Top wildfire expert prescribes controlled burns as preventive care

Top wildfire expert prescribes controlled burns as preventive care
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From the perspective of Mark Finney, one of the nation’s top fire experts, the U.S. is too focused on fighting wildfires instead of trying to prevent them in the first place.

Finney runs the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana, the country’s only public institution dedicated solely to the study of wildfires, and he’s critical of the recent response to blazes ravaging western states.

Scientists testified before Congress on Tuesday to request funding for new software that predicts the behavior of ever bigger fires — to compute, for example, how a wildfire would move through a residential neighborhood. The next day, President BidenJoe BidenHouse clears bill to provide veterans with cost-of-living adjustment On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default To reduce poverty, stop burdening the poor: What Joe Manchin gets wrong about the child tax credit MORE promised to provide more resources, including higher pay for federal firefighters and making those positions year-round instead of seasonal.

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Those kinds of steps may help fight fire, but they do little to change the underlying dynamics that are making that fire so destructive and deadly, Finney told The Hill’s Equilibrium.

“A lot of the firefighting apparatus doesn't mean a damn thing,” said Finney, who works for the U.S. Forest Service. “If firefighting worked, we wouldn't have big fires.”

He later clarified that meant under extreme conditions, where there is little for firefighters to do but try to hold a fireline and stay out of the way. And since 98 percent of fires are already suppressed before they get to 300 acres, in most cases more tools won’t help, he said.

What would help, Finney argued, is as obvious as it is politically difficult: far more planned fires on the landscape, set by professionals and burning year-round to eat up the fuel that otherwise adds bulk, speed, and unpredictability to monster fires.

Below is a Q&A with Finney. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.


Equilibrium: What do you feel is missing from an approach centered on suppressing big fires?

Finney: The issue is, reactive management rarely works. My analogy is health care — if all health care was emergency rooms and ambulances, you'd have a health care disaster on your hands.

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Because there'd be no preventive care. You'd have ambulances everywhere, people getting rushed off. But by the time you have emergency care, it's too late.

People get engaged in looking for better satellites or mapping or sensors thinking: If we get better at reacting, we'll solve the problem.

But that's not true. If nature picks the time, place and conditions to start a fire, and you run around and deal — then you're a moron. You’re just playing defense. You can't win any contest by playing defense.


What does playing offense look like?

So that's the first point: Fire exists because there is too little fire. And that’s different from structure fire — it’s never a good idea to have fire in your house.

But when you think fire itself is the problem, you automatically start addressing it in the wrong way. Fire will always happen, and fire in wildlands isn't the problem. And more of it would be better.

Thinking no fire is the norm is what caused the problem to begin with. It’s a false notion of what wildlands are like. Getting rid of fire more efficiently won't be a sustaining solution to this problem.

If we aren’t going to just engineer solutions, we have to understand fire, and we haven't invested in research to understand fire.

So if you still have major outstanding questions about how fires behave, how logs burn — how can you understand?


What does the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory do as the only public wildfire lab in the country?

When it comes to large scale lab burns, for wildland fire, this is the only place. There are other fire labs that do things, but most of that is for structure fire, building fires.

We’re installing a grain bin that’s 42 feet in diameter — steel, and 50 feet tall … [which] we've designed to hopefully burn large materials for a long period of time, and control access to oxygen and wind-speed. And it won't get anything but what we pump in there.

It's gonna be one of the only facilities like this in the world. And we have designs for a bigger nicer building that will help us a lot, but that's a lot more money, not what we can afford with any kind of budgets we have now.


Why do you think Americans have been slow to accept that wildland fire is a natural part of western landscapes?

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You only see the worst wildland fire on the news. Elected officials, and the media, are complicit in our viewing wildland fire one way. Unless the culture can change — toward accepting fire as a beneficial partner and ally — then we're not going to really win. So it's a sociological problem.

But Americans are also particularly superstitious about the West as wilderness. It was pristine, untrammeled by man.

And man, well, whether he trammeled or not, was definitely using fire.


Is it that officials tend to see solutions and systems as stable by nature — fix and forget — rather than in flux?

People ... don't want to think that human beings were integral to the landscape. They buy the house in the rural area where they think it's always looked like that. Isn't it beautiful, it should always stay the same. Sorry, but that’s not true.

But fire — most of the population is urban, so there’s no ability to learn from using fire. No land to burn brush. You can’t play with it as a kid. People's only experience with fire now is watching it on the news, because we never let the ones go that we could let go. 

And most people, talk about wildfire, they think of this ferocious beast that is very destructive. And hey, that's why we have planes to protect ourselves.

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But the best protection against fire is another fire.


Do the big record burned areas that the 2020 fire season left mean more defensible space for this year’s firefighters?

If you were lucky enough to survive one of those fires last year, you won't get it from the same direction this year.

But you want to have a fair amount of fire each year on the landscape — mild to moderate fire, helped along to achieve mild to moderate effects. That helps with future fires.

You hear people say: Isn't it a beautiful day, but a shame they're making all that smoke from the prescribed burns.

But if it doesn't burn now, you'll get a worse burn later. Give up some smoke-free days this year, and it will benefit you next year, and the year after.

Updated on Friday at 8:18 p.m.