Good morning.  I’m pleased to present FUSEE’s first in a series of podcasts.  In this installment, we interview Dr. David Calkin about the Risk Management Assistance Teams (RMATs) – his involvement, the team’s purpose, and what to expect from them during the upcoming fire season. Dave is a Research Forester for the U.S. Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Research Station,  He lives and works in Missoula, Montana, and is currently focused on risk management in wildland firefighting.

As an outgrowth of the Forest Service’s Life First initiative, the RMAT role was articulated in an agency presentation by Becki Heath, Acting Associate Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry, in Reno this spring at the Cohesive Strategy workshop, sponsored by the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF)

⇒ RMAT role was to bolster the Line Officer’s ability to examine alternative strategies that better consider:

  • inherent tradeoffs of exposure
  • risk to highly valued assets
  • opportunities for fire benefits

⇒ They tested an effort to address Line Officer’s needs for:

  • decision-making tools
  • enhanced analytics and alignment with response strategies

⇒ Intent was to enhance capacity, apply decision support tools with risk expertise, and improve the

effectiveness and efficiency of our fire management response.

Interestingly enough, the term, Agency Administrator, seems to have its origin in the Incident Command System (ICS) where there was a need to designate the primary decision maker, possibly among many, for any incident with single or multiple overlapping statutory or regulatory responsibility. From the defined term website,

Agency Administrator or Executive: Chief executive officer (or designee) of the agency or jurisdiction that has responsibility for the incident.”

Line Officer has much earlier roots. According to the Free Dictionary, the line officer is…

“a commissioned officer in the armed forces who is assigned to the line for duty.”

That term hearkens back to the days when mounted U.S. Army Cavalry soldiers served as wildland firefighters. The terms, Line Officer and Agency Administrator are often used interchangeably, but Agency Administrator is more accurate, as none of these folks are typically “on the line” with wildland firefighters. Line Officer’s are those decision makers responsible for giving direction to incident management teams (IMTs).  They choose the overarching strategy, allowing the IMT to focus on tactics  Depending on the land management agency, the designated Agency Administrator depends on either cost or complexity.

If I could ask Dave and additional follow-up question, regarding the risk aversion of line officers, I would ask, “How can the RMATs be used to discourage management for the low probability, high consequence outcome.” In other words, how do we get these decision makers to stop selecting for the most destructive fire, which is exactly what happens when we continually choose to suppress, knowing full well that fire exclusion leads to larger, more destructive fires

Older line officers come more from the school of viewing forests, only in terms of their value as a timber reserve. Naturally, with that framing, anything that kills mature trees is viewed as bad, even if it is only single individuals or scattered patches.  Fortunately, most of these folks have retired, and many younger line officers are beginning to receive instruction on the value of fire, both in terms of it being part of a functional ecosystem that provides ecosystems services – clean air and clean water come to mind, but also it because it’s often the only tool available to reduce fuels. In roadless and wilderness areas, expensive heavy-handed mechanical thinning isn’t going to happen. That expense and environmental impact should be reserved for protecting values, like the wildland urban interface.  These younger line officers, however, often don’t have much fire experience and have to lean on an often older, perhaps more jaded Fire Staff for advice.  One or two bad outcomes, and they, too, will start to consistently choose to suppress.

High Country News recently dedicated an entire issue to wildland fire topics.  From the editor’s  note…

“Wildfire is the scariest thing in the world for a manager,” says Lincoln Bramwell, who was a firefighter during the 1990s and is now the Forest Service’s chief historian. “Your career can be on the line, even if the regional forester says, ‘We’ve got your back.’ So your answer is always ‘Go put it out.’ “

Consider all the disincentives – the time commitment that forces priority projects to the back burner, members of the public aggravated by smoke, the potential loss of private property, or even someone getting killed. We worry so much about firefighter “exposure,” and the scaling up to a large project fire necessitates more exposure, but few acknowledge the lowered risk to firefighters in the future, after the fuels are reduced. The exposure calculation only extends to what is happening for the duration of one incident in time. Nobody wants an injury or fatality “on my watch,” and future firefighter safety is too nebulous. One can always hide in the fact that a fire suppressed early, when it’s small, represents less cost and less exposure…for now.

Consider the words of Mark Finley, the preeminent wildland fire modeler, in the same issue of High Country News, who asks…

Every time we put out small fires, we are unintentionally setting up the next major fire. “What type of fire do you want, and when?”

Speaking of didgeridoos and fire…

Zeke, where are you, man? Check in, will ya’…?