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A New Era in Fire Management

by Jack Ward Thomas

27 November, 2000
Fire 2000 Conference
San Diego CA

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be with you today as you struggle with the challenges and opportunities that the new emphasis on firefighting and fire management in forest and rangelands provides. The job of the keynote speaker is traditionally one of setting the stage for what is to follow.

Setting the stage:

The stage to be set is large, in management concept, in terms of action, and in significance. The change in concept is a sea change that has been a long time coming, and now it is here. The on-the-ground management that will result will focus national attention on the capability of involved agencies to come through on understanding gained and on promises confidently made. The significance is that not only will the concept of widespread use of fire as a management tool be on trial, but the proponents and practitioners (and their agencies) will likewise be weighed in the balance.

A good part of setting the stage requires some degree of pontification; but I can assure you that I do not take lightly any opportunities to pontificate.

As you might discern from the most generous introduction that I was given, I spent a significant portion of my 43-year career in the natural resources arena on the hot seat, where I was responsible for a lot of people, a lot of money, and a lot of land. Sometimes the heat of controversy seemed to be a firestorm of its own. Now, as a college professor, I spend much of my time pontificating. I can tell you, without qualification, that pontification is indeed much easier than responsibility.

Shifting attitudes:

The fire seasons of 1994 and 2000 have combined to facilitate a huge shift in how at least some public and elected officials perceive fire. The political players in the game, pardon the pun, have felt the heat and are eager to "do something"! The something they have chosen to do, at the behest of federal land management agencies, is to place an enormous amount of money into the hands of land management agencies with instructions to "do something".

That action can be interpreted in three ways. The Congress and the administration have implicit faith in the knowledge, skill, and adaptability of the agencies to address the problem through fuels management and use of controlled fire - and in very short order. Or, they want to shift the onus onto the bureaucracy, whereby they can claim credit for success and have ready scapegoats to point to in the case of failure. Or, likely, they have a bit of both in mind.

Myths and realities: responsibility for the Fires of 2000

First, let us put some of the mythology surrounding the fires of 2000 behind us. A few of the players involved in the natural resources management game (primarily those interested in extraction of wood from the public lands) were quick to place blame on the administration in power (i.e., Clinton and Gore) for not building roads into roadless areas at an appropriate rate to facilitate wood removal, thinning, and access for firefighting.

Let us examine the available database and put that hypothesis to test. Examining the data is always a good course of action to take before placing oneís foot firmly into oneís mouth. Both insertion and extraction of the foot are painful, awkward, and likely to be embarrassing.

From conviction, seeing a potential political gain, or both, some observers played the "blame game" and laid the responsibility for the fires of 2000 at the feet of the Clinton administration. Letís see what the facts are as related to the national forests.

The timber cut peaked in 1987, when President Reagan was in office, and then declined steadily, by 77 percent in 1999. The decline was 62 percent by the time that President Clinton assumed office, and has been 15 percent since.

Acres considered "suitable for timber production" declined 39 percent between 1981 and 1999, 26 percent by the time Clinton took office and 13 percent since. If the rate of cutting at the time Clinton assumed office had continued, only something approaching an additional 8 tenths of 1 percent of forested acres on the national forests would have been affected.

Construction of new roads peaked in 1985 at 3,341 miles per year, and then declined to 192 miles per year in 1999. This was a decline of 94 percent. Some 84 percent of that decline took place by the time Clinton took office, and it's been 10 percent since.

The four eras of Forest Service management:

The Forest Service has, I believe, been through three eras, and is entering a fourth. The custodial era lasted from 1907 to 1945. The timber emphasis era stretched from 1945 to 1987. The environmental era, wherein the effects of the spate of environmental laws passed in the late 1960s and 1970s began to have interactive effect, covered the period 1987 to 1992. We have been in a new era since 1992: the era of ecosystem management, which has evolved naturally and gradually out of the environmental era, and is still unfolding.

The "Roadless Area": So what's different?

In reality the "roadless issue" that is such a bone of contention today was essentially settled by 1993 by economic considerations of "below-cost" timber sales and Congressional refusal to fund road programs. Two weeks ago, the decision was made to place 5.8 million acres of national forest lands in roadless status.

Let us consider that roadless area decision for a moment. How does it change reality? We do not make roadless areas. God made roadless areas. We make roaded areas.

Our predecessors were not stupid. We logged the good stuff, the easy stuff, the money-making stuff first.

