Investing in a Sustainable Wildfire Future
The Collapsing of Time, a Raging Conflict Over the Future, the Misdirected Masses, and Forging an Uneven Path Forward
The following finds its roots in personal experiences on thinning and prescribed burn projects, responding to wildfire incidents around the country, visiting prescribed and wildfire burn scars, ongoing conversations with professors and firefighters, and the imprints left behind from reading countless articles, books, and synthesizing them into papers. The post below is best understood as an expression that projects a need to be shared to contribute to ongoing narratives. This is far more a piece of focused writing than a dissertation, though it still makes points based on the above.
The innovation taking place in the wildfire sphere is exciting. Fire sensors, autonomous helicopters, fire-stopping chemical suppressants, new foams and retardants, new types of equipment, and innovations in fixed-wing aircraft can all be leveraged toward materializing a wildfire future. But which future should be sought?
The prevailing future contains a decisive turning back of the wildfire policy clock to aggressive suppression, where every fire is contained as soon as possible. In this future, if fire resources are successful and to the delight of climate scientists and related investors, greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires will decrease in correspondence with keeping fires small. This future will be pursued on the backs of Hotshot, Hand and engine crews, aircraft, smokejumpers, and equipment.
Whether a result of an incomplete read of wildfire history, willfully ignoring science to wrestle nature into submission to achieve the desired outcome of public lands without fires and air without smoke, or a failure to consider how this future can be intended towards at the height of fire season when fire activity is up, and resource availability is down, or a misunderstanding of systems and their feedback, the aggressive suppression future seems to be dominant. Regardless of its origins in a particular context, the popular suppression-dominant wildfire future is a fallacy, and it is irresponsible to promote it as the only way forward and the only future in need of consideration.
The Suppression-Dominant Future
Imagine a world where every wildfire burning on federal land in California was caught at as close to under a thousand acres as possible for ten years. A significant percentage of these fires would be contained in Initial Attack, while a much smaller amount would enter the Extended Attack phase and would take a few days, or longer, sometimes much longer, to contain. Within these ten years, there would be great returns on reducing greenhouse gases and air quality from wildfires. At the same time, annual suppression costs would likely increase as this future places greater demands on aircraft and Hotshot and Hand Crews as fires in California frequently burn in very steep terrain out of reach of engines and far away from roads. What has been imagined in California is what climate scientists, related investors, and new innovators hope will materialize. While new inventions may be slowly integrated into the mainstream pursuit of the suppression-dominant future they advocate for, the extermination of wildfires from the landscape will primarily remain a task for preexisting resources. Any resource, established or new, can promote a suppression-dominant future. However, the decision to intend towards it involves the decision-making authority of several other superior individuals and the dynamics of the fire environment.
The Devil is in the Details
Returning now to the earlier imagined suppression-dominant future, let us say that over the last ten years, resources were able to corral a substantial percentage of wildfires burning on federal land in California at or under the admirable goal of a thousand acres. However, not included in the suppression-dominant future of fire eradication when it is communicated to stakeholders or popularized on social media is that there is one key commonly discussed major externality. Not only is there an externality (and indeed more than one), but one of enough consequence to potentially reverse the returns previously received regarding climate and keeping fire off public lands. While fire risk was managed in the burn area through combustion, the land outside the burn area was left untouched. As the years ticked by, the vegetation surrounding all of the burned areas continued to grow thicker, taller, and with greater continuity year in and year out. While feverishly working to keep fire off the landscape, resources created conditions that will be compounded by climate change, where wildfire will be a more intense and harder-to-control force. When the vegetation permitted from burning during a previous fire occurrence eventually catches aflame, it has the potential to emit more greenhouse gases and smoke than the same piece of land would have ten years ago, burning larger areas of land with greater severity. The suppression-dominant future that deals with fire by removing it from the landscape is, at best, a short-term investment with poor returns. Eventually, the suppression-dominant future’s positive gains in reducing fire size and greenhouse gases from wildfires over three, five, or ten years will have to be reckoned with and weighed against the outputs and outcomes of more intense and larger fires later on. The years of aggressive wildfire suppression may not appear to be as constructive as they first seemed.
