Disrupting the wildfire ecosystem to solve our nation’s battle with fire
With 91 major wildfires currently burning across the country — already breaking last year’s records — the urgency of our intensifying wildfire crisis is again thrust into the collective consciousness of all Americans. We are living with the unintended consequences of a century of disconnected choices about how we as a nation prepare for and respond to wildfire.
With over a billion burnable acres in the United States, fire will always be present on our national landscape. In light of worsening environmental conditions, continuing current policies and practices is a mistake. It has become clear that the key question for the future is whether we can become a nation capable of living with fire?
The wildfire problem is wicked and complex, but it is not unsolvable. No one idea, organizational action or agency is going to provide a comprehensive solution. To improve wildfire outcomes, save lives and protect communities, the current “wildfire system” must be significantly remodeled.
A critical, first component is accelerating the employment of quantitative risk assessment and predictive tools to both wildfire and prescribed fire. Today, too many decision-makers and firefighters still rely on manual processes paired with unrealistic or vague objectives like, “keep the fire as small as possible.” Wildfire response stakeholders need data-driven tools, based on existing and proven science, to improve performance, minimize exposure and reduce risk. This means deeply integrating the power of 21st-century technologies into the fabric of wildfire management decision-making. For example, deploying automated technologies that can predict in near-real-time the scope, scale and behavior of a wildfire, allowing firefighters on the ground to plan, prepare and respond to an incident more efficiently and effectively.
Tools like this, which can identify potential control locations and fire spread probability, for instance, have been developed based on proven fire science and will immediately benefit managers and firefighters during pre-season planning work, during an incident, and in the postseason when evaluating “lessons learned.” By applying machine learning and data science to these tools, stakeholders can begin to manage risk more quantitatively.
A broad-based review of all federal policies that affect “the fire management system” is also critical. Today, for instance, loan and rebuilding policies related to post-fire recovery encourage rebuilding in fire-prone areas, perpetuating a destructive cycle.
States and local governments must also be more involved in defining policies and practices that enable more efficient solutions. Too often, wildfire management is seen as a federal problem, paired with most states viewing wildfire solely as an “enemy,” rather than a natural ecological component of the landscape. Consequently, many states do not provide liability protection for prescribed burning, which is compounded by strict air quality rules and leads to restrictions in the use of prescribed fire to reduce risk.
While seemingly controversial, prescribed burns are important. From an ecological perspective, the biggest driver of wildfire growth is small-diameter wooden material. Think: small trees, litter, underbrush and invasive species like cheatgrass. But because there is no financial incentive to remove these smaller species, unlike large merchantable trees, they have been left as fuel for our growing wildfire problem.
To combat this, prescribed fire must play a substantial role. We need to apply the right kind of fire, at the right time and the right place. The coming years will undoubtedly see more fire in more places — especially ecosystems that have been robbed of their birth-right of frequent, low-intensity fire. Returning low-intensity fire to the country’s landscapes through prescribed fire, while also adapting smoke management and liability policies, can ensure our forestlands and communities are more ecologically resilient.
To alter the policy framework, a commission to better support and understand wildland fire management with significantly broader representation, including regional, state and local groups, would be helpful. A national commission’s mandate should be to align and solve for systemic solutions rather than those specific to certain geopolitical landscapes. The Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency should be involved in these conversations.
The bottom line is that wildfire is more than a USDA Forest Service issue and it is more than a western issue. A broad and empowered commission, set to assemble, understand and then solve problems, will help build a more sustainable wildfire management ecosystem.
For too long, firefighters and civilians have died due to wildfires. Meanwhile, the economic impact of wildfires has increased dramatically, with an estimated annualized economic burden of nearly $350 billion. Unintentionally, our tolerance for “acceptable loss” grows every year.
Change will take time. The conflicts at play are cultural and traditional, not scientific and operational. Some will oppose change. But the firefighters who put themselves in harm’s way will always remain my focus and I call on all of us to fundamentally change this paradigm through vision, alignment, innovation and action to enable better outcomes.
Chief Tom Harbour is the former national fire chief of the USDA Forest Service, overseeing a program that employed over 10,000 firefighters, with an annual budget of nearly $4 billion. He serves as chief fire officer for Cornea, data service for disaster planning, response and recovery.