Why talk about wildfires when much of the country is still reeling from the consequences of winter’s arctic blasts?
Because it’s a “wicked problem,” and is almost impossible to discuss in the midst of summer’s raging fires.
“Wicked problems” are defined as cultural or social problems that are difficult to solve for as many as four reasons: the significant economic burden, incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other issues.
Wildfires touch on all four of those reasons – all of which were highlighted during and after the Camp fire destroyed most of Paradise, California, as the Trump administration and California politicians traded insults in the media.
Is there a solution? Yes, but it takes work to find common ground, so it’s best to start the conversation before we’re facing eminent danger and short timelines.
In May 2018, a conference in Missoula, Montana, called “The Fire Continuum: Preparing for the Future of Wildland Fire” brought firefighters and fire ecologists from around the world to look at the ecological, economic, logistical and social aspects of wildland fires.
More than 600 people participated, but the information was primarily shared with people already deeply enmeshed in wildfire management issues. Unfortunately, city and county managers, and legislators from state and federal bodies, weren’t in attendance, so there was a good bit of preaching to the choir.
Keynote speakers were Vicki Christiansen, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, the agency with the greatest stake in managing wildfires, and Dave Calkin, a research forester who leads a team charged with figuring out how fire suppression can be more effective and efficient with less risk to people and property.
Calkin posed the question: “How are we going to make wildfire management less wicked?”
And provided an answer: “We have to take a systems approach and have a commitment to risk management. We need to enhance pre-event planning so we’re upstream from this problem and not responding to an emergency.”
It’s an approach referred to as “moneyball for wildfires” – that is, a more data-driven and analytical approach to wildfire management, rather than relying on the “gut” experiential approach that has driven past management.
Ideally you combine the best of both scenarios.
Christiansen talked about the need to change the nation’s cultural approach to fighting fires and living with fire, whether around communities or in the forested watersheds that supply our cities with water.
Both talked about the need to change the culture within and between agencies at the federal, state and local levels; change the culture of people living in fire-prone areas and the culture of land management.
This is no simple task, since how best to manage wildfires and the use of prescribed fire has been debated for more than a century.
The wicked nature of the problem is compounded by the “wildfire paradox:” The more successful you are at putting out wildland fires, the worse conditions get for a severe fire when one escapes initial attack.
And, of course, the more success you have, the more people expect you to quickly extinguish every fire.
The result: When wildfires do escape it’s during hottest, driest, windiest conditions, producing some of the most severe, intense fires imaginable.
Scientist Mark Finney, with the Forest Service’s Fire Science Lab in Missoula, says the U.S. has successfully caught 97-98 percent wildfires on initial attack for more than 100 years – limiting them to less than 100 acres.
So with all the improvements in firefighting technology, from airplanes, to dropping retardant and smokejumpers from above, to bulldozers, excavators, helicopters, improved communications, computer modeling, on and on, why is our success rate diminishing?
Not only that, but why are we having such huge fires?
Paul Hessburg an ecologist with decades of research on forests in the western U.S., describes these new blazes as “megafires.” His presentations and TED talk outline how we have created this paradox, as our success has led to dramatically denser forests across the landscape.
Large Economic Burden
“Last year  was one of the largest fire years in recent history — more than 10 million acres burned — and it was the costliest on record. The Forest Service alone spent more than $2.4 billion – more than half of our agency’s budget,” Chief Christiansen related.
And that’s just one agency.
States have also borne increasing costs and responsibilities for wildfires, as has the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and many others.
The suppression costs are only the tip of the iceberg.
The Western Council of State Foresters commissioned a study that looked at the additional costs associated with fighting and recovering from a fire, and found that costs for water filtration, repairing infrastructure, housing losses, human life losses, health care related to smoke pollution, mental health (post-traumatic stress disorder) and flood damage can be two to 10 times more than the initial firefighting costs.
Fires like those in Paradise, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and San Diego, all in California over the past two years, as well as Fort MacMurray in Alberta, and Wenatchee, Washington, have devastated cities in the West. And Gatlinburg, Tennessee, demonstrated that it isn’t just a Western issue.
The costs run many tens of billions of dollars. So the first element of the “wickedness” – economics – is confirmed.
Incomplete or Contradictory Knowledge and the Number of People and Opinions Involved
These two facets of “wickedness” are so intertwined as to be inseparable, because the extent of our knowledge impacts the many perspectives people bring to the conversation.
Add to this complexity the brain research completed in recent decades that highlighted the reality of “confirmation bias,”in which we filter information through the lenses of experiences, education and personal world views.