By 1990 it was clear that logging the roadless areas was a money loser and increasingly environmentally risky. And every entry was vigorously opposed.

By 1993 Congress was refusing to fund road programs with extensive roadless area entry. In that year the road budget passed by one single vote after considerable negotiation.

So, whatís different today with the roadless area decision relative to yesterday? Are there really any more or less areas in unroaded status today relative to yesterday?

The situation is the same, and after all is said and done, no different than it would have been otherwise.

Congress has a month to overturn the decision. The decision is an agency decision made under authorities granted under the National Forest Management Act. It can be severed by the same process it was made.

Politics? Not so much as it would seem.

I present these facts not to make a political statement. In fact, my intent is just the opposite. The fires of 2000 were largely the effect of nature, circumstances of climate, and conditions of the forest that have come about over many decades as Presidents came and went and Congresses did likewise. These developments were the reaction to the plethora of environmental laws of the late 1960s and 1970s, along with case law that has emerged over the ensuing 30 years, coupled with the effects of 80 years of aggressive efforts at fire suppression.

In addition, the fires of 1994, which were quite significant, occurred during my first year as Chief of the Forest Service. Were those fires the result of the failures of the Reagan and Bush administrations? Somehow that never came up as a political issue, and should not have.

It is time to let go of the "blame game" and move on.

Adaptive management: needed changes related to firefighter safety

You have heard the catchwords "adaptive management". The concept is simple and as old as human intelligence. Figure out what to do. Do it. Evaluate what you did. Using that new information, figure out what to do next. Do it. And so on.

The fires of 1994 forced a turning point in how we dealt with wildfire, adaptive management at its best. Thirty-four wildland firefighters died in the course of their duties in that one fire season. Clearly, it was time to reevaluate and make some changes before we faced another year like that one.

The director of the BLM and I were on the scene at Storm King Mountain the day after 14 firefighters were killed when a seemingly benign fire erupted into a firestorm. As we stood on the slopes of Storm King Mountain, we took the oath that this would not happen again. But the end was not yet, and deaths mounted as the fire season wore on and on. Changes were made, and the fires of 2000 were the test of those changes.

"Safety first, on every fire, every time" was the guiding premise behind those changes. But the fires of 2000 would test commitment to that premise. As the fires seemed to go on forever and property losses mounted Ė particularly of homes and structures in the wildland/urban interface Ė criticism bubbled to the surface and centered on "lack of aggressiveness" on the part of fire bosses. The pressure was on. However, the fire bosses stuck to their commitment to firefighter safety Ė and, in turn, their bosses backed them up. They did not buckle under pressure. And they were right. Bless their hearts, they were right.

Lack of aggressiveness? Safety first

Two months ago I was invited to testify to a House Committee in the aftermath of the past fire season. That afforded me a chance to address the charges of lack of aggressiveness by firefighters during the fires of 2000. Basically, I told them what I have just said to you, and added the following:

"In the final analysis, human life is the ultimate value. Things are just things and can be replaced. Once a life is expended, it is gone, save for the continued anguish of survivors, family, and friends, and in fond memories. I can speak only for myself, but I would freely give up all of my wealth and possessions to get back one single life of the wildland firefighters who died on my watch." The room was quiet. There were no more questions on that subject.

Past fire policy and current conditions:

It has been clear for some time that our past management, however appropriate it seemed at the moment, has produced a situation related to firefighting and fire management that is indeed formidable. Fire exclusion has resulted in dense crowded forests and significant accumulations of dead wood.

Just a word about the policies related to fire suppression that emerged after the Peshtigo and north Idaho fires at the turn of the century. Those policies, simply stated, were to put out wildfires, and as soon as possible. Those policies made good sense when the full intention was to save the "warehouse" of timber until it could be cut and the stands replaced with "younger, more vigorous, faster growing trees of the right species". Let us not forget that hundreds of lives were lost during these fires. The public of the time were appalled and frightened by the ferocity of the fires, the loss of life, and the "waste of resources" when they firmly believed that a "timber famine" loomed.

These efforts brought both praise and resources in both money and personnel to the agencies. Firefighting was to be the crucible within which the esprit de corps of an elite agency was forged and traditions of service in a noble cause were cast. There was a "poetry" in the firefighting tradition that cannot be ignored if we are to understand the tradition that helped make us what we are today, and tomorrow.

