Over the last few years we have taken the opportunity to use this section to draw attention to issues and concerns facing wildland fire management, both now and in the future. Highlighting these issues is not enough, we must understand them, confront them, and make every attempt to overcome them and advance the safety and effectiveness of wildland fire management. With wildland fire management continuing to demonstrate that it has become the most complex and highest risk element of natural resource management, accomplishing its objectives is becoming more problematic due to increasingly difficult challenges. Because of this, we must maintain our commitment to assess needs, resolve issues, and prepare for what the future may hold.
Wildland fire management has grown in all areas. Guidance framework, equipment, science, technology, processes, standards, safety, and overall knowledge have progressed greatly. We understand that the historical wildfire response direction was based on the state of knowledge and a protection perspective in response to needs. But, our expanding knowledge now affords us a solid foundation upon which an expanded range of management options is built. The maturation of more flexible and comprehensive global fire policies, development of long-term strategic planning, advancement of science and technology, and expansion of operational capabilities are fueling constructive and necessary program growth.
Even in light of positive advancements, many challenges still exist, continue to emerge, and leave us with much to learn. Although we understand that wildland fire is a key component of healthy ecosystems and that fire exclusion has significant unintended consequences, we need to confront conventional thought that we can suppress every fire. The reality of today and tomorrow is that not all fires can be suppressed quickly, and not all fires should be suppressed. The fire environment is continuing to change; fire intensity and severity are on the increase, vegetation and fuel complexes are shifting, and climate change is magnifying these issues. The WUI expansion shows no signs of slowing, increasing fire complexity is elevating attention to firefighter safety, and costs of doing business are rising.
Management cannot expect to keep pace with these rapidly changing conditions, complexity, demands, and requirements by relying on current and past capabilities, lessons, experiences, and successes alone; rather, we must actively continue to grow the body of knowledge, experience, and capabilities. Programs will not succeed if we elect a passive approach 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.
Recent Events – Unmistakable Examples of Changing Conditions and Needs
Over the last two fire seasons in the northern hemisphere, we have witnessed exceptional burning conditions, startling fire activity, and extraordinary outcomes in select cases that illustrate the potential seriousness of and difficulty in responding to changing situations. In 2016, the Horse River Fire, starting early in the fire season in Alberta, Canada, burned into the town of Fort McMurray and went on to threaten nearby First Nations communities, oil sands camps and facilities, critical infrastructure and other important values. This was the worst wildfire experienced in Canadian history, burning over an estimated area of 589,552 ha (1,456,815 ac) and mounting nearly $3.7 billion in insured losses. Later in 2016 fire season, the Chimney Tops Fire in Tennessee, USA, burned beyond the historical fire seasonal periods and caused significant losses of life and up to $2 billion in property damage.
In the USA and Canada in 2017, wildfires throughout the western portion of these countries accounted for significant response efforts, widespread damage, and long-term smoke events. The 2017 wildfires in British Columbia were the worst in six decades and resulted in the largest total area burned in a fire season in recorded history, the largest number of evacuees in a fire season, the largest single fire ever recorded in British Columbia, and sent smoke across western North America for weeks. These fires burned over 1,215,748 ha (3,004,180 ac), destroyed 305 buildings, and caused evacuations from July to mid-September.
In the USA, significant wildfires in California, Oregon, Montana produced more exceptional statistics. In California, over 8000 fires burned more than 404,686 ha (1,000,000 ac), destroyed 8900 structures, and caused 42 fatalities. Response costs exceeded $3.3 billion. In Oregon, 1903 fires burned 273,163 ha (675,000 ac) and cost over $350 million. In Montana, fires burned over 524,456 ha (1,295,959 ac) and cost over $280 million.
Unfortunately, such extreme activity was not limited to North America. Portugal and Spain experienced unprecedented wildfires in 2017. In June, Portugal wildfires burned over 44,969 ha (111,120 ac) and were responsible for 65 fatalities — In October, 7900 more wildfires in Portugal and Spain were responsible for 49 fatalities.the largest loss of life due to wildfires in Portugal history.
These are sobering statistics that warrant continued attention to prepare firefighters, decision-makers, publics, and all affected individuals to better plan, respond, and recover from these types of events in the future. If we are to take a long look at the immediate horizon, the kinds of circumstances responsible for these outcomes show a strong glow, but one not offering a comfortable feeling, but one of continued serious fire scenarios, if not worsening situations and potential outcomes.
How Do We Prepare and What Do We Need to Address?
The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy developed in the USA sets broad, strategic, and national-level direction as a foundation for implementing actions and activities. It is a very comprehensive strategy that has global applicability. Its central vision is simple, concise, and appropriate to today’s fire management and societal needs:
To safely and effectively extinguish fire, when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a Nation, live with wildland fire.