Every day, we see confirmation bias playing out in our politics, economic perspectives and value sets. People see things as binary instead of as being on a continuum.
Last year’s conference in Missoula was an attempt to focus on the continuous and interconnected nature of wildfires, rather than a simple either-or choice.
Challenge is Not New
The Society of American Foresters recently published articles examining wildfires over the past 100 years, illustrating how long the debate has raged.
In the teens, ’20s and ’30s of the early 20th century, the debate over wildfire management truly raged in the forestry world. The issue: What was the proper role of fire, be it naturally occurring or intentionally ignited?
The lines between the camps were hard and punctuated with many prejudices. The “lumberman camp” of California looked at a landscape formerly managed by Native Americans, which was full of very large, widely spaced trees where wildfires had relatively little effect on timber values. They recognized the role of fire used by native peoples as an important part of creating and maintaining these big-tree forests.
The competing camp, however, considered fire a destroyer of forests, killing trees, especially younger ones that ensured a future of big trees to harvest. This camp wanted all fires suppressed, and its view dominated the fledgling Forest Service.
It was a view dramatically shaped by the Great Burn of 1910, which in less than two days consumed more than 3 million acres in western Montana and northern Idaho, and darkened skies in the eastern U.S. with its smoke.
In 1920, W.B. Greeley, a future chief of the Forest Service, wrote “Piute Forestry” the Fallacy of Light Burning, an article that decried the idea of intentionally burning forest and grass lands, as had the Native Americans.
The idea of the day was that logging and thinning would take the place of the fires, but the reality was the cost of the investment in thinning small trees never came close to matching the need for fire prevention.
In the western U.S., this argument won out and became ingrained in Forest Service practices in 1935 with the “10 a.m. policy” – which required new fires to be out by mid-morning the next day. The suppression of all fires in the West was the norm until the early 1970s, when cracks in the policy started to appear in wilderness areas, championed by a small group of Forest Service and Park Service fire ecologists.
It is well documented how decades of fire suppression changed natural cycles that had kept trees and other vegetation from choking America’s forests. Many historical photosshow how meadows and open forests disappeared under an unbroken blanket of trees.
At last year’s conference, Tony Cheng, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute director, presented studies of forests in Boulder County, Colorado, and concluded that lower-elevation forests have “10 times as many trees … as there were historically.”
In the southeastern U.S., the cultural tradition of burning forests largely survived. European settlers continued the native burning tradition, and the Southeast is still the part of the country that implements the most intentional burns.
Then came the Gatlinburg disaster, which was put into motion when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established and burning was restricted. A fire history expert at the University of Tennessee foreshadowed the problemwhen his research illustrated the past use of fire and the increased density of forests as a result of stopping that practice. When a wildfire did eventually ignite in extreme drought conditions, human lives, entire communities and a large swath of forest land were lost.
So the U.S. actually has different cultural approaches to fire, depending on where you live. However, as society has become more mobile, the culture of fire use in the South is under pressure.
Each year, more and more people move to the Sunbelt who didn’t grow up with the culture of burning and don’t like the smoke it produces. They complain about the haze and the health effects of fine particles in the smoke.
In fact, smoke is a major barrier to greater use of planned fires in the West, as the detrimental effects of smoke are well documented. The question of whether it is better to have small doses of smoke periodically from planned burns, rather than the large, extended doses that come with wildfires needs to be addressed.
Diverse Perspectives Beget Interconnected Conflicting Issues
The management of national forests has been controversial for more than 50 years. Arguments about logging methods, harvest acreages, whether harvesting helps or hurts wildfire management, and how much fire suppression or logging contributed the current overgrown-forest reality continue to fester. Congress requested a study to examine the effectiveness of fuel treatments.
While it took a century to set the stage with overgrown forests, it’s taken just few decades for climate change – the second major ingredient for megafires – to make its grand entrance, whipping ignitions into maelstroms.
That’s because climate change causes hotter, drier conditions for longer periods of time, stressing trees and dessicating vegetation and woody debris, priming it for a spark. Climate change also increases the occurrence of thunderstorms, bringing unwanted dry lightning to some regions.
Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says the planet is warming at a pace not experienced within the past 1,000 years, causing drought in many parts of the West.
“There’s no pause or hiatus in temperature increase,” he said. “People who think this is over are viewing the world through rose-tinted spectacles. This is a chronic problem for society for the next 100 years.”
The nation’s political dysfunction aggravates this aspect of the wildfire situation because there are politicians who deny climate change and humans’ exacerbating role. It is rarely possible to talk about solutions if you can’t agree on the cause of the problem.