The policy was being called into question by some farsighted foresters and ecologists by the 1940s. But, it was difficult to successfully challenge what one observer called "the moral equivalent of war", which enjoyed the almost total support of natural resource management professionals, the public, and, in turn, the politicians of the time. So, I strongly suggest that we judge those actions of the past through the lenses worn by those in the game at the time.

It is pointless to look to the past except to learn lessons useful in guiding present and future decisions. No matter what we do over the next decade to deal with fire, both firefighting and fire management, it will be found wanting by our successors. That is the nature of adaptive management. I suggest that we should cease our search for scapegoats in the past, and hope that those who follow us will be as kind to us in judging our actions of the next decades.

Badmouthing the past has outworn its usefulness. Those of you who hope to make use of prescribed fire in ecosystem management will need the support of the "old guard". They did their best to carry out their duties in fire suppression and they were incredibly successful and widely praised. They earned their reputations. They were and are proud of what they accomplished. We stand on their shoulders. Much, perhaps most, of what we know about dealing with fire came from years of experience on the firelines. It was hard-won knowledge.

Frankly, some of those people still command great respect, and deservedly so, and they have significant influence - internally and externally. Such criticism may have had a place when change was desperately needed. But change has come, BIG TIME. Now care should be taken to ensure that the old fire dogs know what is going on, and that their support is cultivated. They must not feel either dishonored or ignored. You need them, and they need you to carry on what they began. It would be well to quit poking Smokey Bear. he might bite you in an embarrassing spot.

Times change: put up or shut up

Somebody, finally, bought the talk and the admonitions about new and better ways. A new era in the wildland fire business has arrived. We have trumpeted what we could do if given the opportunity. Now, it will be up to you to put up or shut up. The pleas for attention have been answered. Money, big money, is in hand. The time for change has arrived. Now what?

The money and the mandate from powers in Washington, D.C., have arrived. What does that mean?

This may be a test, maybe the final test, of whether land management agencies have a future as presently configured. A review of literature will quickly show that there are questions, serious questions, from both ends of the political spectrum concerning the capabilities of the agencies to move boldly beyond deadlock to a means of active management. Up to now, utilizing prescribed fire has been more of a curiosity than a significant, regularly applied management tool.

This challenge from Congress and the administration is, in reality, almost a leap of faith, and is certainly the best chance in well over a decade for agencies to demonstrate that objectives can be formulated, constituencies built, and resultant programs executed safely and expeditiously with promised results. Success could buttress a sense of mission, and would provide a platform of confidence and pride on which to reconstruct the land management agencies of the new century.

Failure could be fatal to the chances of using fire routinely as a significant tool in ecosystem management. Failure could destroy some of the remaining public and political faith in the land management agencies to match results with promises. I do not like to think beyond that.

Success is, then, essential. Failure is not an option.

Determining success: accountability looms

How will success be determined? Will success be measured strictly on an accountantís score card of acres treated, objectives achieved, prescribed burns conducted, prescribed fires escaped, costs per acre treated, etc? The answer is, of course, "yes." But that is only part of the equation. Dealing with people and public opinion is perhaps even more important. And that is difficult to place on an accounting sheet.

Informed public and employee opinion is critical to success

Informed public opinion is an essential step, and we simply "ainít there yet". This supporting public opinion will require carefully planned and vigorously executed programs of public involvement and education. The first step is see to it that every single agency employee is exposed (and re-exposed) to appropriate training so that they understand the "whys and hows" of the managed fire program.

The second step is an aggressive public education program of why this shift in management approach is under way. It is critical that the public understand the benefits and risks associated with this program. This public education and involvement program must take place at two levels: not just for the general public, but also with more intensive involvement of the people in areas where management actions will occur.

Leadership is critical: staying below the radar won't get the job done

This effort, to be successful, will require leadership from every level of the agencies, but in particular from the line officers. Sitting this one out will not suffice. Taking a low profile will not do. Every line officer must step out into the arena of public involvement, and that means being "on the stump" in every form, including talks to service clubs, public hearings, radio and television appearances, contacts with Congress and state officials, articles in newspapers and magazines, and other targets of opportunity. It means being out front. It means taking responsibility. It means taking the heat when things go wrong. It means aggressive visible engagement. We have had enough of low-profile, play-it-safe leadership.

Muhammad Ali, the famous heavyweight fighter, beat a formidable challenger by employing a technique he called "rope-a-dope". He covered his head and let the challenger exhaust himself pounding away at his arms, shoulders, and gloved hands. When the challenger was exhausted, Ali finished the fight.

