The wildland fire management environment is undergoing dramatic, rapid, and problematic changes. Let me say it again: we’re facing dramatic, rapid and problematic changes.
Changes of this type have been occurring for over 100 years, but the rate and unevenness of change today is amplified by our responses to the past century of change. We face the convergence of long-term fire suppression, alteration of fuel complexes, variable and expanding land use, landscape-scale climate influences, and growth and expansion of wildand-urban interface areas — with each changing factor amplifying off the other, resulting in increasingly more complex wildland fires.
Numerous articles have been written providing powerful, thought-provoking, and insightful views of our changing wildfire paradigm. We’ve read the research and experienced the change on the fire ground: this shifting paradigm makes our goal of accomplishing resource management and safety objectives more difficult. Incredibly and sometimes catastrophically more difficult.
To better respond to such a changing and challenging paradigm, wildland fire management needs to advance knowledge levels, facilitate and take advantage of learning opportunities, and heighten all management capabilities. One of the most valuable means to support this need is continued and focused research to elevate science and technology.
As early as 1899, limitations of imprecise knowledge and the low state of fire science were becoming understood. Gifford Pinchot, in The Relation of Forests and Forest Fires (1899) stated that remarkably little attention had been given to the study of forest fires and their effects on the structure and composition of forests. He further admitted that while wildfires were viewed as sources of immense damage, little was known about the their creative action in vegetative communities and only a knowledge and insight of this relation would improve comprehension of how and why fires were harmful and how they might be prevented and extinguished. Such an admission at the time was truly extraordinary. But, it did little to spur efforts to acquire new knowledge and build capacity.
What must be considered is how new knowledge can be gained and incorporated into management actions, training, policy, future natural resource decisions, and used to advance fire science and technology. Current and future challenges dictate that we increase our wildland fire management decision effectiveness, operational response efficiency, knowledge of fire and its interrelationships with its environment and society, awareness of risk management, development of strategic direction, and overall management capability.
Research is the systematic investigation into issues and questions, collection of information, analysis to establish facts and reach new conclusions, and communication of new science and technology to inform action, validate policy development, support management programs, and transfer new scientific applications. Research shapes our understanding of the world around us.
Research draws its power from the fact that it is empirical: rather than merely theorizing about what might be effective or what could work, studies are designed to produce hard data as the basis for decisions. Sound methodologies are utilized that can be replicated. Results produced are examinable by peers. Knowledge that is generated is timely and relevant to high-priority issues. New information and technology create a foundation for improving management practices and procedures and are responsive to continued efforts to integrate science and technology into management operations. Research activities are dynamic, continuously monitoring activities and outcomes, responsive to changing situations, and adapting as appropriate.
Wildland fire science is the intellectual and practical body of knowledge encompassing all elements of the physical, chemical, and natural aspects of wildland fire. It is acquired through review, observation, and experiment. The role of science spans the range from defining areas of uncertainty to applying improved information in management applications. It focuses on critical science questions and includes the discovery of new knowledge and delivery of that information through a variety of processes. Technology includes machinery, equipment, electronic programs, and any other support product or procedure developed from the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.
SINCE THE TIME WHEN GIFFORD PINCHOT suggested that additional knowledge was needed, research, science, and technology have steadily progressed. Fire research has lead to an astounding expansion of knowledge and significant discoveries in the areas of, but not limited to: duff moisture, fire hazard, fuel moisture, wood size classes, fire danger, fire weather, wind and wind scales, flammability, fire control systems, fire physics, fire behavior, fire chemistry, fire retardant, fire effects, fuels, fire ecology, fire meteorology, fire characteristics, fire use guidelines, prescribed fire/effects, and fire technology.
Notwithstanding the gains that fire research has promulgated, there is still much to be learned. But research is sitting in a tenuous position in overall program management. Discussion is continually taking place in regard to reducing funding to wildland fire research programs around the world; R&D spending overall has been declining in real dollars for some time. In truth, with regard to research funding, these are becoming dark and uncertain times. Obtaining funding is a constant battle; an amazing situation at a time when fire is foremost in the eyes of the public, politicians, and agencies.
At the current time, while there are many politicians who will take up the charge that we need to be better in fire management and protection, there are few, if any, who will charge into the fray to save scientific research. In a recent letter to the US President, a western states Senator — Senator Maria Cantwell from the State of Washington — reinforced the seriousness of wildfires in the Western US and implored the President to implement fire policies based on science.
She also stated that additional monetary and proactive investments must be implemented to bolster economies and improve forest and fuel conditions. Even more recently, Cantrell has joined with other Senators to work on bipartisan legislation that would gain access to state-of-the-art technology to assist firefighters and improve personal safety. If we expect to continue to learn and advance our wildland fire management knowledge, meet current and future challenges, and continue to improve at managing wildland fire, champions such Cantwell and her Senate colleagues must continue to advocate for fire research, promote science and technology, and deliver the reality that it will cost money.
We continue to hear that wildland fire management is taking an increasing proportion of federal land management agencies’ budgets. In this situation, logic and fiscal sense would seem to indicate that continued investments in research programs are fundamental to wildland fire management, as opposed to decreasing support in this area.
Guiding documents for wildland fire management in the United States — such as the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy, National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, Agency mission statements, and agency strategic goals — all reinforce the importance of and basis for fire science. All of these documents make specific references to the use of the best available science and developing and delivering knowledge and innovative technology. Under the changing wildfire paradigm we are experiencing, it is clear that business as usual is not going to work so any policy, mission, goal, guideline statements cannot be hollow statements, but must lead to action and in this case, more attention to fire research, science, and technology.
AN ADDITIONAL CONFOUNDING FACTOR facing research today is the politicizing of science. The politicization of science manipulates and degrades this key process for political gain. It occurs when government, business, or advocacy groups use legal or economic pressure to influence the findings of scientific research or the way it is disseminated, reported or interpreted. The idea behind science is to try to explain observations of the world in the simplest way possible, to dispel lies and support truths, and to be totally objective about the solutions we seek.
Science requires an open mind. With attempts to politicize science, political agendas are tied to science; it ceases to be objective and ceases to become science because the outcome is biased. Determining an outcome and position before the facts are in is antithetical to science.
We’e at a time where we cannot afford to decrease our attention to and our focus on research. To ignore science, particularly the science of wildland fire, is to court peril. Continued research is clearly needed to move the science of wildland fire forward as an organized body of knowledge and to improve the application of fire science for practical purposes.
This is not the time to derail wildfire science — but the time to accelerate our well-conducted and field-tested research, which is more vital to the success of wildland fire management endeavors now than ever before.