Another confounding issue is that the long history of debate over logging on national forests has morphed into an argument about whether harvesting helps or hurts when it comes to wildfire. The research documenting the important role of planned fires and some types of harvesting in forested ecosystems is extensive and shows many positive benefits in mitigating the severity and intensity of wildfires. However, these benefits are temporal, lasting five to possibly 20-plus years, depending on the forest.
At the same time, research shows that in some areas, past timber harvests aggravated wildfires, increasing their severity. Another argument is that the odds of a wildfire encountering a treatment area while it is still effective is quite low.
The “let nature take its course-deep ecology philosophy” argues it is a waste of money to do the treatments. Those advocates say homeowners simply need to treat the area within 100 feet of their houses and everything will be OK.
But research also shows that postponing forest burns until the worst weather conditions, when we can’t put it out any fire and the number of fire starts often overwhelms our capacity to catch them, has other adverse consequences.
The result of all this complexity is that people cherry-pick research that supports their perspective, and confirms their set of biases.
The call for political action to solve a problem often comes in the aftermath of disaster.
The complexity of wildfire management is not well-suited to political dialogue in our polarized country. It doesn’t lend itself to sound bites, but that doesn’t stop politicians from trying to characterize the problem in simplistic terms, adding to the polarization rather than generating a healthy dialogue about solutions.
It is especially difficult when the solutions need to cut across all levels of government, as well as personal responsibility. This problem is bigger than individual landowners, city governments, state agencies, and the Forest Service. It requires coordinated action on all fronts.
Therefore, it is not surprising that all these levels of government came up with “The Cohesive Strategy,” shorthand for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, an effort involving organizations across the spectrum of government and non-government stakeholders that took years to produce. The challenge now is to implement the strategy as the normal, day-to-day mode of operation.
Change and Risk Management
Few people like change. They often resist new ideas because the unfamiliar feels risky, especially when old ways have been comfortable for decades or even centuries. Vaccines are an example of a scientific breakthrough that improved the lives of hundreds of millions and was adopted in the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s. It was a time when science and government had received much higher degrees of trust and people had either direct experiences with these diseases or family members who had. And yet, it took time to persuade some of the general public of its importance. Today some are rejecting vaccinations. Misinformation about possible side-effects and the rarity of many of the diseases that have almost been eliminated is causing some to think they don’t need to have their child vaccinated and yet that puts others at risk. To be effective as much of the population needs to comply as possible.
There are many parallels to this in wildfire mitigation. If your neighbors don’t protect their home and property, they can become the fuel that feeds embers to other homes. To be really effective you need community buy-in for local code enforcement, state and federal lands to be treated and to be thinking not just about homes at risk, but watersheds that provide our drinking and agriculture water, habitat for fish and more.
When it comes to wildfires, can risk be managed? Faced with burgeoning firefighting costs and more erratic fire behavior, forestry leaders are determined to find out. “Today, our nation has over a billion burnable acres of vegetated landscapes. Most of that is naturally adapted to periodic wildland fire. But as our nation has changed, so has our ability to live with wildland fire,” said Chief Christiansen, while addressing the conference. “Our wildland fire system is extremely complex, and so is our operating environment. Forces are at play that we have little or no control over.”
Distrust – The Growing Threat
Technological advances have brought rapid change to many aspects of life. But as fewer people understand or trust science, they are woefully unprepared to understand the implications of new technologies and scientific research. From increasing mechanization and computerized innovations to the byproducts of such advancements – population growth and climate change – all leave society and governments struggling to keep up.
The explosion of information sources, good and bad, across the internet have fed the distrust of all institutions. Innovative, collaborative thinking is needed to help communities and nations adapt. But it doesn’t come easily. Overcoming old habits takes time and a willingness to listen to unfamiliar ideas.
Being made up of individuals, organizations can suffer dogmatic inertia as well. The USFS manages things thought to be timeless — forests and land– but when it comes to megafires, the agency can’t cling to the old ways. State wildfire agencies, the National Park Service, and local fire departments all have to take a fresh look at how they get their jobs accomplished.
All these factors, climate change, development of homes in the forest and rangelands, landscaping around subdivisions, 100+ years of fire suppression, and harvesting the biggest trees are now converging to spike wildfire risk beyond what it was even 20 years ago. The 40 fires that burned throughout the southwestern U.S. in 2018 attest to that.