Rope-a-dope was a good strategy. But, remember, finally the fighter had to come out swinging.

Rope-a-dope has gone on too long. If we are to be successful in making fuels management and prescribed fire a significant aspect of ecosystem management, it will require something more than a simple "trust me".

Seize the bully pulpit: tell it like it is

Are you looking for a helping hand? Look at the end of your wrist. You are the folks with the knowledge. If you expect others, with less knowledge than you, to carry the public education burden alone, you are staring failure full in the face.

It is critical that the public is told the truth, all of it, and over and over, about the use of fire in land management, the good, the bad, and the ugly. They must clearly understand the benefits and the risks. It is particularly important to explain that relatively small short-term risks are being taken to allay much larger long-term risks.

It ought to be clear that incidents such as the escaped burn at Los Alamos in 2000 and the incidents in the Blue Mountains and Snake River in 1994 will quickly kill the program. Prescribed burns should be carried out only by fully qualified personnel with adequate resources at their disposal, including more than adequate ground and air support to deal with escapes.

Moving from a firefighting organization to a fire management outfit:

It is my biased opinion that it is time to move beyond the concept of a firefighting organization, to a fire management organization. And that is under way. In such an organization, the focus is strictly on fire, whether on suppression or the application of prescribed fire. Personnel must be appropriately trained and retrained in fire behavior, fire ecology, firefighting, prescribed fire, public involvement, public affairs, personnel and resources management, leadership, air operations, etc. For these personnel, fire management would be a full-time job with appropriate career ladders.

Other agency personnel can continue to perform collateral duties in firefighting and fire management when essential, but much more rarely than at present. In much-downsized agencies, increased demands on general management personnel during the fire season take those persons away from regular duties which, it seems logical to assume, are significant and need to be accomplished with all due haste.

It is time to quit "blowing smoke" about the cost of fire:

The "smoke and mirrors" approach to funding firefighting operations that has evolved between the land management agencies, administration, and Congress needs to be abandoned. In this long-running, carefully orchestrated performance, all the actors pretend that fire years such as 1994 and 2000 are unusual and unforeseen and, therefore, are legitimately treated as "emergencies". When a big fire year arrives, fire bosses are given an essentially unlimited "draw" on the Treasury, and personnel are diverted as necessary to meet the emergency, with "supplemental" appropriations assured to cover the added costs.

This is nothing but a subterfuge, whether so intended or not, to make the budgets for the land management agencies appear less than they really are. It is time to let that approach go.

Why not fund the agencies that deal with fire, whether suppression or management, at the level required in 1994 and 2000? In the years that all-out fire suppression efforts are required, the majority of those funds would go to those efforts. In those years when such efforts are minimal, the focus would be on prescribed fire and mechanical and other fuels reduction.

As we move into the fire management, living-with-fire era, it is well to clearly state that there will always be a need for a formidable firefighting force. I tremble to think what might have happened in Montana and Idaho during the fires of 2000 without the aggressive initial attack that extinguished literally hundreds of lightening-caused fires while they were small.

Even at that, there are very few people who realize how truly lucky we were in that we never experienced the several consecutive days of sustained winds that normally occur in that region at that time of year. You donít have to be a crackerjack modeler to figure out what the combination of hundreds of additional fires and three days of significant winds would have produced. We were very, very lucky, and the initial attack crews were very, very effective. Also in both 1994 and 2000, extensive use was made of military units. Luckily, those units were available. What if those units had been on alert due to some crisis or another, and had not been available? We wonít always be so lucky.

It is time to face up to the fact that the infrastructure related to firefighting and fire management is sadly lacking. For example, many of the aircraft used in these efforts are antiques that we would never allow our military pilots to fly in such demanding environments. I read about members of Congress securing contracts for aircraft to be manufactured in their districts that the military neither wants nor needs. It makes me wonder why those funds could not be used to design and build aircraft specifically suited to use in wildland firefighting and fire management.

Policy clarification is needed from congress:

There needs to be clear policy from congress as to the responsibility of the land management agencies to fight fires, particularly to protect structures in the interface between private lands and public lands. There are more and more houses being built in such areas, often with inadequate access for firefighting equipment. Many of these homes are, by choice, outside city limits or fire protection districts. Many of these property owners have taken no precautions to provide defensible space around their structures. Where these homes are in proximity to public lands, are the federal land management agencies expected to be their fire departments? I can tell you from my experience living in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana during the fires of 2000 that, when all hell is breaking loose, there is no time nor patience for such debates.