Effectively, the suppression-dominant future where fire is approached like an enemy creates a greater and greater adversary in return. Still, no conceivable wildfire future does not contain suppression. Suppression is vital to protecting life, property, and resources and can prevent a fire from turning into an even larger incident if there is potential for a high-severity fire with extreme behavior, and the author will help you develop means to contain and extinguish fires. Suppression succeeds in stopping the immediate event and is an important piece of the overall wildfire management picture, but it is just a piece.
The future of suppression dominance is false simply because it exacerbates the very “problem” (to use this future’s framing) it sets out to solve. It is a great deferment and worsening of risk. Proponents of the suppression-dominant future will increasingly encounter fires of such severity that their ideal of direct suppression will immediately dissolve. Born out of their actions, beetle-killed trees, and a warming climate, advocates for the suppression-dominant future will find the very world they were trying to prevent exists at scale. Vegetation conditions worsened by fire exclusion by aggressive suppression are not negligible in the overall “mega-fire” phenomena.
The suppression-dominant future is also false because not every fire can be aggressively suppressed. Fire weather and behavior, fire history (for example, how long fire has been excluded from the area), resource availability, fire location, and terrain are all factors involved in how quickly a fire can be suppressed. Resources are nationally available and allocated all around the country. Contained in the suppression-dominant future is a narrative about solving the wildfire “problem.” As seen above, one of the ideas attached to this future is removing fire from the landscape, which, as repeatedly told in error, will solve the problem, and all will be well for investors and countless other stakeholders. Fire, however, is not a problem and is certainly not one that lasts only for the duration of a wildfire incident as the suppression-dominant future projects. Fire will always be on the landscape, and casting it universally as a problem or a crisis only supports actions that make it more difficult to manage and live alongside. To that end, it may be possible to bring balance to the wildfire situation and, in doing so, seek a different, sustainable future.
A Sustainable Future
From observation, significant money and time are being invested in the suppression-dominant future. It was stated earlier that suppression is part of any wildfire future. There is a need to protect life, property, and resources and prevent fires from growing too big at the height of fire season when fire activity is up and resource availability is down. The sustainable wildfire future asks, “How much suppression is necessary?” More precisely, the sustainable future questions how much direct suppression that takes place adjacent to and along the fire’s burning edge is needed. A primary means for implementing a direct strategy are Hotshot and Hand Crews, which consist of around 20 highly trained individuals with chainsaws, hand tools, and firing devices. The direct strategy is fundamental to the suppression-dominant future as it can be deployed to contain fires and prevent growth quickly. The word “aggressive” can be put in front of direct suppression to indicate the use of overwhelming force working extended shifts. This is the lifeblood of the suppression-dominant future.
The core image at the heart of the sustainable wildfire future is a marked increase in the amount of wildfire on the landscape with the intent of lowering risk around the country by managing vegetation loads and reducing the need for extensive and aggressive suppression. This is not a suggestion that fires should be allowed to burn during peak season or under conditions that would harm ecosystems. Permitting a wildfire to further “moonscape” a National Forest has little benefit. However, some years ago, a fire official mentioned there were scenarios where the most proactive management option is to “start over” with a particular landscape. Continuing, it was explained the locus of responsibility to create conditions as safe as possible for future firefighters (someone’s sons and daughters) is on Incident Management Team (IMT) members in the present. Both considerations are found in the sustainable wildfire future but are apparently absent in the suppression-dominant future.