Fire seasons now last the entire year in parts of the Southwest, and there has been a marked increase in the frequency, size and severity of wildfires across North America. Sometimes those fires threaten communities or the water reservoirs that serve them, creating a larger crisis. “Forty years ago, a wildfire larger than 10,000 acres was relatively rare. Today, we talk about megafires, and we see them every year,” Christiansen said.
Megafires seem to dominate every summer, but they’ve burned only 10 percent of western U.S. forests since 1980. That leaves a lot more to burn, said Dave Calkin. So it makes no sense for the Forest Service to try to respond to each fire as the next emergency – that leaves no time for getting ahead of the problem.
“We’re maybe seeing a sea change in how we approach fire,” Calkin said. “Think of the concept of ‘fight’ — there are no tornado fighters out there. But there is this aspect of fire where we think we have some level of control. So it’s broadly accepted that we should fight these things. But there’s no fighting megafires.” We can manage and try to mitigate the losses and be ready when the weather gives us a break to contain it.
If megafires are the new natural disaster, much like tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes, then governments should develop policies and systems that protect Americans in the event of a wildfire. Just as buildings in earthquake-prone regions must meet higher standards for stability, regulations should require buildings in wildfire-prone areas be made of fire-resistant materials and have defensible space outside.
So far, the Forest Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency in conjunction with researchers and firefighting organizations have developed guidelines for homes in forested and shrubland areas, called the wildland urban interface or WUI. But they have no authority for mandating adoption; that is the purview of local city and county governments.
There’s no way to completely eliminate risk, especially with wildfire. But the right kind of data and analysis can help managers plan in a less stressful environment how to best to deal with future wildfires, and substantially reduce the risk, with foresight rather than experiential gut reactions by the people in charge of the fire charging over the hill.
While they can’t affect climate change alone, Forest Service managers are focusing on two things related to overgrown forests: reducing the amount of fuels where the threat to human safety is high, and prioritizing forest resources to know which fires should be fought and where. (These kinds of programs will be considered in follow-on articles in this series.)
Risk management, a relatively new discipline, is essential to effective decision-making in both realms.
Calkin talks about taking a systems approach and committing to practicing risk management based on data. “We need to enhance pre-event planning so we’re upstream from this problem and not responding to an emergency. We need to take action on the rightridge, not necessarily the next ridge.”
Even though individuals automatically evaluate every decision for risks – often by unconsciously weighing pros and cons – it’s been only recently that people developed a set process and statistics to make risk analysis a science. By 2000, scientists in fields from ecology to economics started using it. The quandaries of wildfire prompted the Forest Service set up research teams like Calkin’s to incorporate “Moneyball” into firefighting.
But there’s the rub. For the most part, the Forest Service hasn’t been collecting the kind of data that would help managers map out more fire-prone areas, said Rocky Mountain Research Station forester Matthew Thompson. Such data include vegetation condition and dead fuel loads, the density, soil moisture and how recently was it burned or had the fuels treated by other means.
“Our current system is heavily, and in some cases exclusively, reliant on experiential evidence for decision-making,” Thompson said. “We need a vision for fire management where evidence rather than intuition is a primary basis for decision making. And we need to improve the quality of evidence that inform our decisions.”
Calkin said the Forest Service also needs to collect another type of data: post-fire conditions to compare to the pre-fire data. That would provide feedback on the effectiveness of risk-management methods and could help develop the new regime. “When we have a large fire, we can evaluate what happened in the preseason, and how that is reflected in how the large fire event is managed,” Calkin said. “We need performance indicators to show us how resources are being used, how decisions are being made, and that helps set goals for improvement.”
But data collection, modeling and risk analysis doesn’t come cheap. While Congress has allocated more money through the 2018 Omnibus bill for fire suppression and $40 million for hazardous fuels reduction work starting in 2020, the Forest Service budget is still tight when it comes to other work. But the agency has only eight years – that’s the duration of the Omnibus funding – to show it can become more effective at managing wildfire.
“If we want a permanent fix, we need to be accountable for our spending,” Christiansen said. “Our success in developing [safe effective risk-based wildfire response] will vindicate the trust that Congress has placed in us.”
Even though the agency has a lot of information to collect before forest plans can detail the best places to treat fuels or fight fires, it’s already using risk analysis to change firefighting as it happens. In 2017, the USFS started using Risk Management Assistance Teams to help incident commanders, district rangers and forest supervisors, use analytics fight fire more effectively and safely. Sometimes the analysis points to not fighting the fire at all in some areas, allowing the fire to do the work it has done historically.