This question deserves a clear answer, as the politics of the situation will always divert firefighting efforts to such priority situations. Conversely, if the states were to pick up the costs of firefighting efforts to protect structures in such ill-advised situations, it seems likely that they would dramatically limit development in those areas. Further, it is already apparent that significant federal efforts will be directed to fire management in the interface rather than in other areas of public lands. And, of course, these efforts will have to continue in perpetuity. This seems a normal reaction to the situation faced in various parts of the country during the fires of 2000, particularly the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. It is too late to change that situation. But, it is possible to head off any future problems of this sort through zoning. The necessity for such zoning could be emphasized by a clear decision in Congress that fighting fires in such circumstances would receive no federal assistance, or there would be a charge for federal assistance.

Research is a key component of fire management:

There is a need for clear guidance from fire experts as what to expect from prescribed fires. That may require more research. And, I do note that the Forest Service has received a considerable boost in funding to carry out such research.

No doubt a significant backlog of questions needs to be answered. I will touch on just two to make a point. I have seen a number of prescribed fires that were conducted in spring or early summer and, frankly, wondered why they were conducted. Obviously, they were easy to control. But, they put up a lot of smoke. They burned too cool to do much more than take out fine fuels, and seemed to have no residual effect that I could detect by the next year. What was the point beyond simply doing it? I am as knowledgeable as the average bear, maybe even a bit above average, and I could not figure out what problem had been solved.

The next statements are a warning. We simply donít have a good handle on what prescribed fires (hot, cold, big, little, spring, fall) produce in terms of wildlife habitat across the spectrum of species. Somebody ought to get busy putting together what is known, coupled with the expectations of qualified experts. Otherwise, expect the appeals, likely successful, directed at this vulnerability.

Expect a short honeymoon for fire management:

Do not expect clear sailing on the institution of action programs you envision. There will be those who oppose many of the actions you propose Ė count on it, and face up to that reality. Remember that the further the big fires slip into memory, the more emboldened the critics will be.

Therefore, it is critical that Environmental Impact Statements and Forest Plan Amendments be thoroughly documented and fully compliant with rules and regulations as well as cognizant of case law.

Obviously, there will be lively competition for these research funds to address gaps in knowledge related to fire ecology in general. But there are lessons to be learned when significant management shifts were made in the past. Your Achilles heel will be the effects of fuels treatments and prescribed fire on wildlife, particularly threatened and endangered wildlife and featured species.

Some secondary effects can be rather easily projected and planned for. Letís discuss one scenario as an example. The wildland/urban interface stretches along the edges of the valley floors in many places in the Northern Rockies. These are areas where subdivisions and scattered houses butt up against national forest boundaries, usurping winter range for deer and elk. Thinning of crowded second-growth stands, mechanical fuels reductions, followed by periodic prescribed fire, will result in a dramatic increase in forage plants. Deer and elk will capitalize on that situation. Predators will follow their prey species to these areas of concentration. No one should be surprised. But to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

There are situations that can be predicted and addressed in planning documents. Partnerships will be required. They are better forged earlier than later.

A bit of advice:

Now, at the end of my pontification, a bit of a cautionary statement seems in order regarding lawsuits and appeals to planned actions, and they will come. Count on it. Do not promise more than you can deliver. Start slowly. Methodically build your experience and knowledge and confidence.

Know that Murphy was impeccably correct when he said, "What can go wrong will go wrong." Be certain you have a "Plan B" in place if and when things go wrong, and maybe a "Plan C" too. Those plans successfully achieved will give the public more confidence than anything else you do.

Go team!

Finally, this is your time in the sun. You are on the cusp of a whole new era in land management. We, in this room, know of the role that fire has played in the ecosystems of which we are now part. You are the ones whose actions of the next decade will determine whether humans can harness fire as a tool to be routinely used in land management.

The alternative, I suspect, will be to continue to try to keep the wildfire Genie corked up in his bottle and pay the ever-increasing price when he escapes from time to time.

Talk is good. Reasoning together is good. But, while you are talking and reasoning together, keep in mind that when summer comes, significant management actions will be underway and you will be in the lead. This is a critical juncture in the development of ecosystem management. The stage is yours.

Good luck.

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