USA: Stop focusing on ignitions and start investing in a prescribed fire workforce
By Jeremy Bailey, The Nature Conservancy
The way a fire burns isn’t always dictated by how it starts. Forests and grasslands don’t burn at extreme intensities, destroy homes, kill people, and denude entire ecosystems because of a downed power line, a person with a campfire, or a National Park that chooses to manage a lightning strike for resource benefit. You could bury every power line — or shut down the entire grid — and still not solve our wildfire problem.
The intensity of a fire depends on numerous variables, including wind, slope and fuel. Ignition sources don’t give us the full picture as to why a fire burns the way it does. In many cases, unfavorable wildfire outcomes are happening in places that have had so little fire that the fuel beds are simply too great to keep a new wildfire low and cool. Fires like the Camp and Sonoma “Tubbs” Fires are also introducing another fuel issue: urban conflagrations (where burning homes, property and infrastructure are the fuel itself).
As a firefighter, hotshot and member of a helitack crew, I responded to dozens upon dozens of fires and extinguished them before they could have negative consequences — or beneficial impacts. Through those experiences, I’ve concluded that the best thing I can do is to apply beneficial fire to the landscape in order to address the problem not at its ignition, but at what I believe is the source. It’s not that I don’t support smart and aggressive initial attack, and I do not defend those who are reckless with fire. Nor do I excuse utilities from negligence. But we need to look at the whole picture, and take a longer view. We need to look at how we prioritize and organize the workforce.
There are a lot of creative and energetic people and organizations who are tackling this wicked problem. If you are reading this blog, you are probably one of the local heroes who is tirelessly working with your community to better live with fire. You are probably attending dozens of meetings where you’re transferring information, coordinating partners or influencing legislation. You’re probably setting priorities for treatments and/or surveying neighborhoods for hazards. You are making a difference.
Similarly, on nature preserves, in wilderness areas, and in the wildland-urban interface, many of us have colleagues who work every day to achieve more beneficial fire. In these places, we are making a difference, too. The change is immediate and long-lasting. Prescribed fire is an action (in our suite of actions) that can change fire’s behavior for the better and provide immediate community protection. And, it has the potential to restore an unhealthy forest to one that can thrive for generations.
You simply cannot replace the numerous benefits of using fire with surrogate treatments like thinning. Using planned fire is so important, and always has been. As I just heard from a researcher who has lived among indigenous communities in South and North America, “There are rain forests … and there are fire forests.”
Many of our cities, towns and villages are surrounded by or woven into our fire forests, fire prairies, fire woodlands and other flammable landscapes. Our homes, stores and schools are vulnerable. Our families are vulnerable. Our livelihoods and even our lives face risk. In some places, it can be really scary.
We know we need to deal with the fires that are coming. So why aren’t we intentionally burning more? Numerous surveys and papers have been written about the barriers to using fire. You’ve already heard all the reasons we “can’t” burn: We have perceptions of what our community thinks, of how liability is (or isn’t) mitigated, of weather constraints, and of our ability to recruit and use neighbors, volunteers, contractors or partners. These are the stories we tell, the stories we hear.
The authors of the recent publication “Prescribed Fire Policy Barriers and Opportunities” interviewed fire practitioners, who reported that a lack of capacity (including funding) and challenges regarding sharing resources across agencies were the most significant barriers to accomplishing more prescribed fire. But despite these obstacles, leaders are achieving fire in their places … by the simple act of making it a priority.
The current leaders’ intent from senior federal land managers was expressed in “Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes: An Outcome-Based Investment Strategy,” published by the U.S. Forest Service last year:
Clearly, targeted investments are needed at the scale of shared landscapes, including partner contributions of resources. We need shared approaches at the scale of the challenges we face within the wildland fire environment, using shared resources for the right kinds of investments in the right places. We can improve the wildland fire system by joining with partners and stakeholders to make smart choices about where we work — shared decisions that are both strategic and effective — investments that can truly make a difference at an all-lands scale.
What does this intent mean for prescribed fire? First, we work together. We show up and help our neighbors or partners burn. We share our workshops, classroom trainings, refreshers and even pack tests with other agencies and partners. We let our partners take key trainee roles like the burn boss, firing or holding. We coordinate our seasonal planned burns. We shepherd the agreements or contracts that allow for the sharing of resources or hiring additional personnel or equipment. We make it permissible and even encourage our staff to use some of their time to assist with others’ burns.
In recent years, private landowners have begun to turn to Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs), which have boomed in the Great Plains and recently spread to Northern California. PBAs demonstrate the effectiveness of the simple idea of sharing personnel and equipment. They can burn tens of thousands of acres and work at a scale commensurate with their stewardship goals. Similarly, agencies, organizations and companies in the Southeast are working together to protect the longleaf pine and wiregrass ecosystems. To accomplish this they must burn all the time, which means they realign crews and equipment to provide cross-border support, and they hire or contract entire crews whose top priority is to implement controlled burning.
Being available to conduct burns, above all other priorities, is the most important and consistent behavior among those who are succeeding. When this is written into job descriptions, contracting budgets and annual work plans, we succeed. The Southeast demonstrates this well, but they don’t have a monopoly. In all of our fire-adapted ecosystems, there are dozens of days every year that we are not taking advantage of. They range from snowy and rainy to hot and windy — perhaps not ideal, but they are days when some burning is possible somewhere. We can and should burn all winter long. We can and should burn all summer long. It’s not as hard as we think — we just need a workforce to do the work.
We need a dedicated prescribed fire workforce. We need to include contractors and volunteers, but we also need to leverage our ability to share resources. And we need more crews whose priority it is to plan, prepare, burn, monitor and mop-up prescribed burns. The current workforce of wildland fire practitioners is primarily dedicated to emergency suppression. The funding is aligned this way as well. But change is possible. In some places, a significant prescribed fire workforce is in place, made up of individual landowners, family members, neighbors, contractors, and tribal, state and federal burn teams. For example, do you notice that a third of the jobs listed by the Southern Fire Science Exchange relate to prescribed fire? Where there are committed practitioners who support one another and share the responsibility to burn, they succeed. It’s just like any other job — when you pay someone to do it, it gets done. When you invest, you get results.
Consider thinking about a workforce to implement prescribed burns that is similar in size as one we employ to suppress fire. I can easily imagine the difference we could make if we were able to focus thousands of wildland fire practitioners on controlled burning over a six-month season. Imagine if for every firefighter poised and ready to extinguish any start, we also had a fire lighter.
Increasingly, our state laws support it; our neighbors support it; the Environmental Protection Agency supports it. There are state prescribed burn councils. There are agreements and contracts. There are standards and qualifications. There is a revitalization of indigenous burning. And, there are increasing examples of communities demonstrating increased roles and responsibilities. The enabling conditions are in place, and we can do this. We just need to keep prioritizing building our workforce, and then, they just have to show up.
I believe that one thing will move us to a healthier, safer, more fire-resilient landscape: An allocation of an equal amount of money, effort and energy into prescribed fire as that which is directed to suppression.
In 2007, Jeremy Bailey joined The Nature Conservancy’s North American Fire Initiative Team which manages the Fire Learning Network and works on integrated fire management strategies. He currently leads the implementation of the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) strategy.