Three goals have been identified to achieve this vision:
- Restore and maintain landscapes,
- Fire-adapted communities
- Wildfire response
The 2017 western North America fire season represents one of the more significant wildfire response efforts ever completed and included international participation. The energy, commitment, and effort put forth during this season are unequalled, extraordinary, and deserving of distinguished attention and recognition. But, while this is a time to reflect, relax, and recover in advance of the next fire season, it must be remembered that in terms of the three Cohesive Strategy goals, wildfire response is only one; there are other areas that need attention and action.
While the funds and staffing do not exist to implement fire adapted community planning, preparedness, and implementation as well as landscape restoration and maintenance activities at a scale comparable to the recent wildfire response, we must put forth the same amount of energy, demonstrated commitment, and determination to ensure that these activities continue and achievements support objectives. With continued attention and work in these areas, we can look beyond the immediate horizon and see potential improvements in the wildland fire management situation; without this, we will be looking at an undesirable closed loop forcing us to face more difficult, hazardous, and expensive wildfire responses.
We must be proactive in order to avoid such a closed loop. Increasingly frequent and damaging wildfires cannot simply be accepted as unavoidable events. A program breadth that includes the range of activities to restore and maintain resilient landscapes, to make communities better able to withstand wildfires without loss of life and property, to sustain proactive landscape-scale vegetation management and fuels reduction activities, and to consider and implement the full spectrum of management activities and the full span of wildfire responses is necessary.
Wildland fire management needs to continue to seek programmatic improvement in all areas. Improved safety awareness, incorporation of operational risk management, reduced exposure of firefighters and equipment, expanded understanding of decision-making processes, greater awareness of the range of strategic options and how to implement them, and continued development and implementation of prescribed burning and fuel treatment programs are all important areas that merit continued focus. Support to the program through continued research is more important to the success of wildland fire management now than ever before. But, research budget levels will limit capability, and for that reason, we must ensure that we conduct research into the most important and impactful areas and not merely continue past trends and directions. Perhaps recent events and changing conditions should be closely reviewed to reveal if specific program needs might call for new research focus.
Budget levels will always be problematic. Simply put, as fires increase in numbers and/or area burned, costs will increase. Seeking larger budgets becomes an easy target for resolution. However, successfully pursuing increased fire funding levels has, in all likelihood, a low probability of success. But there are still ways to improve funding allocations and applications. In the USA, the current budget mechanism to calculate suppression-funding levels increases over time, but usually at the expense of other public lands programs and fuel treatment activities. The current funding mechanism erodes non-fire program funding, has no process for adequately funding the 1-2 percent of most costly wildfires, and does nothing to reduce the need to transfer or “borrow” funds from other programs after wildfire suppression funds are depleted near the end of some fire seasons. Politicians have been proposing funding “fixes” for several years, but to date, no suitable compromise process has been agreed to. Finding a new way to fund wildfire suppression in the USA is vital to the future.
Beyond and amid these budget challenges, we can build on our continued learning, which accounts for the steady progression of positive program changes. But the influence of learning cannot and must not be considered static nor its importance devalued. Opportunities to learn from a range of sources are available, and we cannot sidestep the fact that building capacity and better preparing employees are predicated on learning. With an improved understanding of the changing fire and societal environments, and the full realization that the challenges are mounting in seriousness, we can accept (completely) that business as usual is not even a remotely acceptable strategy to improved program success.
Our resizing is building — we understand the issues, know how high the stakes have become, and see a need for continued, improved actions to make a difference. But many opportunities exist to learn and grow that are not being realized due to limitations that bureaucratic rules and budget processes place on professional development.
It seems inconceivable that fire management agencies and organizations are not seeking and capitalizing on every opportunity to acquire new information; making every attempt to disseminate new research, information, and technology; striving to learn more; working to promote employee professional development; better preparing employees to deal with the changing face of wildland fire; and advancing the wildland fire program. In light of the changing conditions we are facing, learning is at the core of successfully managing wildland fire management challenges.
The future is difficult to predict, pervaded with uncertainty, will involve both successes and failures, will present complex and sometimes contradictory issues, and will occur no matter what path is followed. But if we take the steps to proactively select the right path rather than being driven down the wrong path, we will serve to strengthen wildland fire management and facilitate achievement of desired outcomes.
Excellence in wildland fire management is clearly a global goal. Continuing this pursuit and advancing professional growth and program efficiency is critical to guarantee that what lies over the wildland fire horizon will be something to be looked forward to and welcomed rather than something that brings apprehension and misgiving.
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