The sustainable wildfire future remains an advocate for the expedient suppression of wildfires to protect values at risk. However, this future also looks for opportunities to have more fire on the landscape to reduce additional wildfire risk by burning vegetation (The author will gladly help you think through and plan for these competing product requirements as you begin to create your innovation). Within the confines of a wildfire incident, more fire can be put on the landscape through an indirect strategy where firefighters build containment lines away from the fire. Not every fire can be directly suppressed due to fire behavior, weather, terrain, safety concerns, vegetation, and availability of ground and aviation resources. An indirect strategy may be the only option or the preferred option from the lens of the sustainable wildfire future. Following an indirect strategy, Hotshot and Handcrews cut wide firelines on opposing ridges connecting to features such as roads with the wildfire situated somewhere in between. This gives firefighters a box to contain the firing operation that consumes vegetation between the fireline and the fire, reducing the chance of further spread. However, an indirect strategy may not have been selected purposefully for reducing wildfire risk over a greater area, but it is very likely it still will. In the process of selecting an indirect strategy and working to operationalize it, the sustainable wildfire future seeks intentionality from IMT members to exploit opportunities, such as a fire that cannot be directly suppressed. The sustainable wildfire future sees these opportunities as openings to control the fire while also managing a greater amount of wildfire risk. If an indirect strategy is pursued, IMT members may choose the location of fireline based on the likelihood of success, safety, and wildfire risk. For example, if the fire can clear out several brush-filled drainages, which will become a problem later, based on conditions, IMT members may decide to let the fire burn these drainages to reduce the potential for explosive fire behavior later. A fire may be managed in some areas with direct suppression and others with indirect.
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Attracting Early Attention
Finding a balance between firing operations and wildfire risk versus ecosystem health is either in the early stages or not yet a part of practice, which it will need to become. A respectful conversation will need to occur at varying scales to determine how to burn best to eliminate the risk of a fire overtaking holding features while also being kind to the ecosystems. Recently, allegations have been made that the United States Forest Service, while using an indirect strategy, aggressively (“moonscaped”) burned the remaining vegetation between the holding feature and the fire with such intensity that it damaged the ecosystem during Red Flag Warnings (This is a good point, though some components may have been forgotten). While some social media-based evidence has been brought to light to substantiate this claim, more supportive documents such as Delegations of Authority, Incident Action Plans, reports, or IMT interviews that describe this incident appear to be absent. Another incident in New Mexico was highlighted following a call to hold not the burn boss but individual lighters accountable for damages. This is worth reflecting on. Recently, after this post was published, a firefighter was arrested for reckless burning. The sustainable wildfire future will have to contend with what could be an increasingly litigious environment.
From an ecosystem health perspective, a firing operation can be too hot, as measured by the damage to old-growth trees, logging stands, tree and brush mortality, and the soil. At the same time, a firing operation as hot as the one described may have been conducted with no other choice. During a wildfire, the IMT and firefighters may have to proceed with operations regardless of the conditions. That a burn was strategically conducted during a Red Flag Warning where fire behavior would be extreme, with potential for exponential growth and threatening values at risk, does not seem entirely out of place, though there is certainly more backstory.. That there may have been competing objectives is also not surprising, including a mention of Firesheds regarding the incident where the firing operation was believed to be too hot for the context.
The sustainable wildfire future prioritizes protecting values at risk before seeking opportunities to reduce fuel loads, placing tension and a need for balance between ecosystem health and mitigating wildfire risk, which will be an ongoing effort. But there is reality. Prescribed fires sometimes get out of the box; wildfires get out of the box even when it does not seem possible, and firing operations get out of the box. Maybe it is qualifications and experience, the nature of the fire, or a lot of bad decision-making. Or maybe the stakes are always very high in a macro sense, which sometimes gets concealed by important efforts and energy expenditure to keep the crew safe regarding their person on the micro level. The sustainable wildfire future advocates for training and development to pursue system-wide balance.
While it may be possible to control how hot a burn is in some cases, there are also instances where the primary objective is to stop an advancing fire expediently, and firefighters may carry out the firing operation with intensity to consume all vegetation between the fireline or road and fire. Leaving behind a park-like or mosaic structure desired by some may still have enough continuity to keep the fire advancing and threaten the holding feature or value(s) at risk. Surely, there is friction behind carrying out a burn to eliminate wildfire risk by removing all vegetation between the fire and the control line or feature and burning for ecological health. These ideas may often be incompatible, leaving behind a quandary the sustainable wildfire future community must engage with. As mentioned earlier, there will be a need for a constructive conversation about wildfire risk and ecosystem health.
