappropropriate season. So, planning with local land managers is essential. It is also important to monitor fire effects after a burn, so practices can be improved. Decisions to conduct prescribed burns depend on the values managed in a particular landscape or a management unit, and tradeoffs between those values, which should be considered in the context of the larger ecosystem and over multiple timescales.
An additional complexity of prescribed burning is reaching a consensus on smoke management with communities and the organisations that are responsible for air quality. Smoke from wildfire significantly impacts human health and is associated with an increased risk of respiratory and heart morbidity, as reported in a 2015 literature review of 61 epidemiological studies linking wildfire and human health. Additionally, a 2018 report in the Medical Journal of Australia acknowledged that smoke from planned burning impacts human health and argued for factual discussions about the role of prescribed fire in risk reduction, while considering the health burden associated with fire smoke.
Managing the effects of smoke on human health is a complex problem. Agencies and affected groups need to enter a discussion that includes bushfire practitioners and managers who are able to influence burning operations. The IAWF suggests a re-focused, balanced comparison that considers the totality of risks and benefits of prescribed burning, rather than unrealistic smoke or no-smoke comparisons. It would be beneficial to contrast possible levels of smoke during prescribed burning and wildfire seasons and other impacts of wildfires (for example, impact on life, ecosystems and diversity, fuel loads, property, and critical infrastructure). According to a 2022 report prepared for the American Lung Association, prescribed burns are typically of shorter duration than wildfires, are less severe, and occur at known times of the year, so precautions can be taken in advance of a prescribed fire season. The conversation should also include the benefits of prescribed burns and natural fires that are allowed to burn under pre-set prescriptions.
ii. Ecosystem management (biodiversity, carbon, water yield and quality)
Ecological burning is a critical process for maintaining healthy ecosystems. In some systems, the purpose of ecological burning is to return fire as a natural disturbance to fire-prone landscapes, where suppression activities have excluded fire. Prescribed fire would aim to decrease the departure from natural fire regimes and therefore maintain ecosystem health. Important functions of fire include stimulating regeneration, increasing flora and fauna species diversity, disadvantaging invasive species, and providing high-quality habitat for a diverse range of species.
A 2020 article in the Journal of Ecology titled “Fire as a fundamental ecological process: Research advances and frontiers,” states that fire is a powerful ecological and evolutionary force that regulates organismal traits, population sizes, species interactions, community composition, carbon and nutrient cycling, and ecosystem function. Fire also presents a rapidly growing societal challenge, due to both increasingly destructive wildfires and fire exclusion in fire-dependent ecosystems.
According to Marcelo Simon et al. in 2009, and Tianhua He et al. in 2019, fire is a recurrent process, a regime, which is integral to ecological function. Fire regimes have direct ecological effects and act as selective evolutionary forces. Moreover, as species are adapted to the fire regimes in which they evolve, they in turn influence the fire regimes to which they are subject. Humans have altered fire regimes in many ways such as converting forests to farmland, suppressing fire and prescribing fire. Ecological burning seeks to impose fire regimes that support healthy, diverse, resilient ecosystems. Prescribed burning, aimed at achieving ecological resource objectives, is a tool that could support ecosystem adaptation to the changing climate.
iii. Indigenous cultural burning practices
Cultural burning is a type of prescribed burn that has been ingrained in cultures for generations for ceremonial purposes, to sustain desired species and habitats, and to maintain a lifestyle synchronised with regional ecosystems and Earth. Cultural burning has been practiced by many Indigenous Peoples and preindustrial communities around the world for millennia. It usually differs from agency prescribed burn practices in the reasons, techniques, and times for burning. Colonization often resulted in fire exclusion and brought a sudden end to many cultural burning practices. Many Indigenous Peoples do not consider cultural burning to be a category of prescribed burning, because they consider the two practices to be fundamentally different. In the last two decades, Indigenous Peoples around the globe have reintroduced cultural burning techniques and objectives on a larger scale, although it’s important to note that many Indigenous groups in South America, Africa and Australia never stopped burning. For example, in California, legislation has been passed through extensive work by Indigenous groups that recognizes cultural burners and cultural burning practices. Important to this is not just the application of fire, but the resurgence of Indigenous knowledge and issues of sovereignty, autonomy, and cultural transmission between generations. Recent studies have demonstrated that Indigenous land management practices, such as cultural burning, have increased biodiversity and reduced net carbon emissions.
Many barriers still exist toward implementing cultural burning and Indigenous-led cultural burning programs, including lack of understanding, cultural appropriation, and unsympathetic laws and governance.
3. CALLS TO ACTION
The IAWF’s vision is to safely and effectively extinguish wildfires, when necessary, and to use prescribed burning and wildland fire where and when possible, to meet human objectives. Those objectives include human protection and safety; management of ecosystems, landscapes, resources and fuels; increased landscape resilience in the face of climate change; and support for Indigenous inherent rights to fire as a cultural practice. The pathway to this vision is the education of communities in the appreciation of the value of fire regimes culminating in a co-existence between people and wildland fire and smoke.
To achieve this vision, the IAWF proposes that the global wildland fire community:
1. Identify and enhance community co-existence with fire.
• Develop public understanding of the overarching long-term benefits of fire on our landscapes to mitigate potential risks, and the necessity for prescribed, controlled and Indigenous burning, as well as wildfire.
2. Identify ecosystems most at risk to large, high-severity wildfires.
• Prioritize landscapes that are at the greatest risk, for treatments and mitigation measures to build landscapes that can withstand changes in fire regimes in accordance with climate, land and resource management objectives. The
IAWF proposes that wildland fire communities and agencies consider several actions to achieve these objectives.
A. ORGANIZATIONS, AGENCY POLICIES, PRACTICES, WORKFORCE AND CULTURE
Organizations and agencies will need to balance the ever-increasing complexity in policies, procedures, planning and approvals processes with the need for agility and readiness to take advantage of the decreasing windows of opportunities to burn, which might change as fire weather and landscapes are altered by changes in climate.
As prescribed burn programs address the increasing risk to people and ecosystem services, it is inevitable that some mistakes will be made during program planning and delivery. It is important that agencies move away from a blame culture, so mistakes can be analyzed without fear of retribution. Doing so will enable organizations and agencies to learn from mistakes and improve processes, procedures and knowledge within their workforces.
Agencies need to continually maintain skills and capacity, recognizing that the challenges for fire management and effective application of prescribed burning cannot be met by any one agency, organization, or community alone. Leaders in wildland fire, weather prediction and regulators must all identify where greater collaboration is required. As landscape and community risk increases, adaptable funding mechanisms are crucial to managing the complexity of wildland fire and smoke management across multiple agencies and jurisdictions. The focus should be to set appropriate objectives for the management of the broader landscape, management units (forest block, national parks) and the use of prescribed burning.
Setting objectives also facilitates engagement with communities affected by prescribed fire and managed wildfire. Although burn-program objectives at a regional or national level are commonly used, it is essential to accommodate local scales and perspectives, to impprove the types of actions that might achieve objectives, and to widen their adoptioin. The organisations should utilise available tools to predict and minimise smoke impact on human health.
Planned-burn programs should reflect longer-term, inter-agency strategies designed to manage for a range of outcomes. Such strategies could include the protection of life, property, industry and assets; fuels reduction and maintenance; promotion of ecosystem health and diversity; establishment and support for diverse species habitats; control of invasive species; management of air quality risks; and protection of cultural assets.
B. COMMUNITIES AND SOCIAL LICENSE
In its broadest sense, shared responsibility is about negotiating a new social contract for wildfire preparedness, management and recovery under which governments and communities agree on the allocation of rights and responsibilities.
The shared responsibility for wildland fire management is about the ways citizens and governments can work together to minimise the potential impact of future wildland fire events. This can be achieved by focusing on the meaning of shared responsibility in specific contexts and the significance and challenges for the way citizens and all levels of government can work together to manage infrastructure, air quality, health and wildfire risk. A renewed focus is required on mitigation, community resilience, maintenance of defensible spaces and collaborative planning between residents and first responders. We must recognise that different agencies, businesses and communities have different capabilities and therefore different vulnerabilities and strengths.
