As only a short-term resident of Montana, I’m still appreciating how fire is a fact of summer life in the West; what that should mean if you choose to live in the WUI; and just how vast the resources are which go into a season of fire management. So I’d like to share a few cherry-picked moments from this weeks’ presentations at the Large Wildland Fires conference that I found particularly interesting.
First is a bar graph that Michael Hand of the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab presented, during his talk titled “The Influence of Incident Management Teams on Suppression Resource Use.” Hand was trying to figure out whether some incident management teams order more resources when managing fires, and his experimental design controlled for fire characteristics.
With number of resources ordered by IMT as the X-axis value, the graph took the shape of an S, starting out with very low numbers at the left near the y-axis, then flattened out for a while, and then steeply increased toward the right. The graph portrayed quite a range among IMTs, where some ordered resources more often–by orders of magnitude–than other IMTs. Hand allowed that there could be unobserved factors in the results, but he did try to control for many factors in his experimental design.
Dave Calkin, another Research Forester at the Fire Lab, followed Hand’s talk. Calkin has compiled data showing the efficiency of different resources IMTs could order. Calkin found that helicopters were correlated to getting work done efficiently on a fire but engines not so much. But he also found that when it came to holding fire lines, it was actually engines doing the best job. Calkin’s take on this data was that engines do well holding lines because they generally deploy at interface points in the WUI, where the fuel type switches to houses and infrastructure.
Admittedly both these examples suggest things that don’t work as efficiently as desired in firefighting practice. But its encouraging to know researchers are out there asking hard questions, to try to make fire management work better.
For people who have never seen an entire house wrapped in tinfoil (by government employees); who don’t comprehend the size of areas under discussion; and who wonder why it all costs so much, its important to know researchers within the fire community are asking these probing questions.
My impression from this week is that the fire community is very willing to ask itself such questions and examine its own work and how it measures success. I wonder how the fire community could share this self-analysis with the larger public. I think the public would be glad–and needs–to know specifically what the forest service’s challenge is these days, and how the service is trying to make sure it is deploying resources and spending money as choosily as it can.
Steven Pyne made an interesting comment yesterday — he said that the Forest Service of the 1960s believed that it couldn’t let “normal people” handle fire. The Forest Service is certainly not the only federal agency who promised too much to the public back then (the Army Corps of Engineers comes to mind.)
So as the Forest Service or other federal agencies try to step back from these over-promises made decades ago, I think its important to do so in the most transparent way possible, so as not to create a new set of unrealistic expectations.