Reflecting on 2016
With 2016 past, it is time to take a reflective look back. While it has been another interesting, challenging, and busy year, it was not pervaded with surprise in terms of overall severity. However, it was comprised of some extreme individual events, a range of varied responses to meet and moderate challenges, and development and implementation of important events to better prepare us for the future.
In 2016, we experienced several unexpectedly difficult and relentless wildfires during historically low fire danger periods in the early season and late season. The Horse River Wildfire occurred in May and lasted into July in Alberta, Canada. Under high fire danger and extreme winds, it became the costliest disaster in Canada’s history, and resulted in the largest evacuation in Canada’s history. It burned over 589,500 hectares (1,456,686 acres), destroyed about 2400 structures, incurred costs in excess of $3.5 billion, caused the evacuation of almost 90,000 residents from the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, and triggered a state of emergency that remained in place for nearly two months.
In November, the Chimney Tops 2 Fire occurred in Tennessee, USA, also under high fire danger and extreme winds. This fire became a very deadly event, burning over 17,000 acres (6870 hectares), destroying 1684 structures, causing 134 injuries and 14 fatalities, and was part of a complex of dozens of other fires.
During the historic high fire occurrence periods where preplanning and response readiness are greatest, large and costly fires occurred both in the USA and Australia. Wildfires in January burned over 69,165 ha (170,910 ac) and destroyed 180 structures in Australia; a March wildfire burned over 367,620 ac (148,770 ha) in Kansas and Oklahoma, USA becoming the largest wildfire on record for the State of Kansas; and between June and October multiple fires burned over 310,000 ac (125,453 ha) and destroyed over 1000 structures in California, USA.
Change — Pushing our Programs
Some visible trends are apparent and have been developing over recent years. But new trends are emerging as indicators of future situations. Wildland fire management, now positioned prominently in the forefront of land and resource management, receives more social and political attention than ever before and faces demands and needs never experienced before. Changes are pushing the program far beyond its historical beginnings. Emerging trends, both good and bad, are influencing management capability, opportunities, and direction.
Attention must be focused and re-focused on such issues as:
- Expansion and continuation of alterations to fuel and vegetation complexes
- Increasing wildland – urban interface areas and needs for community involvement in fuel and fire mitigation activities
- Conflicts between fire-prone landscapes and people
- Negative perceptions of wildland fire in all segments of society and within management organizations
- Recognizing and accepting fire as a natural process necessary to the maintenance of ecosystems
- Negative effects of aggressive suppression – emphasis on aggressive suppression fails to address its effects on trends in fuel complexes, potential increased damage to watersheds and sensitive natural resources, and continued public perceptions of protection capability
- Fire prevention programs
- Wildfire smoke production and social impacts
- Static and declining budgets coupled with declining workforce numbers for wildland fire management organizations
- Wildfire funding – solutions to wildfire funding
- Research – vital to increase scientific knowledge, develop new management tools, and transfer knowledge to practitioners and decision makers
- Risk management – ensuring sound risk management is the foundation for all fire management activities and emphasis on making safe, effective, risk-based wildfire management decisions
- Firefighter and public safety – reduce risk to firefighters and the public in every fire management activity
- Organizational capabilities – reduce conflicts between organizational restrictions on travel, training, research presentation, and continued education opportunities and needs to advance knowledge, skills, and capabilities
There are numerous activities underway to address many of these topics. The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, in existence for 10 years, is a national, interagency, federally-funded organization based in the USA (http://www.wildfirelessons.net/home). This center helps support and improve safe work performance and organizational learning for all wildland firefighters globally. It maintains a website having a repository of lessons learned reports and documents, podcasts providing new and innovative information, updates on new technology and advances, and short fire articles. It is making a significant contribution to improving firefighter safety and advancing learning. In just the last two years, it has documented 211 incident learning reports.
Wildland fire management agencies are highly motivated to better incorporate risk management into the business or wildland fire management and are taking steps to advance this. One key step is the clarification of risk management and its role in wildland fire management (Thompson, Matthew P.; MacGregor, Donald G.; Calkin, David E. 2016. Risk management: Core principles and practices, and their relevance to wildland fire. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-350. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 29 p.). And risk management terminology has been more fully defined in respect to wildland fire management with existing science-based definitions, summarized into one concise and relevant set of consistent, clear, and usable definitions (Thompson, Matthew P.; Zimmerman, Tom; Mindar, Dan; Taber, Mary. 2016. Risk terminology primer: Basic principles and a glossary for the wildland fire management community. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-349. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 13 p.)