Gaining and maintaining social license for prescribed burning is crucial; without it, large burning programs cannot be conducted. This is where the role of community engagement and education is extremely important. Communities must be engaged in pre-fire action planning and reach a consensus on the value of fire-safe initiatives such as creation of defensible space, evacuation planning and provision of firefighting water supplies. IAWF vice president Steve Miller proposed in a 2013 webinar titled Burning in Their Backyards and Having Them Say Thank You, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned, that wildland fire leaders should learn from experiences in communities that were previously resistant to prescribed fire, but have come to understand how it can work for them. Lessons and comparisons of post-fire, fire-safe communities and communities that are not fire-safe can encourage positive action. Also a comparison between healthy post-fire ecosystem recovery from prescribed burning with similar post-fire recovery of severely burned ecosystems can help communities understand the difference. Wildland fire organizations and agencies must listen to community concerns about prescribed fire, adjust their plans accordingly, and refrain from assuming what the community values. Social scientists can help to bridge the gap between wildland fire organizations and communities.
Prescribed burning can have significant benefits in terms of developing community awareness and behaviour in relation to wildfire. Through participation in planning and operations, people are better prepared for wildfire, acquire a better appreciation of the threats of wildfire, recognise when fire control will be difficult, and are better able to understand the benefits and limitations of specific fuel management operations.
C. USE OF TECHNOLOGY
Technology is critical to efficient prescribed burning, effective sharing of data, and helping people and organizations be more innovative, safe, and productive. The role of technology is to enhance prescribed burning, and to improve communication, situational awareness and safety. Technology is an enabler for improving current practices. Agencies and jurisdictions should share information and create partnerships to expedite technological development.
D. RESEARCH AND SCIENCE
Fire management needs to be based upon the best available science and this science should be made publicly available to communities it serves. Knowledge, research, science, and experience should be shared among all related wildland fire management organizations and agencies. Active fire research programs, combined with international and interagency collaboration, provide the means to make information available to all fire managers, communities and governments.
Technology, tools, research, human expertise, and both physical and social science are critical to address our ‘new normal’ fire regimes and to tackle unique challenges in the future. Opportunities to bring western science and traditional knowledge together for mutual benefit should be maximised. At the same time the limits of scientific methods and knowledge need to be recognised. Respect must be shown for local cultural perspectives, insights and wisdom.
The IAWF continues to support the need for extensive research and modelling to better forecast present fire danger and future change. Research and science are particularly important for better understanding our current and future state of changed climate. Priority areas for investigation include: changes in temperature, especially sustained high temperature; change in precipitation; prolonged droughts; and changes in vegetation types and species composition, especially changes that result in increased fire severity and frequency.
E. CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT AND ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT
Linkages, causes and effects of wildland fire are complex and continue to evolve and change. Therefore, wildland fire management must be adaptive. Agencies must be prepared to invest in research, rethink procedures and challenge accepted wisdom. Indigenous Peoples and local communities have critical knowledge and agencies must be open to receiving it. Useful learning must result in rapid, near-term change and adaptation. Making changes through learning must become routine, not just something that happens after disasters. Land and fire management agencies, businesses and communities must learn together, so that they can respond expeditiously to problems and achieve better outcomes. Adaptation takes effort and time, and success will depend on deliberate investment across the community and agency workforces.
To achieve continued improvement and adaptive management, it is important to undertake monitoring, evaluation, and reporting (MER), which allows agencies to quantify the efficiency and effectiveness of their strategies and the work they have undertaken. Doing so allows for full transparency of management outcomes for fire management staff, to the government and community.
F. INDIGENOUS LEADERSHIP
Indigenous leadership offers new insights as many governments, wildland fire agencies and other organizations grapple with climate change and mega fires and seek new ways to deal with public safety, fire ecology, increasing suppression costs and other wicked problems.
The first step is recognition that traditional processes of leadership, governance and decision making have adapted and remain strong in many Indigenous communities across the globe, despite disruptions to land access and many cultural practices. Ongoing connection to country, continuity of knowledge, and the exercise of traditional authority are now evident in the resurgence of cultural burning.
The legislative and policy landscape is also changing in many parts of the world, providing new mechanisms for recognizing traditional ownership of land and enabling self-determination and sustainable livelihoods. Emerging Indigenous corporations and organisations are bringing together western and traditional governance and empowering new forms of leadership in fire and natural resource management, economies, and state institutions.
Agencies seeking to address seemingly intractable fire management problems must engage with Indigenous leadership at local, regional and state levels so that diverse cultural perspectives and two-way learning can inform the strategies, policies and actions needed for a sustainable future.
IAWF will continue to provide opportunities for research, knowledge and experience sharing through conferences, webinars, workshops, Wildfire magazine, newsletters and the International Journal of Wildland Fire (IJWF), with a focus on science, knowledge and best practices in relation to how wildland fire and those who work in fire and smoke research or wildland fire management can adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
IAWF will continue to take a position on contemporary wildland fire issues and advocate with national and international policy makers for improvements in wildland fire management policies in relation to prescribed fire.
IAWF will work with Indigenous Peoples to support Indigenous-led cultural burning practices and facilitate the sharing of knowledge and practices with other Indigenous Peoples, as well as with land and fire managers.
IAWF will continue to advocate for improved diversity in global fire management. A diverse workforce, including a variety of gender, age, cultural and religious backgrounds provides superior ideas and work outputs at a time when the challenges and complexity of problems brought about by climate change require deeper and broader thinking and progressive and deliberate actions.
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IAWF Position Statement on Climate Change and Wildland Fire (Download PDF of the Full Paper)
The International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) is an independent, non-profit organization. For more than 30 years the IAWF has facilitated global communication on wildland fire and provided objective leadership through a neutral forum of diverse experts who consider and address all important, and at times controversial, wildland fire issues.
The IAWF membership spans all continents. The membership comprises a global voice and includes wildland fire managers, land managers, scientists, agency personnel and others who support IAWF’s goal to achieve a more sustainable wildland fire paradigm.
Overview and purpose
Climate models predict drying and warming trends in many parts of the world; this is likely to exacerbate wildfire risk, the likelihood of fire, and extreme fire consequences (IPCC, 2021). In many cases, fire seasons will lengthen, become more extreme and extend into landscapes previously unaffected by wildland fires. This will increase the risk to the health and safety of firefighters, the community, the environment, industries and the economy.
This IAWF position statement articulates the impact of climate change on the wildland fire community and the challenges IAWF must address.
Human-induced climate change and the risk
Evidence of the warming of the climate system is unequivocal and the human contribution to the climate system is clear (IPCC, 2021). Rising global average temperatures are altering global weather patterns, resulting in more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, and large storms. These changes will impact health, economies, livelihoods, infrastructure, and societies.
For instance, smoke from wildland fire is an unhealthy pollutant that statistically increases hospital visits for respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms, heart failure, pulmonary embolism, ischemic stroke, and death (Reid et al., 2019; Wettstein et al., 2018). In the United States, the annual economic estimate of short-term smoke exposure for 2008-2012 was between $11 billion and $20 billion, with a long-term estimate between $76 billion and $130 billion, which surpassed firefighting cost (Fann et al., 2018). For all these reasons, the 2021 World Economic Forum’s Global Risk report classifies climate change as a “catastrophic risk” and an urgent threat that requires decisive action (WEF 2021).
Climate, weather and fire
Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of fire weather (Flannigan et al., 2013). Fire seasons around the globe are starting earlier, resulting in longer fire seasons (Wotton and Flannigan 1993, Jolly et al 2015; Harris and Lucas 2019). In addition to longer fire seasons, fire weather is becoming more extreme, with many regions experiencing a significant increase in the number of high fire risk days (Abatzoglou et al. 2021). The conditions behind the Australian fire season of 2019-2020 (Black Summer) were at least 30 per cent more likely to occur than a century ago due to climate change, and the risks of a similar event would rise four-fold if the increase in global temperatures exceeds 2 C (Oldenborgh et al 2020).
