Advice from Some Fire Scientists to the Chief on Managing the 2021 Fire Season

Advice from Some Fire Scientists to the Chief on Managing the 2021 Fire Season

I’m going to post two letters from different groups of people about some aspects of restoring fire to landscapes in a climate-challenged world.

First the fire scientists’ letter.

We are a group of fire and forest scientists who study the range of interactions of fuels, fire, climate, and management. We are writing to express concern over your new directives to stop managing fire for resource benefit and requiring regional Planning Level 2 and Regional Forester approval for prescribed burning. Certainly, we recognize the underlying rationale to address short-term risks of escaped wildfires. Even if temporary, these directives will significantly limit options for resource managers in a time when increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration and fuel reduction is of critical importance. We request that you consider modifying the order, returning decision-making about managed fire and prescribed burning to the forest and district levels.

Now, I am not sure that I’ve ever met Chief Moore, so I am not a Current FS Chief apologist.  If you read the Chief’s letter, he’s pretty clear about his rationale (there aren’t enough resources and people are sick and tired), and that it’s for this unusual year.   But what’s really interesting to me about this paragraph in the scientists’ letter is the idea that decision-making should be returned to the forest and district levels.  It’s an interesting concept that fire scientists are weighing in as to what level is the best at decision-making. It seems like you would need some kind of evidence to make that assertion.  I agree that having to have the RO involved means that people are more serious about justifying their actions to other people.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, in my experience with NEPA.  In fact, some TSW folks (as well as some federal judges) think that district and forest folks can make bad NEPA decisions.  In my experience, most of the District and Forests make the right call most of the time. That’s why the decentralized system works.  But the risk of making a mistake here, even with a low overall probability of it happening, is pretty high.  If things went wrong, and I were making the decision, I’d want to make sure my boss was aligned in advance, and had my back, about something this potentially sensitive and dangerous. It’s a way of expanding the zone of potential blame.

And the Chief’s letter is only for this year… we can imagine from the national and state budget discussions that capacity will be ramping up in the future.  It’s taken us, what, a hundred years to get here? The scientists’ letter says “even if temporary”.. really it’s important to increase pace and scale this year of Pandemic? I just don’t get the urgency of needing to do it This Year.

Then there are many paragraphs in the letter that we would all agree with, about the general concepts of reintroducing fire via PB and WFU. Since the Chief has been in this business for a while (in Region 5, as the letter points out) I’m sure that this summary isn’t news to him.

The fire scientist authors go on to the need to convince “local leaders and residents”:

 The US Forest Service and other federal land management agencies should work with their state partners to help local leaders and residents understand the objectives and benefits of managed fire and to help them understand that fire and forest professionals are making science-based decisions about fire management. The number of examples of successfully managing natural ignitions far exceed the few cases with negative outcomes. The US Forest Service needs to advertise its successes and make the linkage to the 2009 decision that allows the flexibility to manage fires in a manner that is appropriate given the conditions.

This is a bit puzzling. Fire managers use their wisdom, experience, modeling and so on to manage WFU. Is the science-basis the general idea that fires should happen at some point? Or is each decision that a fire manager makes “science-based” somehow? And if community leaders are honestly worried about the “few cases with negative outcomes” happening to them, do they have a right to worry? This to me is not the territory of fire scientists.. to tell the FS how to change peoples’ minds about risks.  That’s the territory of social scientists.  I’m not one, but I think it’s about the challenge of building trust via starting small and not screwing up,  versus imposing your (albeit “scientific”) views on communities by citing.. the fact you decided it.  At least in part.

I know, at least via social media, and respect most of the signatories of this letter. I honestly don’t get why this cautious approach, for this year, bothers them enough to write a letter. And honestly it doesn’t really seem like a science issue at all; it’s a management issue- of what do do with the resources you have and don’t have, and how to reduce unnecessary stress on firefighters.

I was reminded of these Pinchot Principles.

* A public official is there to serve the public and not to run them.
* Public support of acts affecting public rights is absolutely required.
* It is more trouble to consult the public than to ignore them, but that is what you are hired for.
* Find out in advance what the public will stand for; if it is right and they won’t stand for it, postpone action and educate them.

vs. from the letter..

Our national forest system requires science-based leadership, even when political pressure is high.

Maybe we could discuss this with one or more of the signatories to understand their position better?

Here’s a Lessons Learned on escaped prescribed fires from 2005.


via The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

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