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The following essay was written in response to a recent post at Wildfire Today: Wildfire News and Opinion, entitled,

Are we experiencing a “new normal” of wildland fire behavior?

I just wanted to take a quick moment to comment on your recent post about a “new normal” in wildland fire management, Bill.  Having been deeply embedded in the “less than full suppression” paradigm shift in fire management for nearly thirty years, I’ve seen the naming fiasco…prescribed natural fire (PNF), wildland fire use (WFU), even the more obtuse wildland fire use for resource benefit (WFURB), and so on.  We should be thankful that the “good” fire vs. “bad” fire distinction is now gone with the last Federal wildland fire policy iteration.  We have finally arrived at a state that offers maximum flexibility to the fire manager and his/her agency administrator.  Now, any fire can be managed for a mix of suppression and natural resource management objectives at any time and any place. No longer is a fire being managed for resource benefit “converted” suddenly to a fire needing to be crushed under the boot heel of our Fire Industrial Complex.  The objectives of the incident can simply be changed to adapt to the new situation. In reverse now, a fire might be managed under a full suppression strategy up until a certain date, then “released” to meet resource objectives.  It is not uncommon now for part of a fire to be managed for suppression objectives, while another part is managed for resource objectives.  It makes sense that the folks at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) are looking to capture statistics on fires now, using the “other than full suppression” term as a catch-all to described the variety of management strategies being used.

Fire managers all over the country are using this flexibility – on the Gila, in the Northern Rockies, and even in the Wasatch and Unitas.  California is a special case.  The way air quality laws are written in the state, any naturally-ignited fire being managed explicitly for resource benefit falls under Title 17 rules that bring local air districts into a regulatory role governing the fire, which is still a dynamic emergency event.  In California, enforcement of the Clean Air Act falls to local air districts.  In wildfires, we defer Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act rules, placing enforcement agencies like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service into an advisory role, until the emergency is over.  In the early days of managing long-term wildland fire events, air districts were mislead to believe that there could be some modicum of control with these incidents, meting out 10 acres of growth here and a hundred acres of growth there.  Each day, the IC has to get “permission” from the local air district for the expected acres of growth.  Exceeding the approved growth could elicit a fine, and in some districts, land management agencies are assessed a per acre fee.  In effect, there is an attempt to manage a wildfire like a prescribed fire.  This was never a tenable arrangement.  So now, in most cases, California fire managers play the perfectly valid firefighter safety card and call the remote fires “suppression” fires, utilizing a confinement strategy.

So, Bill, while I share your pain about the “other than full suppression” nomenclature, the days of good vs. bad fire are over.  You mention exposure, but what you fail to recognize is our obligation to future firefighters.  Contemporary risk management that only considers risk on an incident-by-incident basis is shortsighted. By accepting some minimal exposure today, that treats thousands of acres, has the effect of reducing firefighter exposure on the same patch of ground for years to come.  Like the shortsightedness of a company that only serves to enrich its shareholders on a quarterly basis, while ignoring the needs of the surrounding community or the local ecology, ignoring the benefit to future firefighter safety is to ignore the legacy of snags and the accumulation of fuel from a century of fire suppression.  The utility of large, recent fire scars on the landscape –derived through some minimal firefighter risk exposure—is well demonstrated today on the Ferguson Fire as the FUSEE team has blogged about here and here.

You are correct regarding staffing on “huge weather and fuel driven fires.” The Carr Fire is just such a fire, yet if anything less than a full response were mounted, public outrage would ensue, given the values at risk–no matter the futility at times.  On the other hand, up in the Klamath Mountains, Incident Management Teams are turning ever more toward the best practices honed during the days of PNF and WFU, when they are simply deprived of suppression resources.  The Operations branch may pout about the lack of available resources, but the Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACCs) and Multi-Agency Coordinating (MAC) groups are becoming quite adept at allocating resources between incidents based on relative threats.  If an “other than full suppression” fire is threatening nothing in the wilderness or roadless area, and there are 900 unfilled orders for engines, as there just were in California, that fire will simply have to make do, with the forest “suffering resource benefit,” as retired Shasta-Trinity Forest FMO, Arlen Cravens, likes to say. The scattered residents in those areas will have to band together and do what they can, as a community, as no resources may be available.  That is really, the message of the “all-lands” collaborative approach called for in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.  No amount of heavy metal and “next-gen” airtankers are going to fix this, and we aren’t at war with nature.   All the war fighting metaphors are unhelpful and serve as a means to oversimplify a complex problem.

Bill, you suggest that “having people assigned for months to a fire…exacerbates the situation, exposing more firefighters for longer periods of time,” yet when two or three seven-person fire modules, well-trained in wilderness fire management, can manage a fire covering thousands of acres, there is no more cost-effective fuel treatment available.  Ecologists are pleading for the much-needed resilience building of fire in dry pine forests to protect the oldest trees facing a changing climate, and we owe it to future generations not to make the same mistake of excluding fire as a natural process.  The very definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting different results.  Yes, decades of fire suppression have contributed to the current problem.  That, like climate change, is settled science.  The cacophony of retired firefighters and foresters that make the claim that they had it all figured out back in their day fail to really get the “new normal,” that includes drought-stricken, bug infested forests ready to burn repeatedly, leading to a type-conversion, as grasses, shrubs and forests migrate higher on the slopes.  This has all been foretold by climate scientists.  Firefighting in the mid-twentieth century was aided by a cooler, wetter period; less accumulated fuel load from fire exclusion; and much less impact by climate change.  What I would say to the small cabal of retired, mostly USFS firefighters who are egged on by the timber industry and calling for a return to the 10am policy: Get over yourselves, sit down, enjoy your pension, and let the new crop of fire managers adapt to these rapidly changing conditions.

Lastly, Bill, you close using the term “let burn” in two back-to-back sentences.  One could almost believe you are being intentionally provocative using this much-reviled terminology, circa 1988.  You ask, “will we ever treat enough land to make a difference in the long run?”  Well, we already know we won’t do it with prescribed burning.  Managers are unwilling to take the risk, despite a well over 99.9% success record, as you have reported.  That leaves only wildfire to treat fuels, especially in protected areas.  The California Cal Fire “full suppression all the time” model is too costly for the rest of the country, and is currently showing signs of serious stress.  Add to that the disaster capitalism model applied by the private “for profit” firefighting companies, wherein there is no incentive to put the fire out, and you have a very unstable situation being met by an increasingly insular culture.  So, “do we have enough funding and firefighters for let burn fires,” Bill?  A good question, but I can guarantee you this, you don’t have any other choice.  As is the case right now.  There are not enough resources to manage all the fires in the country where values are threatened, so we better have some expertise on managing fires with limited or no resources, so the crews, aircraft and engines can go make “heroic” efforts at fighting those fires that do threaten entire towns and cities.  And let me be plain — no timber stand, no home, no critical infrastructure, no regional air quality concern, and no mere possession is worth a single wildland firefighter’s life.  That’s central to Federal fire management policy and it should remain so.