Warmer conditions have also been shown to result in more lightning-caused fire ignitions (Veraverbeke et al 2017, Mariani et al 2018, Chen et al 2021) due to the combination of more ignitable fuels and more thunderstorms. Along with an increased risk of ignitions, a study focusing on the United States found that for every degree of warming, a 12 per cent increase in lightning occurrence is expected (Romps et al 2014).
These trends in fire weather are likely to continue with an increase in severity driven by hotter, drier conditions (Flannigan et al., 2013). In some areas, the occurrence of extreme fire weather days is expected to triple (Clark et al 2021). There are also likely to be more dangerous fire conditions for communities and firefighters, with studies indicating climate change could amplify the conditions associated with pyrocumulous (PyroCu) and pyrocumulonimbus (PyroCb) development (Dowdy et al 2019, Di Virgilio et al 2019, Rodiguez et al., 2020), which can result in fires generating their own lightning, wind and rain, and feeding back to longer-term climate systems (Peterson et al., 2018).
Fire regimes, ecosystem change and fuel management
Fire is a natural and necessary component of ecosystem processes that stimulates regeneration, inhibits fuel accumulation, and helps to maintain the mosaic complexity and ecosystem diversity on landscapes.
Climate change is shifting fire regimes through its influence on weather, ignitions and fuels. Altered temperatures and rainfall patterns are changing the composition and distribution of vegetation, resulting in different fuel patterns and greater vulnerability of ecologically sensitive communities.
Additionally, changes in climate will make it more difficult, operationally unfeasible, or impossible to implement controlled burns that are vital for ecological, economic, cultural and public safety purposes. In certain regions of the world, prescribed fires must be frequent. Losing the ability use controlled burns looms in the face of the great strides made in preserving and restoring the culture of prescribed burning and in embracing the many benefits of fire.
The absence of fire in parts of the world has led to an increased accumulation of fuels, and weather and climate exacerbates this situation (Collins et al 2011, North et al 2015, Tubbesing et al 2019). Further, maintaining biodiversity is challenging when tolerable fire intervals for species and ecosystems are compromised, and particularly when flora and fauna are further threatened by climate changes that exceed their natural environmental constraints. Climate-driven changes in fire regimes, compounded by other socioecological and spatiotemporal dynamics, appear likely to accelerate species extinctions and could cause collapse of ecosystems. Gradual changes in climate over geologic time scales allows organisms time and space to shift in latitude and elevation and to evolve, and gives certain species, including humans, time to adapt. Even if current climate change were slow, fragmentation of landscapes by human activities now blocks corridors that some species could use to shift their ranges. Rapid changes in climate limit the range and the time-frame of options that may be taken by society to avoid further impacts.
It is now widely accepted that vegetation management, including prescribed burning and the use of wildland fire to meet land management objectives, can mitigate the risk of negative impacts to human communities, economies, critical infrastructure, watersheds, and valuable natural and cultural resources (Robinne et al 2021). An increase in the application of prescribed burning in some regions will necessitate multiple agency interactions (e.g., wildland fire and air quality agencies), to balance the risk of poor air quality, with the risk to air quality and health, under conditions in which prescribed fire is inhibited. Social science can help advance the understanding of the barriers and opportunities to prescribed fire (Schultz et al. 2019; Ryan et al 2013), including those for landowners (Hoffman et al. 2021; Kreuter et al.2019; Toledo et al. 2014; Weir et al. 2019) and the public (McCaffrey 2006; Mierauskas and Pereira 2013; Loomis et al 2001).
Prescribed burning and wildland fire used under prescriptive conditions can reduce future potential fire behavior, increase the potential success of containment efforts, and maintain and improve the health and resiliency of ecosystems. These treatments can be completed at scales ranging from small site-specific projects of less than 50 hectares to large landscape treatments totaling more than 50,000 hectares, with a treatment range from single to combinations of treatments, and single to multiple applications over several years. Treatments must be carried out over multiple jurisdictional boundaries and must possess significant political and social demand for the expanded use of wildland fire to adapt to climate change’s immediate presence.
Globally, wildfire managers strive to and are expected to reduce risk to communities, protect assets and critical infrastructure, and ensure the safety of firefighters. Managers are expected to accomplish these goals even while fire seasons are lengthening, there are more lightning-caused fires, more flammable environments, and fire weather conditions are becoming more extreme; all these variables are expected to worsen under climate change. Furthermore, there is a more complex wildland urban interface (WUI), (Radeloff et al. 2005; Hammer et al. 2009; Solangaarachchi et al. 2012; Johnston and Flannigan 2018), including differences in flammability and fire transmission in urban areas compared with areas that are mainly rural. Fire incident management in turn becomes more complex as more jurisdictions are affected and costs rise (Nowell and Steelman 2019; Thompson et al. 2019). Globally, those with the fire expertise face intense public scrutiny for their decisions, as well as uncertainty from changes in responsibilities and exhaustion from constant fires.
In summary, some of the likely impacts and implications of climate change for wildfire and land management services, and the communities they protect, include:
- Weather – changes in the frequency, severity and complexity of extreme weather that directly lead to cascading wildland fire extremes, extended fire seasons, and related events (e.g., post-fire debris flows, flooding).
- Climate – changes in the seasonality and latitudinal position of previously typical climate, and the arrival of new and different extremes, which affect both ecosystems and fire regimes.
- Health – increasing exposure and vulnerabilities of communities, including the impact of smoke on firefighter and public health, and an increase in health care costs associated with large and long duration wildfires.
- Organizational complexity – growing number of jurisdictions impacted which challenges the ability to co-ordinate among multiple local, state, provincial, federal and national responders.
- Economic costs – increasing suppression costs of wildfires including the primary, secondary and tertiary impacts on private and public property, infrastructure, businesses, and air quality and health.
- Resources – increasing pressure on land and fire management agency resourcing due to longer fire seasons, and more frequent and severe events.
- Risks – increasing health and safety risks for staff and volunteers, including heat stress, fatigue and mental health due to less time for recovery between severe seasons.
- Legal –Greater risk of litigation due to increased complexity of jurisdictional involvement and land ownership.
- Safety –Increased stress on community preparedness (including mitigation) and controls, such as building codes (local and regional influences) and land-use planning to respond to what is needed to keep the community safe.
- Support systems – supply chain vulnerabilities creating shortages of equipment and logistical support to land and fire managers.
- Ecosystem damage – adverse outcomes to ecosystem flora, fauna, and services, due to climate-change driven variations in fire regimes, temperature, and rainfall.
- Water – threats to water supplies (both for domestic use and firefighting) and post-fire effects (e.g., impact on water yield and quality, debris flows).
The planet faces more extreme, more frequent and longer fire seasons (Jain 2021), which will affect service delivery unless clear adaptation plans are created and implemented. Fire and land management organizations, government departments, and jurisdictions have an obligation to reduce their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, therefore mitigation plans also need to be developed by all levels of government and businesses.
Calls to action
The Vision: IAWF seeks to safely and effectively extinguish wildfires, when necessary; to use prescribed and wildland fire when possible to meet protection and land and resource management objectives; to manage natural resources through progressive fuel reduction to increase landscape resilience; and to create fire adapted communities that can accept shared responsibility for addressing how to co-exist with smoke and wildland fire.
To achieve this vision, the IAWF proposes these three actions:
- Identify ecosystems most at risk to large, high severity wildfire
- Prioritize landscapes that are at the greatest risk for treatments and mitigation measures to withstand future change in fire regimes in accordance with climate, land and resource management objectives.
- Identify and enhance fire-adapted communities
- Develop public understanding of the overarching long-term benefits of fire on the landscape to mitigate potential risks, and the necessity for prescribed, controlled and Indigenous burning, as well as wildfire, based on both qualitative and quantitative cost-benefit analyses.
- Foster safe and effective interagency wildfire response
- Formulate and implement safe, effective, efficient risk-based wildland fire management decisions, in co-ordination with multiple agencies across all jurisdictions.
The IAWF proposes these three calls to actions in the context of the following broader global influences.
