Wildfires: Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail Over and Over Again
Early in the 20th century, we began the ongoing cycle of pivoting our priorities and reassessing our methodologies in fire response and forest management. The Great Fire of 1910, which burned 3 million acres of forestland in Idaho and Montana over the course of just two days, set in motion the U.S. Forest Service’s full suppression response to all wildfires. This lasted until the 1990s when Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas determined that some fires would be better left to burn. “Fire is neither good nor bad,” Thomas said. “It just is.” Concurrently, the concept of prescribed burning established itself in portions of the U.S. in the 1940s, while the passing of the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act in the 1970s complicated forest management.
Finally, in 2002, to counter those regulatory complications in fire policy, the Healthy Forests Initiative was passed with the intention to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires through streamlined regulatory processes for hazardous fuel reductions. So where do we find ourselves today?
Our Current Crisis
According to the Journal for the National Academy of the Sciences article, “The Changing Risk and Burden of Wildfire in the United States,” in the past four decades wildfire burned acres have quadrupled in the U.S., driven largely by the accumulation of fuels combined with the increase in fuel aridity. At the same time, prescribed burned acres have remained largely flat in the western U.S., according to the authors in the article just mentioned. In response, the U.S. Forest Service has launched a 10-year strategy to address this wildfire crisis with a historic investment of congressional funding that will dramatically increase the scale of forest health treatments over the next decade. This is encouraging news, but funding alone will not address the current crisis.
In tracking the largest fires in the Southwest from 2013 to 2020, the Southwest Fire Consortium reports that on average, only about 53% of fire response was full suppression, with all other activity being “managed” fire response or some other strategy. This begs the question, why during a time of “wildfire crisis” and mega-drought is fire response anything less than 100% full suppression? It appears the need to reverse decades of over-growth in our forests, combined with the slow-moving bureaucracy of fire planning, the painful process of obtaining environmental clearances, and lack of program funding have placed increased pressure on agency administrators to manage these wildfires for the natural resource benefits they otherwise would have achieved through planned fuel treatments. During fire season the funding spigot is never turned off, fire personnel and resources are more available, and stakeholder collaboration is bypassed. This creates an illusion of efficiency and ease of decision-making.
The findings of a recent Mixed Method Review paper by Ph.D. candidate, Stephen Fillmore out of the University of Idaho, reveal that there are at least 110 factors involved in the decision framework of whether a fire should be managed for resource benefit or fully suppressed. These include multiple decision points within each of the following categories: Institutional Influences, Operational Considerations, Fire Outcomes, Fire Environment, Perceived Risk, and Sociopolitical Context. It cannot be easy for an agency administrator of the incident command system, likely imported from another state, to make such complex decisions in tense moments of fire behavior. There are numerous unintended consequences to all forest users and rural communities with this philosophy.
When the objective of natural resource “benefit” dictates the response strategy for a wildfire burning in the hot, windy days of June, it seems reasonable to question this logic. Since 2017, I have received multiple complaints from ranchers across the state with questions about this managed wildfire strategy. This is certainly not because ranchers don’t recognize the importance of fire on the landscape. Prescribed fire is an invaluable tool that brings together stakeholders and allows for building community support, while incorporating the use of pre-fire resource tools, maximizing fire behavior control, and planning for rehabilitation measures post-fire. The concern stems from the total lack of planning for a tool that can be very risky and expensive to use in the moment. Managed fire often involves setting back burns far from the actual fire line and in exceedance of what would normally be necessary. Given that these decisions are made in real-time, there is generally insufficient communication with the land manager, and this has endangered cattle, destroyed infrastructure, created long-term soil health damage, and threatened access to planned grazing areas. Any damages incurred as a result are expensive and funding can be difficult to obtain.
It's evident through the data and the economic losses to forest users and rural communities, that we need to hit the pause button on the use of “managed fire” to achieve natural resource benefits, as it is not the answer to the current wildfire or forest health crisis. The next pivot in priorities and reassessing our methodologies in fire response and forest management not only requires historic funding, but a collective effort by all stakeholders to ease the planning hurdles for prescribed fire, timber harvest, and livestock grazing as tools to manage fuel loads on our forests.
Editor’s Note: Policy development this season from our county leadership is helping address this issue. Farm Bureau leaders, see you all in November.