by David Calkin and Matt Thompson
US Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Human Dimensions Program. Missoula, MT.
Risk management has evolved into one of the most discussed topics within wildfire organizations throughout the world. However, there remains considerable uncertainty around fundamental definitions and concepts of risk management and how it should be implemented at varying levels of fire management organizations. In December of 2014 an interagency meeting on wildfire risk labeled the “Risk Summit” was held in Tucson, Arizona with the intent of improving the understanding and training of risk management concepts within federal wildfire management. At the meeting it became apparent that although there was strong interest and efforts going forward in the adoption of risk management there did not exist a common language or understanding of concepts of risk management within the attendees; those responsible for training and implementing risk management within the Agency. Don MacGregor summarized the current level of knowledge regarding the application of risk management within federal wildfire management as “a mile wide and an inch deep”. In this article I will critique the current state of risk management knowledge within federal wildfire management with a focus on the critical importance of appropriately defining the appropriate objective at the appropriate scale
A critical first step is to clearly understand that risk management is a process that organizations can employ to achieve desired objectives, not an objective in and of itself. The International Organization of Standards (ISO) is an organization developed to promote industrial and commercial standards throughout the world. ISO has codified principles and general guidelines for practitioners and organizations employing risk management processes within ISO 31000:2009. In the most recent set of standards the ISO took the significant step of revising its fundamental definition of risk from “the chance or probability of loss” to “the effect of uncertainty on objectives“. This new definition provides two important points for wildfire management: 1) the emphasis of objectives as the end goal of risk management and 2) the recognition that risk management is not concerned with losses alone and can be highly informative to achieving positive results supporting the overall missions of organizations with wildfire management responsibilities.
As part of the discussions within the summit, I introduced a conceptual display that described the primary objective, risk management approach, how the result of the risk analysis is applied within the organization, and the specific responsibilities during an ongoing wildfire incident at varying levels of the US Forest Service. This is intended to demonstrate how the approach taken to risk management including the objectives, the analytical tools, and required knowledge base varies depending on the specific role within the larger organization and is shown in Table 1. I selected the Forest Service due to my personal research background and the relative size of the Agency’s fire management responsibility; however, I believe modification of the developed concepts may be informative to most wildfire management organizations. Although the information in Table 1 is fairly detailed, I follow with discussion of some key points worth highlighting.
The Role of Safety in Risk Management
Over the last several years my personal observations are that many discussions of risk management with mangers at all levels of the Agency are solely focused on firefighter safety. As you can see in the chart above safety is a critical objective at each level of the organization and this is consistent with our federal policy that emphasizes firefighter and community safety over all other objectives. However, the range of objectives at higher levels of the organization includes many other values and considerations.
Application of risk management in managerial roles within the Agency requires that the uncertainty of different potential future outcomes be analyzed and quantified. Over the last decade researchers have developed a number of important models and decision support tools that can support actuarial wildfire risk assessment based on the definition that risk is the integration of the probability distribution of the range of potential wildfire events on the landscape times the consequences to highly valued resources and assets including firefighter and community safety. Clearly at the ground firefighter level such analytical rigor is not feasible. Firefighters must constantly update their assumptions regarding fire behavior, topography and emerging weather patterns to evaluate if the assigned tactical action can be accomplished in a relatively safe manner. Absolute safety in wildfire management is not feasible. However, if you examine the 10 firefighting orders and 18 watch out situations, you may recognize that many of these are established to identify or mitigate the uncertainty associated with hazards of the firefighting environment. Essentially at the ground level the objective of their tactical action in the fire management risk problem is defined for them; when they engage they are managing uncertainty not risk. Therefore they must rely on the fact that those managers responsible for the development of the wildfire strategy have redeemed their risk management responsibilities. Forest Service Chief Tidwell has articulated management’s responsibility using the 5 R’s concept: the right plan, in the right place, at the right time, with the right assets for the right duration.
Risk Management as an Investment Approach
The revised ISO definition makes it clear that risk management is a process to achieve an organization’s objectives, not just a tool to consider likelihood and scale of loss. The National Forests are an incredibly valuable asset for the American public. There is a growing body of work attempting to quantify the economic value of natural landscapes through ecosystem services valuation. The challenge for managers is to determine the best strategies to grow the value of the ecosystem services that society derives from their public lands under uncertain future disturbances, increasing population demands, and changing societal preferences. Risk management is a powerful tool to evaluate the portfolio of management actions that has the best return to the public for the Agency’s budget. It also may be used to evaluate alternative future courses of action given different disturbance scenarios.