1 Increase prescribed burning:
IAWF will advocate for increased support, training for, and application of prescribed fire globally by public, private and non-profit partnerships. To accelerate understanding of the role of climate change on fire regime change and the essential role of prescribed burning, the IAWF continues to support the need for extensive research and modelling to forecast the changes in vegetation as a result of reduced or increased rainfall, increased temperatures, prolonged droughts, and changes in fire regimes, especially those that result in increased fire severity and frequency.
The IAWF adopts an ecosystem approach to create greater effectiveness and efficiency in treatments over larger landscapes, regardless of jurisdiction. The IAWF acknowledges and supports the role that Indigenous peoples have in undertaking cultural and traditional burning for a range of purposes associated with caring for land, including promoting revegetation, producing food and game, and maintaining spiritual connection to the land. IAWF encourages land and fire managers and Indigenous Peoples to be better engaged and learn from each other about the application of fire.
2. Promote shared responsibility for safer community preparedness, response and recovery
IAWF recognizes and accepts wildland fire as a natural process necessary for the maintenance of many natural ecosystems, and endeavors to inform, educate and work in partnership with communities living in and next to fire-prone landscapes to reduce risk. By accepting the natural role of wildland fire in the landscape, and the ability of communities to plan for and adapt to living with wildland fire and smoke, mitigate the risk of large damaging fires, and the need to be prepared to respond to fire when it occurs, the IAWF will promote an all-inclusive approach to the future of wildland fire management with an emphasis on a shared responsibility by all stakeholder organizations, provinces, states, localities and the public, rather than create reliance on services provided by all levels of government.
In its broadest sense, shared responsibility is about negotiating a new social contract for wildfire preparedness, management and recovery through which governments and communities agree on how rights and responsibilities are allocated. Land-use and critical infrastructure planning begins at the local level and will need to be improved to make communities more resilient to wildfire impacts under climate change. Educating the public about the necessity for more resilient landscapes and infrastructure is a necessary first step. Building practices, codes and standards will need to be improved to make structures withstand higher levels of fire intensity; this process will need to be motivated at the local level.
An effective shared responsibility between agencies and communities will result in reduced need for extensive suppression activity in and near communities while leading communities to safely co-exist with wildfire. Knowledgeable, engaged communities in partnership with local and regional agencies would act to mitigate threats from wildfire to housing, infrastructure, cultural resources, valued landscapes, watersheds, timberlands, pastures and the surrounding ecosystem.
3 Reimagine and invest in the wildland fire management workforce and systems
With an increase of wildfire activity into the future, all local, state, provincial and national agencies will need to accelerate development of their future workforces to build capacity for wildland fire management. IAWF will work to promote a new model for workforce development that replaces the traditional model of slowly, deliberately building skills and experience over several decades, which is now obsolete.
IAWF will continue to advocate for more frequent support within and among countries and continents for wildfire response. The opportunities should include prescribed fire for mitigation, which is likely to require a workforce with a different set of skills. For the past several decades, wildland fire suppression has relied heavily on the use of a force that overwhelms the fire. The magnitude of the overwhelming force for wildfire suppression – planes, helicopters, tankers, trucks and more – may have grown to the point where it is unsustainable, and the fire management community needs a more nuanced approach that does a better job of working with fire and ecosystems rather than working against them.
As wildfire and smoke impacts grow in their complexity, so does their management. IAWF will advocate for adaptation of the current wildland fire governance and management systems to adapt to the changing conditions under climate change. As wildfires grow in size, they cover more jurisdictions, necessitating the co-operation and collaboration of local, state, provincial, and national responders from the public, private and non-profit sectors. Safe and more effective fire management means creating fire management structures that can take into consideration this growing response network of personnel and adapt to accommodate these integrated responses.
4 Invest in and promote research, science, technology and policy
The IAWF promotes the position that fire management strategies, plans and activities need to be based upon the best available science and made publicly available to communities and elected officials. Further investments in technology could also help advance progress to mitigate, adapt and recover from wildland fire. The purpose of technology is to enable the effective sharing of data and support personnel and organizations to be more innovative, safe, and efficient. The role of technology is to make fire fighting better, improve communication, situational awareness, safety, and mitigation. A key role for IAWF is to ensure that this knowledge, research, science, and experience is widely shared among our wildland fire community.
IAWF advocates for an active fire research program combined with international and interagency collaboration to share information with fire managers, communities, and governments to stimulate sound science policy that drives fire management. Research is an enabler for all of the previously listed action areas and should be continuously supported so that decisions are driven by the best available science and expertise is available when needed. Governmental agencies need to co-invest with the private sector and research providers to accelerate development of better technologies and tools from modelling, artificial intelligence, robotics, respiratory protection, safety equipment and clothing, building materials and designs, and virtual reality.
IAWF commits to creating venues for sharing research, knowledge and technology.
5 Create opportunities for continuous improvement and adaptive management
IAWF supports the need for more nimble adaptation among our community to the rapidly changing conditions we face. IAWF will provide opportunities for our community to gather the diverse stakeholders invested in creating a more sustainable wildland fire paradigm so that we can reflect on, reconsider, challenge and adapt our current policies, processes, and procedures to the evolving realities under climate change.
We must get smarter, faster to address the considerable challenges climate change poses to the wildland fire community. Land and fire management agencies, business, and communities must learn together, so that they can respond to changes faster and achieve better outcomes. Adaptation takes effort and time. Achieving adaptive behaviors will depend on deliberate investment in improvement, adaptation and learning across the community and agency workforce. Making changes through learning must become routine, not just something that happens after disasters.
The IAWF will continue to provide opportunities for research, knowledge and experience sharing through its conferences, webinars, workshops, Wildfire magazine, newsletters and the International Journal of Wildland Fire (IJWF), with a focus on science, knowledge and best practices in relation to how wildland fire and those who work in fire and smoke research or wildland fire management can adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
The IAWF will continue to take a position on contemporary wildland fire issues and advocate with national and international policy makers for improvements in wildland fire management policies in relation to climate change.
The IAWF and Indigenous Peoples will work together to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and practices with other Indigenous Peoples as well as with all land and fire managers.
The IAWF will continue to advocate for improved diversity in global fire management. A diverse workforce, including a variety of gender, identity, age, cultural and religious backgrounds provides superior ideas and work outputs at a time when the challenges and complexity of problems brought about by climate change require deeper thinking and progressive and deliberate actions.
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This is the fourth in a series of Issue-Discussion Papers offered by the board of the International Association of Wildland Fire with the goal of framing and engaging a dialogue on the key issues our profession faces today and in the future. This dialogue focuses on international cooperation as a mechanism to face our global fire challenges and asks, What can we learn from our existing international fire exchanges and what approaches will future fire challenges require?
This issue-dialogue paper builds on the observations and discussions of the prior papers: Extreme Fires ; Changes in Fire Suppression Tactics and Strategies ; and Competing Priorities and Demands.
The purpose of this paper is to stimulate discussion among IAWF membership and the broader fire community about what it means to be an international organization, and why it is a value worth pursuing. In some cases, we have responses to the questions posed below. In all cases we hope to provoke ideas and insights as part of a broader discussion among the international wildfire community.
Concepts to consider include:
- International is the first word in our organization’s title.
- International is implicit in our Diversity and Inclusion Policy.
Becoming a diverse and inclusive organization will enable the International Association of Wildland Fire to learn from others, grow our understanding, and find new ways to address, understand and implement solutions to complex problems.
As a measure of success in diversity and inclusion the IAWF has set itself the following goals in relation to international.
Our Direction – Now and for the Future
Beginning immediately, we will strive to achieve:
- Geographic diversity within the membership, Board members and all other IAWF activities.
- Greater inclusion of other underrepresented groups (age, Indigenous, disability, etc.).
We will implement this direction by:
- Actively encouraging and proactively seeking membership from all parts of the globe. (See https://www.iawfonline.org/about-us/.)
- Actively encouraging and proactively seeking members from all different professional backgrounds within the global fire community. (See https://www.iawfonline.org/diversityinclusion/.)
KEY QUESTIONS FOR IAWF MEMBERSHIP
What does it mean to be an “international” association?
- How do we think bigger, past the immediate problem or crisis?
Why is being international something to pursue?