The System Dynamics of Wildfire Futures
It is important to recognize the dynamics at hand. As discussed in the opening, suppression begets the need for further and likely more expensive suppression as future wildfires will be harder to fight due to suppression’s exclusion of fire that leads to the accumulation of vegetation, a condition exacerbated by the changing climate. Dominated by reinforcing feedback, the wildfire management system continues to spin out of control. This is the unsustainable, the continual act of taking time away from the future by creating forests more prone to high-severity fires, requiring more and more from resources (Fry, 2009). This cannot go on in perpetuity. Softly spinning in the opposite direction from reinforcing feedback is balancing feedback, which seeks to bring the reinforcing feedback loop back into the normative range.
The components potentially involved in producing balancing feedback include fuels crews that thin vegetation and carry out prescribed burns, any other resource concerned with putting fire back on the landscape or otherwise reducing risk, indirect suppression strategies (done for many reasons other than sustainability but contribute nonetheless) that burn more acres than direct suppression strategies, and managing a fire or a division(s) of a fire for resource benefit. Balancing feedback regulates while reinforcing feedback leads to exponential growth; in this case, the cycle of aggressive suppression produces volatile landscapes requiring larger and larger suppression efforts over time (Meadows, 2008)
The suppression-dominant future dominates beyond the entirety of the firefighting apparatus and into the workbenches and computers of new innovators; it invades the realm of the social and establishes itself beyond the status of a future to that of holy truth. Where does the sustainable wildfire future come from when the reinforcing feedback of the suppression-dominant false future controls the system? Especially when it has already misled the masses and been used to attract and inspire investors? The answer is slowly and from the good intentions and commitments of agency administrators, fire officials, and citizen groups working to put the fire back on the landscape. If a sustainable future is committed to and enacted enough times, the balancing feedback will grow stronger and begin to rein in the reinforcing feedback of the suppression-dominant future. Taking the existing balancing feedback loop and increasing its size, thickness, weight, and force will take a remarkable amount of time, energy, and repeated pro-sustainable behaviors. However, balance can be brought to wildland fire management (Meadow, 2008).
Searching for that First Step Toward Progress
It is important to approach the sustainable wildfire future with productive framing. Essentially, every landscape is artifice. Around the nation, landscapes have turned from the natural to the artificial through the activities of humans, generally through the application of force. This includes firefighting, firing operations, prescribed fire, and early Indigenous burning. It then becomes a matter of creating the next artificial state on a landscape that intends toward a sustainable wildfire future and not recreating something that once was (as will be explored later). Following the important framing step, the sustainable wildfire future includes the important question, “What trajectory should this piece of land be set on now and moving into the future?”
During the first and last part of the season, there may be opportunities to manage fires for resource benefit. Hotshot and Hand Crews, autonomous helicopters, drones, and new high-capacity heli-tankers can all support the objective of managing a fire to reduce risk and perform ecological functions within established trigger points. Although it will be no simple task, the need to burn additional acres where possible and when it makes sense will need to become a regular part of practice in pursuing the sustainable wildfire future. This applies to the firefighter, IMT level, and Agency Administrators who determine how a fire will be managed. The sustainable wildfire future needs to be institutionalized.
It is important to remember the fire being fought is on an artificial landscape, as will be the one left behind after resources leave and the one the post-fire landscape evolves into. During the fire, Agency Administrators and IMTs can exercise their agency in designing the next phase of existence for landscapes within the fire perimeter through their decisions.
The sustainable wildfire future is not concerned exclusively with interventions during wildfires, whether they are focused on stopping an advancing fire through burning, letting a fire burn for ecological benefit, or direct suppression on some parts of a fire and indirect in others. Prescribed fire has long been a hallmark of the sustainable fire future. However, prescribed fire must become more widespread and frequent as a critical component of the balancing feedback loop.