Engagement by National Forest System Leadership is Critical
Within Table 1 the central role of managers and line officers within the National Forest System in establishing the objectives for fire management becomes apparent. Given the decentralized nature of the Agency, local line officers are ultimately responsible for establishing clear objectives to guide incident management teams in their fire management efforts. However, recently Tim Sexton, Director of the Wildland Fire Research Development and Applications program, conducted a systematic evaluation of the incident objectives published in the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) for numerous large federal wildfire events during 2014. He found that a large majority of objectives were so general that they provided little specific guidance to incident management teams charged with developing and implementing strategies and tactics that would achieve the local line officer’s fire management objectives. Additionally, strategic objectives and requirements established within land management plans rarely included information that is directly relevant to wildfire suppression actions (see: http://www.wfmrda.nwcg.gov/docs/Incident_Objectives_Project_BP_March%2019_2015.pdf) .
Risk Assessments to Inform Land Management Plans
The Land Management Plan establishes the specific objectives for management of each national forest. However in many cases the potential feasibility of achieving the established objectives under localized disturbance regimes is not sufficiently considered. Spatial risk assessment allows for an understanding of current risks to highly valued resources and assets, potential implications of following current management approaches and potential future mitigation options. These activities can be highly informative to establishing and modifying Land Management Plans that provide critical guidance to fire and fuels management activities. As wildfire management currently represents over half of all expenditures within the Forest Service the need to align land management objectives with the wildfire reality becomes critical. The primacy of wildfire in defining management actions is not uniform across National Forests. Between 2000 and 2012, 60 percent of all large wildfire suppression expenditures were incurred by only 25 of the 163 National Forests, while half the Forests with lowest expenditures contribute only 13 percent. Therefore, investment in risk assessments should be initially focused on those high cost forests that represent the bulk of suppression expenditures and wildfire damage.
Such an effort to use wildfire risk assessment to inform land management plan revisions is underway in the National Forests of the Southern Sierra Range. A spatial wildfire risk assessments has been developed that can help inform feasible land management objectives that recognizes the risk wildfire poses to highly valued resources in some areas while recognizing the need to increase the reintroduction of wildfire into these fire adapted landscapes. Although wildfire risk assessment efforts should be directed first towards high cost/ high damage areas, spatial risk assessment likely has a role throughout all regions and forests within the NFS. Extending risk assessments to include multi-jurisdictional analysis of a range of potential disturbances including such hazards as invasive species, insect and disease, erosion and sedimentation of critical watersheds and the interactions of these disturbances under a changing climate will be necessary to assure that established land management objectives are feasible and direct management actions to achieve them. Efforts are underway to develop research programs to support an All Hands, All Lands, All Hazards risk assessments approach.
Clearly the above chart is not exhaustive of areas of the organization that have significant wildfire management responsibilities nor the full range of roles of those identified within the matrix in achieving the overarching mission. For example my own branch of the agency, research, is not specifically identified although we have played a critical role in our current understanding of the role of risk management in achieving the Agency’s mission and important future work lies ahead in advancing and applying risk management science to help address wildfire management. Nor have I included discussion of other aspects of the fire management program such as the fuel treatment program or prevention. This is not done to discount the critical role of these programs, such a chart could easily be developed. Many of the concepts regarding risk management responsibilities across levels of fire management organization are laid out in a recent Forest Service Technical Report (http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_gtr315.html). Risk assessment can be highly informative in coordinating fuel treatment and suppression efforts with a significant potential to improve the effectiveness of both programs.
Currently there exists a major challenge in identifying the overarching objectives for management of the public lands in the US. We have critical differences as a society in what we desire from our public lands and that leads to difficulty in describing the primary objectives for fire management. Although broad agreement on objectives is unlikely recognizing this challenge and working to better describe likelihood and consequence of the current fire management approach on public land values and incorporation of potential outcomes within land and fire management planning efforts could be highly fruitful. Efforts such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), and other collaborative partnerships have demonstrated that although consensus may not exist, broad agreement can be reached in moving forward to promote and enhance fire and fuels planning to achieve shared objectives for improved public land management. Improving our ability to identify and establish clear objectives for wildfire management at all scales will improve our effectiveness in managing wildfire, assure that public investments are well spent, and justify the appropriateness of established objectives to ground firefighters who are risking their lives to achieve our shared societal goals for wildfire management.