- “All fires are local” vs. “What’s happened to you has already happened somewhere else.”
Response: We need to better share knowledge and experience. We need to overcome the idea that we are unique. We need to identify the common concepts across international borders – for example weather dynamics, vegetation types, bird and animal habitats. It is important to identify what is specific to your problem versus what is common about your problem. We can all learn from both aspects. What’s happening to you has probably already happened somewhere else and there lies the potential for cooperation internationally. Climate zones are changing the habitat, species and the fire zones, and in turn changing the populations and landscapes potentially impacted by fire.
What have we learned from international cooperation and exchange?
- What are the similarities and differences?
Response: We learned that we have very similar needs when it comes to It systems, however we continue to develop those in isolations. Most systems are considered to be “sunk” investment and as such many agencies may be comfortable in sharing those to others free of charge. Response: We have already learned much from each other during exchanges and have brought back new ideas and systems, which have been implemented.
Which countries/regions are most appropriate for global wildfire network?
- What resources are needed to make this happen?
What are the most appropriate areas for international cooperation and what are the challenges involved?
- Suppression – dealing with longer seasons, scare resources, compatible skills, rising costs.
Response: There is no jurisdiction in the world that has enough resources – alone — to deal with their wildland fire suppression issues into the future.
Response: Suppression exchanges have been occurring globally for more than two decades. Strong support during fire seasons has also been happening internally in North America and Europe. From the year 2000, suppression support exchanges occurred on a regular basis between Canada, United States, Australia and New Zealand. More recently, South Africa provided ground crews to Canada.
A number of questions arise from these exchanges including:
- Is this enough?
- What will happen with ever extending lengths of fire seasons, and overlapping fire seasons?
- Should we have mobile and global suppression resources that can respond based on where the potential risk is and forecasted fire activity?
- Where globally should suppression support be extended to – what are the other countries in most need?
- Knowledge/training/research – shared insights, better ways of working, avoiding repeating errors, safe working environments.
Response: There are some examples of sharing materials but overwhelmingly we have differences in a way we train people across the globe. One example of successfully applying the same curriculum and training is a leadership course conducted by a private provider from the US that delivers training courses in the US, Canada and Australia. This allows for faster and better integration when it comes to suppression deployments.
International networks – what are they, what is their value, how to maintain and build?
Response: We have a strong program of regular conferences that enable us to share learnings internationally. These include the Fire Behavior and Fuels conference in three countries in 2019, plus other conferences either managed by the IAWF directly or supported indirectly like Wildfire Brazil 2019. The IAWF has links with other like-minded groups with similar interests but in different parts of the world – these include, but are not limited to, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, the National Fire Protection Association, California Fire Exchange, Pau Costa, Lessons Learned Center, Association for Fire Ecology (AFE), international aviation, Fire Chiefs, etc.
Many online resources — websites, social media groups, webinars — connect the wildfire community across borders and time zones. These are effective, low cost, high participation platforms that complement the more intensive face to face activities. IAWF’s International Journal of Wildland Fire and Wildfire magazine are well established and respected publications with international content, authors, topics and editorial committees/editors. Both exist to promote wildfire science and knowledge internationally for researchers, operational staff and government organizations.
Steinberg, Michele. 2017. “International Cooperation Produces Valuable Learning Exchange on Wildfire Safety: The 14th International Wildland Fire Safety Summit in Barcelona.” NFPA Xchange (blog). February 2, 2017. https://community.nfpa.org/ community/fire-break/blog/2017/02/01/international-cooperationproduces-valuable-learning-exchange-on-wildfire-safety-the14th-international-wildland-fire-safety-summit-in-barcelona.
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). 2017. “Words into Action Guidelines: National Disaster Risk Assessment Hazard Specific Risk Assessment. Wildfire Hazard and Risk Assessment.” United Nations. https://www.unisdr.org/files/52828_06wildfirehazardandriskassessment.pdf.
During the 21st Century wildfires globally are becoming increasingly deadly and destructive. It is not just an increase in the size of fires that is being observed, but a steep increase in impacts encompassing a high number of human fatalities, homes and structures destroyed by the thousands, and an upward trend in smoke exposure related to human health.
In recent decades, beginning in the late 1990’s, we have seen an increase of difficult fire seasons — more frequently overall, and in landscapes and seasons where such difficult fires were rare. Signals of the impact of climate change on fires started in 1997, starting with more than a decade long drought in SE part of Victoria, and with significant peat fires in Indonesia that same year.
The United States started to experience frequent significant fire seasons starting in 2000 when large number of resources came from Canada, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand. These large movements of resources have become a norm since 2000 as fire seasons have become more severe compared to previous decades.
By 2002, “mega–fires” became a norm in southern Australia. Unfortunate examples of recent very high impact events include Portugal (twice in 2017), California (in 2017 and 2018), and Greece in 2018. Swiss Re reports that 2017 was the costliest year on record for wildfire insured losses ($14B USD). Three of the top 20 costliest world insurance losses in 2017 were related to wildfire.
Why the Transition to Extreme Fires
This transition to extreme fires appears correlated with three primary trends.
- Climate change is often cited as a cause of this increase in wildfire activity. Increased temperature (and subsequently drier atmosphere) relates to a reduction of dead fuel moisture via the equilibrium moisture content. Warmer temperatures increase plant evapotranspiration and reduces soil water uptake, thus reducing live fuel moisture. While weather drives fire behavior, climate enables fire, particularly when regional climates experience more erratic phases — with longer periods of wet for fuel growth and dry for fuel flammability.
- Abundant vegetation is climate related, but for many places heavy fuel loads are also a function of past and current land management practices. Fire exclusion over long periods allows for increased fuel density, provides for a ladder of fuels, and during extreme environmental conditions enables extreme fire behavior. Yet with both climate change and land management practices in mind, “global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades, and there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago” (Doerr and Santín, 2016).
- The rising trend in destructive fires has a third component in addition to climate and fuels – people are moving into fire and fire is coming to people. In many places, there is a shifting increase of population density into areas that are naturally fire prone – places where fire is known to have occurred for centuries and thousands of years. In other places, people are abandoning land that was managed and thus allowing it to go wild, with subsequent impact on fuels management. These locations are often referred to as a “wildland-urban interface” or a “rural-urban interface,” and “interface” is sometimes referred to as “intermix.” Areas where impacts of extreme fire may occur include: building next to or in a forested region; housing abutting grass and shrubland; communities near abandoned farmland; and firestorms entering deep into urban developments.
Based on this analysis of factors, it is suggested that there is not a single cause to today’s extreme, deadly and destructive wildfires, but rather a triangle of three factors – climate, fuels, and people. These are not mutually exclusive, though in fact all three are human–driven when considering a warming climate, fire exclusion, and population densities that not only live in fire prone areas but are the primary cause of ignitions.
A Dialogue on Extreme Fires
We propose a number of key questions related to climate, fuels, and people. One or more answers are provided, based on input from IAWF review of this issue and its related topics,but we recognize that there are varying viewpoints and perspectives.
We invite additional responses, and hope to engage ideas and insights as part of a broader discussion among the international wildfire community.
Key Questions for IAWF Membership
Q 1. What are the geographic climate trends that are potentially associated with changes in wildfire activity?
- Response: There are more frequent periods of unstable atmospheric conditions resulting in high winds, rapid fire growth, extreme fire behavior, and convective storms that provide lightning for ignitions.
- Response: There has been a significant decrease of winter rainfall in SE Australia which leads to earlier onset of fire seasons.
- Response: An increase of night-time warming temperature has been observed globally.
Q 2. What is being observed in terms of changes in the fire environment? In particular, how are weather and climate extremes being manifested in wildfire?
- Response: Fuels in many geographic locations are drier in relation to temperature warming, and thus more flammable.
Q 3. What can be said about the extent of 21st Century fire extremes compared to the 20th Century?
- Response: While extreme fires and seasons have occurred in the past, they now occur more frequently.
- Response: The frequency and severity of heat events has increased which has a major impact on population (heat–related deaths) and dryness (availability) of fuel.
