As the field of wildland fire management moves forward, it seems that the interrelated factors influencing this area continue to add complexity. Whether it is fire environment properties or social, political, and ecological elements, these factors are making fire management program challenges more problematic.
No one can clearly describe what the future will be. Wildland fire management as a professional land management program has progressed greatly over the last century. Many attributes of this area are actually now at their greatest knowledge and experience levels. Risk management, however, is emerging as a prominent wildland fire management subject, but has yet to mature into a clearly understood and easily implemented facet of wildland fire management. In addition, an improved understanding of human behavior – at individual, group and organizational levels – is also an area where much remains to be learned and is vital to making fire management safer, more active, progressive, and adaptable. These are far-reaching topical areas that include, but are not limited to, firefighter and public safety, best practices in safety training and operations, safety related research, new approaches to safety, fire response, safety issues in wildland urban interfaces, training, equipment and technology, risk assessment, risk informed decision-making, high reliability organizations, sense-making, shared responsibility, preparedness, organizational discipline, organizational performance, organizational breakdown, decision making, communications, resilience, risk, decision support, community and homeowner fire protection and hazard mitigation, fire education, and social, economic, and political effects of fires. While this may seem like an exhaustive list and much remains to be learned in these areas, it is not so daunting that significant and rapid advancements cannot be made; many current efforts are actually underway to gain, share, and improve information about these topics.
The United States Forest Service, the largest wildland fire management organization in the United States, is progressively expanding its perspective that development and implementation of strategies to manage wildland fire that avoid ecosystem degradation and better account for firefighter and public safety in both the short term and the long term are critically important. Wildland fire management has expanded from a limited tactical and physical perspective to a more all-inclusive approach that includes attention to risk management, human dimensions, and decision making to support and improve organizational performance, safety, and accomplishment of social, political, and ecological objectives. The agency recently conducted a workshop to clarify and establish a collective course for risk management both within the USFS and the greater interagency wildland fire community that:
- Identifies if improvements are needed in wildland fire risk management and defines subsequent short- and long-term steps for making improvements,
- Enhances coordination efforts among entities working in wildland fire management,
- Defines a risk management program outline that can be implemented over the next decade.
Also in the United States, an interagency workgroup has been formed to review and address human performance and resilience in wildland fire management. This group will strive to make advances in how wildland fire management business functions and promote continual learning. They are looking into increasing emphasis on the human component of firefighting instead of singularly focusing on physical actions of firefighting mass versus fuels and fire behavior.
Two highly notable recent international conferences associated with these topics have also been held. The 13th Fire Safety Summit and the 4th Human Dimensions in Wildland Fire Conferences were presented together as a single conference in April 2015 in the United States. Conducting a combined conference for these two venues afforded the maximum benefits of a substantially elevated conference program featuring the many aspects of both the Human Dimensions and Fire Safety areas of interest and their interrelationships with wildland fire management. This conference provided a forum for discussion where workshops, oral presentations, poster paper presentations, special sessions, workshops, and plenary presentations by leading experts in the field all served to facilitate the sharing of what is known, what needs to be learned, what lies ahead, how to advance knowledge, and how to use this knowledge to effectively respond to increasing concerns on a global perspective. The closing speaker at this conference was the United States Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell. Chief Tidwell addressed the conference on the topic of human dimensions of safety in the wildland fire environment (see Chief Tidwell’s full presentation transcript later in this issue).
He cited ongoing losses over the years and stated that despite over a century of program improvements, the wildland fire community continues to lose people at an appalling rate. He referenced significant wildfires in the United States, but if we look around the world, we find other countries with similar problems and statistics. He stressed that a goal of zero fatalities is important and logical for fire management. He offered numerous areas where improvement can occur, and discussed why an emphasis on the importance of human factors or human performance is critical for future programs. He closed the conference by stating that the US Forest Service values human life and safety above all else and is dedicated to the safety of people. While the future might not be clear, he stressed that the vigorous commitment and strong efforts in human dimensions and safety around the world make the future look very bright. This strong message, while coming from the leader of a United States agency, seems germane globally and an attitude and practice that should pervade every level of every wildland fire management organization around the world.
In May 2015 in Italy, the II International Conference on Fire Behavior and Risk was presented as one of the premier European forums for presentation of research results and experience reports on leading edge issues on the effects of fire on the environment and society. This conference was focused on advancing knowledge on the interactions, relationships, feedback, and effects of fire on environment and society, encouraging constructive and interdisciplinary discussion and sharing of information between scientists, stakeholders, and policy makers, and promoting international cooperation. It had formal presentation tracks addressing fire behavior and regimes, fire risk and management, fires at the wildland urban interface, and climate and fire. One of the plenary speakers at this conference was United States Forest Service Research Forester Dave Calkin. Dr. Calkin addressed the audience on the subject of breaking the cycle of increasing wildfire risk (see Dr. Calkin’s related article later in this issue).
Other upcoming events also include newsworthy areas on human dimensions of fire. The 6th International Wildland Fire Conference planned for October of 2015 in South Korea will host a comprehensive program focusing on fire in the past and future and topics including cultural heritage, human health, fire management, disaster management, and international cooperation. The Sixth International Fire Ecology and Management Congress to be presented in November of 2015 in the United States will provide a forum for the development and dissemination of new information about a wide range of topics, including human dimensions in wildland fire. A European Safety Summit is currently being planned for late 2016 in France and will directly address firefighter safety and human dimensions.
The above professional meetings, workshops, symposia, and action groups are representative of the growing awareness of the importance of human dimensions in wildland fire. These activities are actively attempting to identify the role of risk management as a process that can foster increased organizational performance. They are aggressively illuminating what is known, what challenges exist, how to advance our knowledge and understanding, and how to bridge the gap between obtaining information, learning, and effectively responding to increasing concerns on a global perspective.
Among these many efforts one can find some common threads. Each effort features:
- a collaborative nature,
- an emphasis on an international perspective,
- a goal of achieving greater clarity and consistency,
- a focus on working toward the future, and
- a common recognition that human dimensions of wildland fire and risk management can promote better understanding, improve firefighter safety, and enhance decision-makers’ abilities.
With these types of activities, there is no doubt that awareness and understanding, and application of important information from these vital areas can be improved. Attention to these areas are critically important to meeting future challenges, can have a significant effect on advancing the message stated by Chief Tidwell, and will enhance wildland fire management effectiveness and performance in the future.