In the United States, focused attention has been given to large-scale strategic planning for setting direction and developing a national or even international vision for wildland fire management. Such planning produced the 2014 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, (http://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/strategy/). This strategy defines a vision for the next century as:
To safely and effectively extinguish fire, when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a Nation, live with wildland fire.
Also in the USA, a strategic assessment process, the Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR) is conducted every four years to evaluate current wildland fire management community strategies and capabilities against estimates of the future environment. The most recent QFR was completed in 2014 (https://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/QFR/). It is a strategic evaluation of the long-range direction of wildland fire management looking into the future to identify potential risks, challenges, and opportunities to help inform strategic planning, investments, operational capabilities, and positioning. The 2014 QFR assessment focused on four key issue areas (changing climatic conditions, risk management, workforce, and operational capabilities), presented plausible alternative futures, and defined actions for consideration by fire leaders.
This report importantly points out that we frequently fall prey to hindsight bias while trying to understand how the present relates to the past. We also tend to display overconfidence in our ability to identify and anticipate future outcomes. Together, hindsight bias and overconfidence often prevent leaders from considering multiple future possibilities. The QFR states that leaders cannot afford the luxury of planning for just a single desired future state.
Moving into 2017 — Preparing to Accelerate
As we move into 2017, we must expect the business of wildland fire management to continue to present new and unique situations that will result from an increasing change in our fire environment — which in turn creates greater needs for awareness, attention, preparedness, response, and learning actions — which in turn will challenge our knowledge, experience, and perceptions. We will need to accelerate learning and improve planning and program effectiveness. We need to prepare for a range of futures that could result from interactions among a number of factors, some outside of our control. Simply put, we need to look into the imaginable spectrum of future wildland fire scenarios.
The International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) is an independent organization established to facilitate global communication about wildland fire and provide leadership through a neutral forum that considers and addresses all important, and at times controversial, wildland fire issues. The Association enthusiastically promotes a better understanding of wildland fire, improved awareness of the interrelationship of this dynamic natural force and natural resource management, improved research and information transfer, advanced operational implementation methods and standards, increased attention, consideration, and commitment to firefighter safety, and improvements in professional development. Since its inception, the IAWF has worked to be the acknowledged professional resource for local to global scale knowledge, education, networking and professional development striving to help meet future challenges for the international wildland fire community.
We believe that wildland fire management has a foundation of six primary building blocks:
- Fire management and use
- Prevention and suppression
- Technology and information systems
- Risk management
- Cooperation and collaborative planning.
We feel that many facets of these areas will be affected by future wildland fire scenarios and if approached positively, can be drivers to help shape future options and activities.
Our IAWF Priorities
The IAWF has and will continue to strive to support and advance these areas through a variety of methods.
We have published Wildfire Magazine for 25 years to provide fire related articles of interest around the globe. And for 25 years we have published the International Journal of Wildland Fire. It presents new and significant articles that advance basic and applied research concerning wildland fire.
We present international conferences to address significant fire issues, provide a forum for presentation of new science, and provide continuing education for fire professionals. Past conferences include: Fire Safety Summit – 13 times; Fire Behavior and Fuels – five times; Human Dimensions in Wildland Fire Management – four times; International Smoke Symposium – two times; Fire Policy Summit – two times; one special conference dedicated to the 1988 Fires and the Future; and one special conference dedicated to Large Wildland fires and their social, political, and ecological effects.
We partner with a variety of organizations and associations to advance and achieve our collaborative visions about wildland fire management. We are part of the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solutions; a diverse group of international, national, and local organizations supporting work to develop a comprehensive solution to the wildfire suppression funding issue in the USA. Despite efforts, a fix to the fire funding problem has yet to be achieved but continued consolidated efforts will continue in 2017.
As we move ahead, there is much that can be done. Multiple issues need to be addressed but solutions in some cases will prove hard to define. That, however, is no reason to stop striving for progress. Also necessary, as recommended in the QFR, is our ability to look into the future and use our imagination to identify possible future wildland fire scenarios.
Above all, we should actively seek to not be surprised, to be able to anticipate most, if not all, potential future scenarios, and plan proactively. As is commonly said, we should think “outside the box.” We should not rely on past experience only, should not expect that a single future scenario will occur, and not underestimate potential outcomes from combinations of many factors, including social, political, and ecological ones. The IAWF, along with partners and involved wildland fire management organizations will continue efforts to find solutions, implement appropriate actions, advance capabilities, and support all wildland fire management individuals and organizations.