Q. 1. How are fuels different today than a century ago, and if different, what are the likely reasons?
- Response: In Australia, vegetation that grows back after large, severe fires has a different structure to the original vegetation. It becomes very grassy and shrubby with more open canopy which leads to quicker drying and also fires burn quicker to it. That is especially noticeable in wet forests.
- Response: In some regions there has been observed an increase in vegetation mortality related to hotter drought conditions.
Q 2. Given a changing climate and potential human health impacts (e.g., from smoke), what strategies can be employed to manage fuels?
- Response: Mechanical treatment will need to be explored, especially closer to communities.
- Response: The current debate about smoke impacts are based on comparing prescribed fire smoke with no smoke. As ‘no smoke’ is not a real option (we will have more wildland fires in the future), the debate needs to be shifted to find the right balance of treatments to minimise risks to life, health and other values from fires and also from prolonged smoke events.
Q 1. What are viable actions that can be undertaken to help mitigate against home loss and public safety?
- Response: The current design for expansion of cities and towns transfers the risk onto land and fire managers. The only proactive lever that land and fire managers have is land use planning. The changes to use of land should include a significant consideration of hazards that may impact on those new settlements/suburbs that happen due to population growth. Smarter design of those suburbs, ex-urbs, villages and related community growth need to incorporate green buffers such as golf courses and other sport fields, and agricultural and/or managed fuel breaks that will provide a better protection to developments than the current building of houses right against and within the vegetation.
- Response: Building standards and codes need to be improved to make houses more fire resistant, including potential inclusion of roof sprinkler systems.
Q 2. How does management communication to the public need to change to reflect the new paradigm of fire on the landscape?
- Response: The public needs to learn to live with fires in a similar way it accepted reality of other hazards such as floods, storm surges, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. Our communication needs to reflect this and consider that the community is not homogenous, but a group that is diverse in education, social capital, age and racial/cultural background; therefore, in order to have impact, our communication activities and messaging need to consider these differences.
- Response: Currently we are constantly reporting on fires that we are successfully suppressing that do not cause any damage (which is around 98% in the United States). That has built community expectations that we could do the same for the remaining 2% if we can just get better, have more resources, have access to larger aircraft, etc. We need to educate the community and governments on how fires at the extreme end require not just more resources but vastly different resources, skills, and approaches to planning and education.
Q 1. What is the regional extent of extreme fire and what are the primary driving and/or enabling factors?
- Response: The geographical extent of population expansion increases every year. More and more people are moving into areas that are fire prone. Most of these people have no experience living in such environments, which creates an increased risk.
Q 2. How do today’s extreme events compare to known historical fire?
- Response: They are more frequent, and because of housing and other values at risk and increased flammable vegetation, these extreme events require changes in suppression tactics and in strategic planning.
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Doerr SH, Santín C. 2016 Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371: 20150345.http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0345
Background – Prior Policy Paper
“Reduce wildfire risks or pay more for fire disasters.” Policy Paper. International Association of Wildland Fire, Association for Fire Ecology, The Nature Conservancy.
Wildfire Magazine. Fall 2015. https://www.iawfonline.org/article/reduce-wildfire-risks-or-pay-more-for-fire-disasters/
Full Paper, April 16, 2015: https://fireecology.org/Reduce-Wildfire-Risks-or-Well-Pay-More-for-Fire-Disasters/
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What are your ideas on Extreme Fires?
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Changes in Fire Suppression Tactics and Strategies
This is the second of a series of Issue Papers published by the International Association of Wildland Fire board to generate dialogue on key issues facing our profession today.
Forecasters continue to predict drying and warming trends across the world where wildfires continue to be a problem. Fire seasons lengthen, fire affected landscape pushes into values at risk, and air quality is compromised. The purpose of this Issue paper exploring “Changes in fire suppression and strategies” is to stimulate discussion among IAWF membership (and those we work with and serve) about new ways to protect values and fight increasingly challenging fires, including the consideration of suppression strategies and tactics.
KEY QUESTIONS FOR IAWF MEMBERSHIP
We propose a number of key questions related to suppression tactics and strategies.
We invite additional responses and hope to engage ideas and insights as part of a broader discussion among the international wildfire community.
In some cases, we’ve gathered some initial responses to the questions posed based on input from the IAWF review of the issue and related topics, but we recognize that there are varying viewpoints and perspectives. In other cases, the slate is blank. In every case, we hope to provoke ideas and insights as part of a broader discussion among the international wildfire community.
Contribute your perspective by emailing your thoughts to [email protected] with “suppression” in the subject line.
Tactics of Fighting Wildland Fire
1) What are the tactical options that are under-utilized when we think about getting more fire on the landscape?
Response: Rapid detection and initial attack with sufficient weight of attack are increasingly important. Are we making the best use of satellites to tell us where fires are and how best to access them?
2) In many organizations (such as US federally managed lands), suppression is successful nearly 98% of the time. Yet the tactics, strategies, and tools that make us successful 98% of the time are not useful in the other 2%. More resources are not going to help in this 2%. What strategies and tactics are needed for this 2%? Are we doing a good job training the current and next generation to recognize when it’s happening and how to respond to it?
Response: Notwithstanding this, the Standard Fire Order # 10 says “Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.” Maybe there needs to be a new Standard Fire Order that says something like: In extreme fire behavior, your best efforts may be ineffective. Stepping back and telling people to get out of harm’s way might be the most effective strategy.
Response: Large and Very Large Air Tankers are now common on large fires. In many jurisdictions, the need is driven by media and public demand, where you are seen as “unprepared” unless you have a VLAT on call. Do we really understand how effective they are? What is their return on investment and do we truly evaluate their effectiveness? What are their limits? What does this mean to crews who are on the ground? Are the crews supporting aircraft? Or is it the other way around?
3) Because of more extreme events and more structures in fire areas, you can’t do direct perimeter control. What are our other options?
Response: The idea that we need to do perimeter control for every fire is incorrect. We actually have a wide tactical response spectrum and only deal with a small portion of that spectrum. These aren’t alternatives, because they have always been there. We tend to first think about perimeter control, but increasingly we won’t have enough resources to do that. We need to look at other tactical responses—partial control, area management, herding/turning the fire, checking it, evacuations, etc.
Managing Fire across the Landscape
4) If we want to manage fire across the landscape, how do we reconcile competing land management missions between different jurisdictions and priorities – such as provincial/regional and local? Public and private? County/state/federal (in the US)? Town and village, agricultural and conservation?
Response: In the United States, land use priorities at the state level may conflict with federal land use priorities, and federal agencies are also in conflict. For instance, a federal land management agency may want to increase prescribed burning, however this conflicts with federal air quality mandates. We need to reconcile or acknowledge these differences if we want to manage fire across the landscape.
Response: In the US the emphasis is on risk management. There is an increased focus by federal agencies to put more fire on the landscape and this increases the tension between agencies with different missions (federal, state and local each with a different emphasis on fighting fire more aggressively, directly than other agencies).
Response: Australia also sees tensions among agencies, especially when it comes to health and the environment. When conflicts in management objectives occur, control priorities become an important framework to resolve those issues. The primacy of life is always the first priority.
5) With the severe drought, we are seeing boreal forests succumb to fire. This results in large peat fires (Germany, United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, Russia). Are our peat firefighting techniques proven? Do we need more research there?
6) If resources are more limited given current directions, what does that mean for strategy and tactics? Should we be thinking about what we can accomplish differently in a more resource-constrained world?
Response: When the US is at Preparedness Level 5, resources are scarce. This means we engage in more point protection of values at risk and area protection, which limits where all-out suppression activity can take place. This creates a vicious cycle of an ever-escalating situation that puts responders back on their heels and places them at risk. Decision space is limited based on resource availability, which means strategy and tactics are limited. Is the public aware of the decreased funding to fire science and research?
Politics and Fire
7) How do you establish management objectives that meet the multiple expectations we have for a fire (ecosystems, local populations, air quality, future fire risk)?
