An in-depth analysis of wildland fire management from a global perspective is not required to identify that fire occurrence and response now constitute a year-round activity. It is readily apparent that fire numbers are increasing, seasonal burning periods are extending, and response capabilities are being heavily taxed. The key message here is that overall fire complexity is increasing — at a rate that is possibly faster than at any other time in the past several centuries. Future challenges for fire management are formidable.
Planning and implementing fire response and management around the world has always been carried out commensurate with its highest levels of knowledge and experience. Over time, knowledge, experience, and capability have grown and expanded to the point where we know that:
- Fire influences and initiates ecological and social processes,
- Fires will occur with differential fire behavior and differential patterns and cause differential effects,
- Vegetation and fuel complexes are changing,
- Human management of fire, regardless of objectives, has both intended and unintended influences on ecosystems,
- Climate change is and will continue to affect fire and ecosystem dynamics,
- Wildland–urban interface areas are enlarging,
- Social dynamics have emerged as a significant influence on fire management activities,
- Smoke management has become an important decision consideration,
- Managing resource values and sustaining fire dependent ecosystems is a critical goal, and
- Collaboration and communication are vital to planning and implementation.
We may consider ourselves well positioned to move into the future. Our knowledge of certain areas of fire management has never been greater, with noted expertise regarding the natural role of fire; fire behavior and fire effects; science, technology, and operational capabilities; policy dynamics; and management strategies and tactics. Yet even with this knowledge, fire managers face rapidly changing conditions, shifting complexity, and greater demands and requirements. And managers cannot expect to keep pace by relying on current and past capabilities, lessons, experiences, and successes alone.
Wildland fire management cannot respond to the challenges of the future without actively continuing to grow in its body of knowledge, experience, and capabilities. A passive approach to wildland fire management characterized by such attributes as over-reliance on past experiences, failure to incorporate new science and technology, continued increases in and support for failed strategies, rigid program requirements, and dated training and education cannot be endured (see figure below). Under such a scenario, wildland fire will not adapt, will not keep pace with complexity, and would at best be described as stalled in an Adaptive Failure Loop.
To move forward, wildland fire management must progress in a single direction and not in a repeating loop. It must be prepared to grow and expand in every possible way to keep pace with changing conditions. It must move into and follow an Adaptive Pathway where decisions are based on the best available science, knowledge, and technology. This basis for decision-making is described in one of the guiding principles presented in the United States National Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy (http://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/strategy/), but is relevant for fire management programs around the world.
The Adaptive Pathway will allow improved understanding of a wide set of factors that can make fire management active, progressive, and adaptable. Management responses and decisions will improve if we:
- Apply more active risk management, using firefighter and aviation exposure as decision support elements and applying new strategic and tactical paradigms;
- Continue and accelerate fire and fuels research and technology transfer;
- Become a more efficient learning organization, and ensure that knowledge, training, and education reflect the state of knowledge, and practice will advance capabilities;
- Employ proactive management practices to help avoid future fire intensity levels;
- Make information management practices and technology advances significant leverage points, and;
- Construct objectives and processes for building ecological resiliency and improved social understanding will strengthen the entire program.
Future challenges will involve finding more sophisticated, safe, and efficient means to manage vegetation and fuels, respond to wildfires, protect homes, communities, and other values at risk, and restore and maintain landscapes.
But this challenge isn’t ours alone. It is paramount for society and political leaders to recognize that fire management funding levels are not keeping pace with costs associated with completing these activities. Increasing social-political expectations, demands, and requirements, in concert with ecological needs, warrant an Adaptive Pathway approach.
But successful actions are unlikely if we maintain funding levels more aligned with an Adaptive Failure Loop approach. If conditions that frame the fire environment continue their alarmingly rapid rate of change, then fire management activities and capabilities must also adjust. Continuous learning, adaptation, programmatic growth, and change must occur if fire management is to realize a sustainable opportunity for success.