Monthly Archives: July 2016

Wildfire Management: A response to High Country News Op-ed


Managing wildland firefighters

In the High Country News Op-ed, “Wildfire has become an uncontrollable force,” by former wildland fire dispatcher Allison Linville, she asserts, “Recent history tells us there’s a new trajectory for wildfire – toward fires that no one can understand, predict, or control.” It’s an interesting if not emotional assertion that deserves a response.

While I appreciate Ms. Linville’s opinion and even agree with some of her points, the statement that wildland fire has become a here-to-fore unseen and unprecedented phenomenon that no one can understand might be true of green firefighters and the public, but it’s not true of seasoned people within the wildland fire community. That being said, suggesting that people are able to control a wildfire to begin with is to state an idea loaded to mislead and confuse.

In order to understand this, one must have a wide historical perspective, some understanding of wildland fire management practices, and be cognizant of linguistic subtleties; taking care that the meanings of the words we choose to use convey the right mental picture within the context that they are being used. Educated opinions form from a composite of facts, voices, and history; if not, they amount to little more than breakroom conversation.

In her article, Linville asserts that decades ago a large fire was 500 acres. I’m not certain where she is getting this idea from. More than 100 years ago the Peshtigo Fire in 1871 burned 1.5 million acres and killed between 1200 and 2500 people, and the Big Burn in 1910, the largest wildfire in history, burned 3.5 million acres that spanned three states, including the pan handle of Idaho. It killed roughly 90 people, mostly untrained firefighters. While these fires are not the norm, they certainly provide a mental backdrop for what agencies could face in any fire season.

But the size of a fire only tells a small part of the story. What made the Peshtigo Fire and the Big Burn so terrible was the intensity and behavior of the fire. They were virtual wildfire tornadoes. According to Linville’s article, a homeowner in California described the fire there in 2015 as a tornado. She then goes on to say that what everyone needs to understand is that we have no model for this kind of fire – but we do, it’s in our history.

What made the fires 100 years ago so large and tragically memorable had more to do with the loss of life due to settlements in heavily forested or wilderness areas, irresponsible or ignorant industry practices, and climate. I suspect the danger of many of the fires today are a result of some of the same things – the most significant being homes in the wildland urban interface surrounded by trees and grass, compounded by drought.

In terms of wildfire management, a lot has changed in the last 100 years, but not  much has changed in terms of what we cannot control – climate, topography, and weather. Fire has not found a new way to burn or to kill. The only thing we can control is how we engage it – and that has changed significantly over the decades.

When Ms. Linville talks about controlling a fire, whether intentionally or not, she gives the illusion that we can control a fire. Saying we can control wildfire is like saying we can control the wind. We have found ways to make use of the wind, to “harness” it as they say, but if it doesn’t blow, we can’t go and turn it back on. The same is true of wildfire. We can try to use it, work with it, and attempt to coral it; we can try to cut it off, smother it, or protect people and structures from it, but we can’t control it.

In certain circumstances we can try to manage it by letting it burn and digging line and using the wind to try to determine where it burns – but the conditions for doing that must be right. The thing about wildlfire is that it has the manners of a wildlfire.

Therefore, how we choose to engage wildfire is determined by what we know about its behavior in given weather and terrain based on knowledge and experience. But how we engage it is also determined by politics, culture, and public sentiment – all of which are as dynamic and unpredictable as wildfire.

Because of those things, wildland fire “management” is ever evolving – changing with the ebb and flow of public sentiment, running effectively or hindered by policy and budget changes, and adapting with new perceptions, new science, more knowledge, and on-the-ground lessons learned. But management is a loaded word with many meanings and must be used with care, especially in the context of something so wily and uncontrollable as wildfire.

First, fire managers manage people not fires. They manage how people attack, monitor, and engage the fire. Fire management involves decisions about how to fight a fire, whether to suppress or to contain, what to let burn and where to let it burn, and how to do all of that while being safe and dealing with uncontrollable factors like weather. It’s a hard job no matter how you slice it.

Second, no matter how you try to “manage” a fire, it’s not a pet. There are a lot of moving parts that you have no control over and that can blow the best laid plans to pieces. Managers do the best they can with the knowledge and experience they have, the tools at their disposal, and all within a set budget. It’s an inherently hectic, busy to the point that most people can’t understand, and complicated machine. Given how complicated and dangerous it is, they do a phenomenal job.

Like the fire triangle, fire management can be summed in three objectives: 1. Life first (firefighters and the public), 2. Protect structures and infrastructure, and 3. Incorporate a whole landscape approach to managing wildfire by containing or manipulating the wildfire and using it like a tool to meet scientific standards that define a healthy ecosystem. Sound impossible? It pretty much is, but the wildland fire community comes pretty damn close.

We have to be careful with the words we use. Suggesting that no one knows how to manage wildlfires today is patently false. From ground pounders to seasoned fire managers, they know how to fight fire. What fire managers don’t know how to manage is public ignorance, overly simplified opinions, dwindling budgets, and whimsical politics. As for predicting or controlling wildfires, no, there’s no real way to do that. That’s why it’s called fire fighting.

I can’t speak to 2015 being the worst fire season on record, though it wouldn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is the assertion that somehow no one can manage it. Fire seasons getting longer and worse, if they really are, has more to do with climate change than knowledge or tools, which again is exacerbated not by firefighters, managers, or weather, but by those in Congress (backed by citizens) who dismiss science and cut or manipulate budgets to push agendas or to control politically expedient outcomes.

Perhaps it’s our perception of wildfire that needs to be managed, in conjunction with being cognizant of where and how we live, in order to understand not only what it takes to protect from it, but how to benefit from and use it. That requires humility, taking some time to learn, having the ability to listen, and keeping an open mind.

Our relationship to the land is constantly evolving; our relationship to wildfire should be no different. Fire is among man’s oldest tools. If we can learn to work with wildfire it could be one of the greatest tools at our disposal on a landscape scale, doing quickly and cheaply what would take agencies decades in man power and labor and millions of dollars to accomplish.

There is a need to protect life, a need to protect fragile landscapes that have not adapted to wildfire, and there is a need to fight fires born of human carelessness; but beyond that, wildfires are as natural as sunshine, rain, and wind. It wouldn’t hurt us in many instances to let it do what it does best because many landscapes are cleansed and rejuvenated by it. To interfere in that process beyond watching, learning, and taking precautionary measures is to meddle in something we’d be wiser to leave alone.

Prediction and control are fickle and illusory words typically shown for what they are with hindsight and history. They should be used with care and defined clearly within the setting or context in which they are being used in order to convey an accurate picture, as well as to teach, explain, and to elicit understanding. Otherwise they will make fools of us all.


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