Response: Suppression is very reactive tactically without thinking about the strategic implications at a larger scale. We may need to sacrifice some houses for other values at risk (VAR) with higher priority. We need to think about the problem in a different way. Should we ignore 10 houses to protect the other 1000? We race to protect the house rather than find the head of the fire. The instinct of first responders is to protect homes from burning. But we can’t prove the counter-factual of letting 10 houses go in order to protect a larger number of VAR. This is very challenging politically.
8) What metrics could we use to reflect changing fire goals in management? How do you measure success? How do you measure the positive impact of suppression; The number of houses saved vs. lost, the number of acres restored vs. lost, the number of people who went home safe vs. injured, etc.?
Response: Fire success metrics are focusing on the wrong thing. Response time to fire is a measurement in parts of Australia rather than looking at the longer-term risk and how it should be managed.
Response: Percent containment is not a good metric. Percent of the fire contained before 5 hectares. Wildfire use would actually mean that number would go down and it would be positive. We need to change the metrics to reflect new goals and attention. We measure the number of acres burned rather than the severity of the acres burned. We need an impact measure that looks at severity, water yield, and quality, carbon storage, ecosystem functions disrupted or not acres burned.
Response: What are the expectations of governments, the community and industry (including the insurance industry) for success? How are we able to influence these expectations? In Australia (and elsewhere) there is a lot of buzz around the term “resilience.” But what does a resilient person/household, community, or business look like? What do we need to do to strengthen community resilience?
Response: Globally over the last half a century we have seen that successful suppression also perpetuates the fuel problem and therefore makes future fires more severe and harder to control. Possibly a better measure would be around what has been saved and how overall risk has decreased as a result of fire management including suppression activities.
Suppression Efforts in the WUI
9) How should we be thinking of fire-fighting in and outside the WUI?
Response: In Australia (and perhaps in the US and Canada) there needs to be greater recognition of land management agencies. As we witnessed in Greece, the National Forest Service lost control of forest firefighting to the Hellenic (Urban) fire service. In some cases, urbanized fire services do not have the appropriate skills, techniques, supervision or equipment to tackle large fast-moving wildfires. Evidence of this can be seen in many parts of the globe, including in recent fires in Australia, Russia, Spain, Greece, and Portugal.
Bringing up The Next Generation of Leaders
10) How do we get smarter, faster in the training of the next generation of leaders?
Response: We are experiencing a skills deficit. There is a loss of skills through retirements and monetary losses. We have rigid systems to train Type 1 commanders (takes 30 years). Experience is not necessarily a good indicator of ability. We need more capable people coupled with systems and cultures that encourage and support people to take on more leadership roles. We have a very linear system. If the government freezes hiring then it creates a gap in the personnel curve in the future.
Response: We need to acknowledge that 98% of wildfires are dealt with very well using true, tried, and tested means. So it is important to recognize long-accepted methods and keep teaching and practicing them. We need to promote excellence in trail construction; dry firefighting; back-burning and burning out; use of engines/equipment and hoselay drills. We also need to recognize fire weather and fire regimes are changing in many parts of the world, largely due to changes in land cover and climate.
Response: With so much technology and robotics, why haven’t we seen “robo-firefighters.” We need to step up our efforts to take human firefighters out of harm’s way. Robotics should help.
Response: Are we dealing with Lessons and Lessons Learned adequately? How do we ensure that a lesson identified in northern Spain is picked up and learned by the fire manager in Scotland, Canada, Indonesia, China, and New Zealand? Is there scope for a global knowledge hub?
Response: Should we consider creating more options for fast-track training by providing opportunities during alternating northern-southern hemisphere seasons? As there is always a busy season somewhere on the Globe that would potentially allow us to provide a “30-year experience” in 10 to 15 years.
11) What are the workforce implications of having a fire year instead of a fire season?
Response: As the “wildfire problem” increases across the globe, we need to get better and faster at moving firefighters and incident management resources from one hemisphere to another. The downside is, with the increasing length of fire seasons, there may develop an overlap where there is competition for resources (boots on the ground, incident personnel, and scarce resources such as aircraft). This could present an increase in firefighter fatigue and burn-out (pardon the pun), and longer-term issues regarding recruitment of volunteer and community-based resources where ongoing demands are seen as excessive.
Headwaters Economics. “Summary: Wildfire Costs, New Development, and Rising Temperatures.” April 2016.https://headwaterseconomics.org/wildfire/fire-research-summary/
National Interagency Fire Center. “Federal Firefighting Costs (Suppression Only).” https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_documents/SuppCosts.pdf .
Karin L. Riley, Matthew P. Thompson, Joe H. Scott and Julie W. Gilbertson-Day. “A Model-Based Framework to Evaluate Alternative Wildfire Suppression Strategies.”Resources/2018, /7, 4; doi:10.3390/resources7010004 www.mdpi.com/journal/resources . https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_journals/2018/rmrs_2018_riley_k001.pdf .
Zimmerman, Thomas. “President’s Desk: Improving-wildland-fire-management-strategies.” Wildfire Magazine, February 2016. https://www.iawfonline.org/article/improving-wildland-fire-management-strategies/ .
Competing Priorities and Demands
IAWF’s third Issue-Dialogue Paper focuses on competing and increasing demands on the focus and activities of wildfire professionals and community members, and the prioritizing and commitment of fiscal resources. How can we balance institutional, social, economic and political needs – this competition for resources and time — to best manage our evolving fire challenge?
The issues surrounding wildland fire are uniquely different from other landscape management issues. A review of what makes this challenge so unique includes:
Wildfire and bushfire are disruptive events. Wildland fire events can be sudden, disruptive, and can directly impact communities.
Wildfire crosses boundaries. Wildland fire affects and cuts across a broad suite of other landscape features and values.
Visible … The problem is visible when wildland fire cuts across the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and increasingly also visible outside the WUI.
Yet periodic … Wildland fire tends to be periodic. Between fire events, the prominence of the issue wanes and commitment and effort erodes.
A single solution isn’t enough. In the eyes of many (including legislators and governments), the solution is seen to be more money for response and fire suppression rather than for landscape-scale treatment, prescribed fire, community education, prevention, co-production and mitigation, as well as the research that supports evaluates this range of solutions. There are many reasons that this one-tiered approach is selected to solve a complex set of problems, including:
1. Wildfire management is very complex. This is especially true for prevention. Without devoting the time to gain an in-depth balanced knowledge, legislators and governments (and likewise, citizens) can be misguided toward simplistic solutions.
2. Fire suppression has immediately visible results, whereas successful prevention leads to fewer and less destructive fires, and hence we’re more likely to forget about ongoing fire risk.
3. Fire suppression, as it costs more and involves more technological resources, is likely to receive much more lobbying by interested providers of such resources/services.
4. It is more convenient for citizens to favor strong suppression which is mostly done by professionals than to accept the shared responsibility associated with prevention.
Fire as add-on. In some jurisdictions, wildland fire is an “add-on” to agency staff roles and responsibilities.
Funding and documenting long-term success. Wildland fire mitigation is (generally) recognized to work under certain conditions. The challenge is getting funding and commitment that results in landscape outcomes and actions on the ground, which need to be practical and have tangible results that can be clearly reported on.
A need for shared stories. There is room for a broader narrative – focusing on mitigation, shared responsibility and community resilience and economic cost (and consequences) of uncontrolled wildland fires.
Unique skills. Wildland fire managers need a unique set of skills and capabilities that encompass both the natural and built landscapes within wildfire prone areas.
Key Questions For IAW Membership
We propose a number of key questions related to suppression tactics and strategies. We invite additional responses, and hope to engage your ideas and insights as part of a broader discussion. We have gathered initial responses to the questions posed below, based on input from IAWF review of this issue and related topics, but we recognize that there are varying viewpoints and perspectives. We hope to provoke ideas and insights as part of a broader discussion among the international wildfire community.
Contribute your perspective by emailing your thoughts to [email protected] with “competing priorities” in the subject line.
Climate Change And Global Fire Trends
1) A changing climate and severe fire weather is resulting in a greater area of wildland fire vulnerability and greater frequency and severity. What will the wildland fire challenges be in 50 years’ time?