Still, conflict will exist between the image of burning for ecological benefit and burning to reduce wildfire risk. Old notions about park-like landscapes are achieved through low-intensity burns and thinning, likely leaving behind landscapes that a wind-driven fire could easily advance through. Fuels work needs to embrace the artificial and seek a more complicated idea of what the landscape should look like moving into the future by balancing both ecology and wildfire risk where possible. Designing a landscape through fire that strikes a varying balance between ecological benefit and wildfire risk is a complicated task requiring much consideration and embracing the artificial nature of the public lands fire is being managed on. Burning purposefully to benefit an ecosystem while at the same time reducing its tendency to support intense wildfires is a much harder task than using fire for a singular purpose. Time will tell.
In a meeting some years ago, someone from completely outside the world of wildfire (yet still involved in a wildfire project) made the same very evident suggestion that there should be more prescribed fire across the United States. Although an obvious and frequently repeated statement, increasing prescribed fire is complicated. To begin, private entities lacking the appropriate liability insurance to put fire on the ground, or private and government entities working in risk-averse states that oppose prescribed fire make matters difficult. For private entities especially, recruiting individuals with the qualifications necessary to conduct a prescribed fire may be difficult. Recruiting in any context may be met with challenges. Navigating this constraint is important as growing the workforce is crucial to conducting more prescribed fires.
The government wildland fire management system operates largely on a seasonal workforce, decreasing the off-season capacity to conduct or prepare for prescribed burns at the federal and state levels. Fuels crews and permanent staff from engines, Hotshot Crews, and Hand Crews may contribute to prescribed fires and pile burning. The above seems to express a longstanding state of affairs.
It is, of course, far easier to say there should be more prescribed fire than it is to devise a solution that supports more prescribed fire, and no such method will be offered here. Establishing two key futures that may be pursued could help to place a renewed emphasis on prescribed fire and fuels crews. Clearly, private organizations have their constraints to manage to begin burning and contribute to the strength of the balancing feedback. The state and federal groups are constrained by the length of their crewmember's appointments, which reduces their ability to burn. This emphasizes the value of having engines, Hotshot, and Hand Crews cut their practice line during their critical eighty hours of training around units to be burned. The same concept may also be applied in between fire assignments so the permanent staff can burn after the height of fire season has passed.
Clearly, increasing the staffing of fuels crews, as well as how many there are, would be a positive step forward for Spring and Fall prescribed burning. Perhaps positioning fuels crews squarely in the career progression to Hotshot Crews would attract more interest. Extended time constructing containment lines may be considered a desirable quality for progressing one’s career.
From The Artificial
There are narratives greatly concerned with how to thin vegetation with chainsaws to produce a desired and artificial landscape. Such treatments may be left alone or followed up with prescribed fire. Advocates for these narratives promote the creation of park-like, mosaic, and pre-colonial landscapes. I have written at length about this in another post in the section “Manipulating Landscapes.” This includes treating the area to be burned before burning it. Having pretreated before with four people using chainsaws and weed whips, even an acre plot can take days. Some argue mechanical pretreating, meaning cutting out vegetation to promote a desirable burn, should be done before any prescribed fire is conducted. Universal pretreating is fine for conversation but impractical if there is to be expedient and scaling action toward addressing the situation at hand. There may be exceptions, such as pretreating around and within old-growth stands and creating a buffer around private logging lands or other values.
As a matter of opinion, the ideal landscape images mentioned above include a sense that any of the three options is in some way “natural.” As discussed earlier, this is inaccurate as it seems the images of these landscapes frequently forget to include Indigenous burning, which supersedes the mentioned landscapes. The United States landscape has been artificial since (at least) Indigenous burning was carried out across the country, never mind what has been done to it in the past hundred or so years alone. The early settlers arrived at an artificial landscape. If an idea of a natural landscape is strong and coherent enough to implement, how much energy would need to be expended to attain and maintain it should first be considered.
That said, the landscape before us remains artificial, crafted from continued prescribed burning, wildfire suppression, pollution, the spread of species from one area in the country to another, the damming of rivers, the construction of roads and urban sprawl, and so on. All forests around the United States are artificial to one degree or another. Data-based tools for determining a landscape’s departure from some historical data point offer a benchmark, but it is a state of artifice. The sustainability future is not interested in recovering a lost picture or idea of a landscape. It is about the future. Instead, the sustainability future recognizes the present landscape, the starting point, is artificial. Resources can exercise a degree of agency in determining the next artificial state of the landscape in prescribed or wildfire settings, balancing ecology and mitigating risk.