Fire Management is Land Management
Land and forest management can influence fire behavior. But as scientists learn more about megafire behavior, it’s clear that land management practices also need updating, and risk analysis could help.
Rather than choosing low controversy areas for stewardship and timber sale contracts, district rangers can use the process to identify locations for thinning and prescribed burns that will protect structures, watersheds and wildlife habitat from fire and create potential control points and fire lines throughout a forest before fires start. However taking on more controversial locations takes more time and effort communicating with people to understand the need for treatment, not an easy or cheap task. Groups opposed to such actions protest or litigate the projects causing delay and using up precious funds in response.
Forest managers can also map out which areas could be allowed to burn to do the work of treatment efforts, especially in remote areas where fuel-reduction efforts aren’t a priority.
“Planned prescribed fire is one way to get fire on the landscape under conditions we choose. Additionally, unplanned wildfire, especially on federal lands where we are the land manager and the fire manager, is also an important tool when executed in the right conditions and when we co-manage the risk with our neighbors,” Christiansen said. “We agree to accept some short-term risk for a larger gain of reducing long-term risk to landscapes and communities.”
Things started changing in the late 2000s, when national forests started writing land management plans identifying areas where fires could be allowed to burn. That needs to continue, said Rocky Mountain Research Station analyst and fire applications specialist, Vita Wright. Her job is to try and get the latest information in the hands of practitioners.
A 2009 policy added more flexibility when it emphasized that forest managers could have different objectives and use different strategies on different parts of a fire. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. “That’s really been huge. And we’re experimenting with ‘How can we do this?’” Wright said. “But I don’t think we’ve gotten there with the public yet. That was pretty evident last summer with the news.” That is one of the biggest hurdles: public opinion. During the 2017 fires in western Montana, many Monday-morning quarterbacks fired off letters to the editor as fire teams focused on some areas while putting less emphasis on other areas in a form of triage and risk management.
Calkin acknowledges the significant challenge of trying to invest in the pre-planning and treatments while also reacting to the next fire season when you haven’t gotten the treatments in place that can change the risk equation.
The latter option is often difficult to justify to a public that continues to build into the wildland-urban interface. Some property owners, such as Albert Borgmann who has a Montana home near the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness, takes the threat of wildfire seriously and has done all he can to prepare for its eventuality. He’s doing the kind of work that could be helped by additional thinning and burning on surrounding public land.
But many others still expect that every wildfire will be put out and react strongly when nearby fires aren’t.
Now, risk analysis studies are finally pinpointing landscapes that are more fire-prone. For example, Pyrologix wildfire analyst April Brough took Montana’s property data and overlaid a map of the state’s burn probability to find the worst areas for wildfire loss. After the Lolo and Rice Ridge fires of 2017, it’s not surprising that she found the Bitterroot and Seeley-Swan valleys have a high risk of home loss. Maybe, as with floodplains, people shouldn’t be building there or using construction materials and techniques to dramatically reduce the risk of burning. But agencies and politicians balk at creating such rules because constituents don’t want them. This is part of what makes these problems “wicked”.
“We’re not only seeing increasing wildfire suppression demands, we’re also seeing increasing risk – this was absolutely expected from our system as it’s designed,” Calkin said. “How do we go to a community and say, ‘You are in a very bad risk place – we don’t have an opportunity to be successful when we have a fire’? That’s a very difficult conversation, but these models help us hopefully to have this conversation.”
Ultimately, it’s going to take education and cooperation between private, local government, tribal, state and federal entities to prepare for future megafires. Sometimes it’s more effective to have private groups talking to private owners. Collaborative groups have formed in locations all across the country around some national forests. They have been coming together from across the political and philosophical spectrum to address common concerns. These groups typically have environmentalists, lumber companies, county commissioners, conservation organizations, interested local residents and more. Formerly opponents in litigation of projects, most of these groups have come together by focusing on trying to find solutions based on information all can trust, and through careful listening. They have created projects with the Forest Service that can meet multiple goals, including wildfire risk mitigation. Such groups contribute to the “cohesive strategy” mentioned earlier, with the goals of: improving overall fire response; creating fire-adapted communities; and restoring forests regardless of ownership.
“Those of us involved were tired of the finger-pointing that went on with one side assigning blame for a fire to the other side. Fire is a zero-sum game,” Christiansen said. “Guiding principles and shared core values include improved risk management and active land management to make the landscape more resilient. All of this needs to be done before a fire comes.”
Coming up: The next three articles will explore additional facets of this wicked problem: ecological issues, economic, and social issues and highlight examples of how some of these changes are being implemented.