Response: Climate models suggest that temperature projections are trending toward the upper end of ranges of what the models predict. If so, this would mean anticipated temperature increases in the range of 6-8 degrees for 2-3 degrees c. If these projections are accurate, then additional resources will be needed (or existing resources will need to be prioritized) to address the challenges that will come with how climate change influences severe weather, which is associated with wildland fire.
2) Increasingly a global phenomenon: Changes in climate, in particular the increased occurrence of drought and severe heat is resulting in wildland fire becoming a problem in parts of the globe where (in living memory) it has previously not been an issue. Parts of Europe, including boreal forests, are now susceptible to severe fire events and con-sequences. How do we ensure that nations collaborate and support each other as wildland fire risk increases and eventuates?
Response: As fire seasons lengthen and extend into a full fire year, the historical ability to share resources from the northern to the southern hemispheres and vice versa may be compromised. When all national resources are allocated during the peak of fire sea-son, what resources will be available to share regionally and internationally? Engaging Our Communities
3) How do we frame a narrative about wildland fire that looks to longer term landscape outcomes? This includes new perspectives on wildfire prevention, mitigation, community resilience, consequence and landscape recovery activities (as distinct from short-term response and suppression activities)?
Response: Better modeling is needed to show changes in landscape over time; estimated losses in the future that looks into movement of population, changes in vegetation, changes in climate, different management option such as investment in mitigation vs. suppression, etc. Response: This argument will eventually have to be won based on economics, as the suppression and recovery costs will by far exceed costs required to educate communities, undertake mitigation works and improve land use planning controls. Response: In addition to economics the rising number of fatalities and damages to property is likely to engage the will of people to act for protecting themselves by participating in prevention efforts. Development in WUI areas must be limited and adhere to high construction standards. Unsafe houses constructed with burnable materials must stop being built – these are difficult to protect now and under the expected changes in climate it is questionable that they would be defensible in the future. However, even in Southern Europe where homes are generally built with non-burnable materials, weak points in the construction (e.g. roofing) and a public unprepared for conflagration have resulted in huge numbers of deaths in Portugal and Greece in the last two years.
4) How do we engage with, and involve, communities, industry and businesses? Community expectations are focused on fire agency and government activities. There is scope to shift to a community resilience and co-production model based on agency, industry and community shared responsibility and collaboration. Expectations need to shift to an effort that is collaborative, where responsibility for (good and bad) outcomes is shared. Effort needs to be sustained and past lessons need to be remembered and acted upon.
Response: In Australia the phrase constantly used is “shared responsibility.” This phrase can move beyond a slogan to be implemented, if communities and business understand risks, start owning risks and become a part of decision-making processes around community resilience and landscape, management. The land and fire agencies are engaging with these entities; however, their input is often not considered in any meaningful way when making final decisions what mitigation actions are taken. This will need to change to improve the “social license” for the fire management agencies. Similarly, communities need to have a better understanding on what it means to carry their share of the responsibility. Response: In the United States, states and localities are increasingly bearing the costs associated with wildfire, where historically the federal government had born most costs. In all likelihood, as localities and states bear more of these costs, there will be greater innovation in identifying locally driven solutions to deal with wildfire problems. Local financing mechanisms, like bonding authorities, may pro-vide financial options to fund locally based work with returns paid in local jobs, losses avoided (such as watersheds and homes not damaged), and insurance claims not filed. Response: In Southern Europe there are various paradigms regarding forest fires. Volunteerism for example varies greatly with countries like Portugal and Croatia being very strong on this while Greece and Cyprus lag behind. Further-more, communities mostly expect Governments to come up with funds for fire prevention.
5) How do we tell the success stories when the potential fire intensity is managed by prescribed fire, mechanical fuel treatments, and the “good” wildland fires that support ecological and fuels benefits? (In particular, how might we balance the stories of the economic benefits of fuels management vs. the economic consequences of reactive wildland fire management)? When considering “good” fire, an important story often untold is the use of fire by native and indigenous peoples. How do we incorporate traditional burning into today’s prescribed fire tapestry?
Response: Prescribed burning, its positive outcomes, and the need for increased capacity and capability needs to be framed from an economic and well as a natural resource perspective. Response: The positive outcomes of planned burning into to look a broad impact that considers secondary and tertiary impacts on business and communities e.g, long-term impacts on water yield and quality on communities, agricultural sector or long-term impact on tourism as a result of severely burnt landscapes.
6) Wildland fire should be regarded as a “whole of community” / “whole of landscape” challenge. Fire needs to be recognized in any natural resource management and dis-aster / emergency management strategy. How do we frame wildland fire strategy in discussions about climate change, smoke, watersheds / water catchments, timber harvesting, soil management, biodiversity and single (threatened) species management, tourism and recreation? With a range of other threats and emerging vulnerabilities, how do we work with other disciplines to build a broader community resilience to natural disasters (of which wildland fire resilience is only a part of)? Response: Communities and business understand risks, start owning risks and become a part of decision-making processes.
Response: A very significant investment needs to occur to produce systems and models that will be able to evaluate all values across the landscape and highlight areas where there is a conflict between management objectives and values so they can be negotiated with communities and businesses.
Demands on our Profession
7) There is a continuing need to foster and grow the current and the next generation of fire managers. Will these people come from existing forestry and natural resource management curricula or elsewhere? How do we record, learn from, and act on the varied approaches we’ve brought to our development of fire managers? To what degree can we utilize urban fire staffs and emergency service volunteers? How can we utilize the skills of indigenous people and agricultural traditions in the future?
Response: Fire management needs to be seen as a skillset that draws more broadly than from just the traditional forestry and natural resource management sectors. The management of wildfire requires a range of other complementary skills in community engagement, economics and policy, and infrastructure planning and others. Response: Fatigue, PTSD, depression and mental health issues are increasingly being seen among our wildfire community and first responders. As fires get bigger, severity worse and seasons longer, the challenge and sense of efficacy in the fire community is diminished. Better coping mechanisms and setting expectations more realistically, given how fire is changing could help. We need more holistic treatment of individuals and the community who invest in these careers to ensure their long term well-being.
8) Land and fire managers have multiple accountabilities and responsibilities for the lands they are managing. What are the experiences in your jurisdiction / organization / geographical area?
Response: This leads to internal workload pressures or shifting organizational focus. The issues occur during protracted fire season when resources (both physical and financial) are diverted from land management into fire management, but also during “quiet” years when resource flow in the opposite direction. That flow creates tensions between those parts of organizations.
Response: Fire managers in Australia, the United States and in many fire management jurisdictions their responsibilities are not just land managers.
Increasingly, they have become emergency managers, covering many hazards such as bushfires, structural fires, HAZMAT, Technical rescue and so on. Landscape managers are increasingly involved in prevention and mitigation, and recovery activities as well as response and consequence management. As members of those organizations cover all the above, it means that organizations from a capability point of view have to cover risks associated with all hazards they are responsible for and develop their agency capability so. As financial resources are always limited, this creates continuous shifting of priorities and refocusing for organizations based on organizational priorities, stakeholder views including governments and communities or through reviews and formal inquiries. +
For background and more information
“The Future of Wildland Fire Management. Advance Briefing Report.” For the Quadrennial Fire Review Working Panels. The Brookings Institution January 15, 2008. https://www.nifc.gov/PUBLICATIONS/QFR/QFRResearchAdvanceBriefingReport.pdf
Stein, S.M.; Menakis, J.; Carr, M.A.; Comas, S.J.; Stewart, S.I.; Cleveland, H.; Bramwell, L.; Radeloff, V.C. 2013. ”Wildfire, wildlands, and people: understanding and preparing for wildfire in the wildland-urban interface—a Forests on the Edge report.” Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-299. Fort Collins, CO. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. https://www.fs.fed.us/openspace/fote/reports/GTR-299.pdf.
[An example of strategic planning in process.] “Planning for better bushfire management. Help us shape bushfire management strategies in your area.” Engage Victoria. https://engage.vic.gov.au/bushfire-planning.
Tom Zimmerman. “President’s Desk: Improving Wildland Fire Management Strategies.”Wildfire Magazine. February 2016. https://www.iawfonline.org/article/improving-wildland-fire-management-strategies/.