Making the Right Investment
This has been a much longer post than planned. There will always be more to say on the topic of wildfire, and not enough has been said here. For example, the added layer of consideration rightfully demanded by the logging industry is absent. Though insufficient this late in the post, a balance must be struck between wildfire risk, firing operations, and protecting logging land (one might wonder how much mitigation work they do on their own). Although a complicated situation and one that will certainly grow more so, those involved in deciding which future to seek and when will continue to make the same decisions with the same difficulty and complexity they always have.
Two futures have been presented. The prevalent suppression-dominant future reinforces the need for more expensive and expansive future suppression in a continually increasing cycle. The sustainable wildfire future shares with the suppression-dominant one the need for suppression. Suppression is, in so many cases, entirely necessary. There are entire periods of fire season where aggressive and direct suppression is the necessary and favored strategy, with indirect being used where needed. Suppression is used to protect life, property, and resources or to (hopefully) prevent a fire from tearing across a National Forest with extreme severity.
The sustainable future questions the dominance and necessity of direct suppression and considers how the fire may be instead leveraged to reduce wildfire risk by letting fires burn within certain parameters and following an indirect strategy complete with firing operations. Lastly, this future greatly emphasizes fuels work to include mechanical thinning, pile building and burning, and prescribed fire by government and private entities. Fuels work, including thinning and containment line construction, may continue to be a part of Hotshot, Hand, and engine crew readiness work and when it makes sense. The continued integration of fuels assignments into the work of other resource types will also support the materialization of the sustainable wildfire future.
So where should investments be made? The future will reflect which future is funded. History will remember where the investments went, but perhaps more favorably, if the preferred future brings balance to the wildfire situation presently spiraling out of control. The narrative of total eradication of fire from the landscape can create conditions that worsen the “problem” it set out to solve. Standing on the shoulders of that knowledge, the need for balance is clear. Balance may come from reintroducing fire on the landscape through intentionally managing unplanned wildfires and using fire surrogates such as mechanical thinning and prescribed fire. This combination may have the early potential needed to begin slowly drawing in the reinforcing feedback of the suppression-dominant future. Like the suppression-dominant future, the sustainability wildfire future also increases costs over some extended period, but if it is effective, costs will start to decrease over time. With sustainability principles and the artificial at the center, the sustainable wildfire future can connect to previous hard work, strategies, tactics, uses of fire, and decisions, learn from them, introduce new research and ideas, and hope to scale efforts extensively across the landscape.
What do the right investments look like? The beliefs, images, narratives, wildfire knowledge and experience, and future explicitly guiding the company are important, as are those thinly concealed beneath the surface. Also relevant are a given company’s theories on what its technology is capable of and should be used for, its theories on the role of its new technologies in the wide network of existing practices, understandings, and resources associated with wildfire firefighting, theories on the change the technology would make, its perspective on the presence of fire across the landscape, and its understanding of wildfire history.
The design of the technology has to be interrogated. Question: what has the technology been created to do? And by whom? What was their experience level in what region, and on what type of resources? And what was their design basis? Is it feasible from the perspective of expert analysis? What does it bring into focus and place out of focus? By existing, what does it make possible and impossible? What new risk appears with it? Is it safe? How does it invite others to conceive of and address fire? What does the design encourage and discourage? How has the intention and experience level of the company been embedded in the design? What were the outcomes? Can the technology be used constructively on wild and prescribed fires cost-effectively? Is the company’s technology most useful in direct suppression? Is direct suppression what the company entered this business to do, and are they unlikely to advocate for anything else? Does the company narrative include direct suppression and open space for new conceptions and approaches? Alternatively, is the company interested in adding time to the future through the pursuit of balance and sustainability? Is their technology designed to readily cohere with the already existing and established assemblage of wildland firefighting resources and quickly produce value? How does its production measure up against Hotshot Crews? Hotshot Crews with aviation? How does it compare against heavy machinery such as bulldozers? These are some early questions to evaluate any innovation's potential effectiveness and efficiency, whether it is an autonomous helicopter or fire-stopping chemicals.
The right investments are companies that develop multi-functional tools that are agile enough to support indirect firing operations, direct line construction, prescribed fire, and mop-up, all without incurring outrageous expenditures. Ideally, the company will believe in the sustainable wildfire future and put some energy behind it.
Investors are not just backing a technology; they are backing a future, the materialization of which will have enduring effects. Across the country, what should the future look like? What conditions should be created for future firefighters to engage with wildfires? Should increased wildfire risk posed to ecosystems, homes, and other values be passed on to future generations born out of exclusively thinking of “the now” and not addressing these issues in the present? Alternatively, should the aspirations of new innovators, highly trained resources, and managers turn toward placing renewed pressure on the value of increasing the amount of fire on the landscape? Should this turn toward a sustainable wildfire future leverage ground and aviation resources, expand the fuels management force at government and private levels, and seek institutional change? At the same time, maintaining and developing suppression capabilities is a requirement.
A Word of Caution
Worthy of emphasis is a design’s feasibility. Recently, two home defense systems appeared on social media, all but outright claiming to protect homes from wildfire effectively (This hints at the need to establish a design ethics board that comes before any NWCG portal or federal invention). This is before live fire testing or even situating these defense systems in a fire-prone environment. It is impossible to say how the technology performs and what its value is without being tested in various fire environments and exposed to several fire severities and behaviors. While every startup needs to promote its products heavily, resorting to falsehoods and assuming its technologies will be effective before being tested remains unethical. Before determining how technology functions in the face of fire, it is just a collection of hose, metal, hardware, accessories, and a whole lot of imagination. While seemingly attractive, some up-and-coming innovations may never make it to a wildfire incident due to the aforementioned infeasibility, cost, and design. Having recently prepared a short introduction to design ethics for emergency management consultants to be presented at a conference, perhaps one is needed for wildfire innovation as well.
Continued and aggressive direct suppression, regardless of context, first benefits those whose values were protected. Then, it benefits the involved resources and those who invested in or otherwise benefit from this future, particularly those who evaluate their impact across short time periods. This is the illusion of success. Meanwhile, wildfire risk and the potential for greenhouse gas emissions silently increase in public lands nationwide. To reiterate, suppression is part of any wildfire future that can be imagined, so it is no surprise it is also part of the sustainable wildfire future. However, the sustainable wildfire future is also enormously interested in balancing suppression dominance by introducing greater amounts of fire and other fire surrogates across the landscape. Two futures will be pursued by the same system at once, introducing additional tension, competition, disorder, and confusion. The wildfire management system must develop ways to tolerate the friction between both futures and constructively pursue them, often simultaneously at different parts of the same fire. To make headway toward a sustainable future, it will need to become less of an afterthought or an occasional objective and more of an established driving principle.
This sketch delivered here primarily offers a key distinction between a future where the war with wildfire continuously escalates and a future where balance is sought at greater scale and frequency by putting more fire on the landscape. At one level of complexity, this distinction simplifies operational decisions: Does this operation, strategy, or tactic escalate the need for further and more expansive suppression later on? Or does the plan reduce wildfire risk and introduce balance (even in only a limited local area) through combustion? The distinction drawn here produces two containers where decision-makers can place ideas, ideals, delegations of authority, images, plans, strategies, tactics, resources, and the entirety of operational periods and all they entail. This is a way of observing the dominant future being pursued on a wildfire incident and having the opportunity to shift these items around in search of a better outcome.
This post has been about the importance of the sustainable wildfire future gaining power and prevalence and helping to, in time, pull in the suppression-dominant future by creating conditions where suppression is not as necessary as it is now. However, it has also been about something bigger: how the pursuit of one wildfire future or another sends its outcomes to the larger global future and establishes how much time we will have left as a species once we get there (Fry, 2009).
Fry, T. (2009). Design futuring: Sustainability, ethics and new practice. London: Bloomsbury.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. (D. Wright, Ed.) White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.