Are we experiencing a “new normal” of wildland fire behavior?

In the last 16 days four fighters and at least three civilians have been killed on two fires in California, the Ferguson and Carr Fires.

These two fatal fires that are still spreading have over 7,100 personnel working to put them out. Today, nationally, 24,641 are assigned to wildland fires according to the July 29 National Situation Report, including 584 hand crews and 1,689 fire engines. These are very high numbers that have not been reached very often.

There are risks associated with wildland fires, and the more people taking those risks, almost 25,000 today, the more likely it is that fatalities will occur. Struggling to knock down huge weather and fuel-driven fires, or having people assigned for months to a fire that is being managed with a less than full suppression strategy, exacerbates the situation, exposing more firefighters for longer periods of time.

Firefighters on the Carr Fire near Redding, an area very familiar with wildland fire, are saying that during the current drought and extreme heat, the fire has been spreading without regard to what’s in front of it.

Below is an excerpt from an article at KTVU about the Carr Fire:

“We’re not fighting a fire,” said Jonathan Cox, battalion chief with Cal Fire. “We’re trying to move people out of the path of it because it is now deadly, and it is now moving at speeds and in ways we have not seen before in this area.”

From Fox26Medford:

Carr Fire Unified Incident Commander Chief Brett Gouvea said, “This fire is extremely dangerous and moving with no regard to what’s in its path.” Homes, businesses and tens-of-thousands of acres reduced to rubble and ash.

Mark Brunton with CAL FIRE said, “We’ve seen rates of spread, which means the movement of the fire, that are unprecedented. They’re record-breaking.” And continuing to force families to evacuate.

It is too early to say if what we are seeing on fires this year and this decade is the new normal. But maybe it is time to step back and see how the current climate affects the management practices we are using. Are the long term decisions made 10 years ago still viable today? Are we suppressing or managing every fire the best way? At the rate we are using let burn (or less than full suppression) strategies, will we ever treat enough land to make a difference in the long run? Do we have enough funding and firefighters for let burn fires which can linger on for months? Oddly, the National Situation Report does not include any meaningful data about these less than full suppression fires (how I hate that term!), only that there are 39 of them on July 29.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

8 thoughts on “Are we experiencing a “new normal” of wildland fire behavior?”

  1. Hi Bill,
    I know you hate the term “less then full suppression” but what else are we supposed to call it. The federal agencies have struggled over the last 10-15 to come up with terminology that the public can stomach when we want to “manage fires”(another term the public hates). But as a wildland firefighter for the last 8 years it feels like we are fighting a loosing battle if we don’t try to manage some of these lightning caused fires and let them take the course they would if no one was around to put them out. I spent four seasons working in Yellowstone NP and I believe when they put their foot down in 88′ and stuck with their management strategy it has completely paid off. They have very little disease or insect killed trees in the park and everything that “nuked” off in 88′ has regenerated just like lodgepole is supposed to. We are never going to be able to put out every fire before it gets big and no one wants to see firefighters die so there are times when fires need to be managed with “less then full suppression” tactics. I know this is a hard topic but a discussion that needs to happen. Cost of fighting Type 1 fires is also sky rocketing and I have not done the math but I’m sure there are some managed fires out there that are much cheaper dollar-per-acre then some of these massive Type 1 fires. I also know we can’t let peoples houses burn down but the public needs to understand that wildfires are a part of our lives just like any other natural disaster. I would love to see more money spent in Spring and Fall to treat more acres in and around communities that are at high risk for wildfires. Apologies if this comment got long but would love to hear you opinion back, Bill. Thanks!

  2. Either they let the forests burn or firefighters will be a lot busier. The trees they planted in these forests are good for lumber products but are genetically inferior. They do not hold up well in drought conditions and are quite prone to bark beetle infestations. We have a of lot dry dead trees out there, millions. Having lots of low lying branches adds to their ability to become inflamed. Its been a tinder box for quite some time all it takes is hot dry weather

  3. I think a lot of the problems we are having are not so much climate change but because of our own actions. With the eradication of natural fires over a century ago and the demise of nearly all logging on federal lands, there are no “predators” left to thin the forest, thus we have unnaturally intense fires.

    To think we can “treat” the forest now with prescribed fire in the scope required is unrealistic. NPS may be able to pull it off because their lands are comparatively small and they have a had a tighter control of those lands since the creation of the Parks, but the Forest Service and BLM have too many acres, not enough people and, most importantly, too much comingled private lands that are placed at risk by managed fires.

    The private lands themselves needs to be addressed (remember the Carr Fire and the fires in Mendocino and Lake Counties of California are not on federally protected lands) . With the breakup of many of the larger land holdings into subdivisions and ranchettes conventional large scale fuel management is nearly impossible. Burning is, for the most part, is out of the question.

    We need to address fuel management globally – not just by reintroducing fire but through mechanical clearing, hand clearing and *gasp* logging. We need to provide incentives for wildland landowners to thin their lands, either through guidance and grants or through the insurance industry. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but imagine what could be done if the money we are spending this summer on fire suppression was put into a fuels management budget.

    I have one last point to make. We humans have tended to pick and choose our environmental battles. We will protect this species or save those plants by taking these steps. Unfortunately taking those steps precludes bigger processes that have bigger outcomes. Eventfully it all catches up with us. How many fire managers in California have had prescribed burns cancelled because of air quality concerns? Today there is an quality advisory in my area due to wildfires and I cannot see more than two miles across the valley. All the money in the budget will do no good unless we address this challenge as well.

    How should we apply Gifford Pinchot’s “The greatest good…”

  4. How about looking at the 85% of human caused fires and start passing regulations to control things like target shooting, campfires, OHV’s, etc.? That may be the biggest win in reducing the number of fires.

    1. If you look at the statistics, 85% of fires may be human caused, but they make up only 50% of the burned acres. There are a large number of reasons for this, among them easier discovery and financial considerations. Large scale prohibitions on ignition sources would undoubtedly help, but probably wouldn’t be worth it in a cost-benefit analysis.

  5. I just wanted to take a quick moment to comment on your recent post about a “new normal” in wildland fire management, Bill. Having been deeply imbedded in the “less than full suppression” paradigm shift in fire management for nearly thirty years, I’ve seen the naming fiasco…prescribed natural fire (PNF), wildland fire use (WFU), even the more obtuse wildland fire use for resource benefit (WFURB), and so on. We should be thankful that the “good” fire vs. “bad” fire distinction is now gone with the last Federal wildland fire policy iteration. We have finally arrived at a state that offers maximum flexibility to the fire manager and his/her agency administrator. Now, any fire can be managed for a mix of suppression and natural resource management objectives at any time and any place. No longer is a fire being managed for resource benefit “converted” suddenly to a fire needing to be crushed under the bootheel of our fire industrial complex. The objectives of the incident can simply be changed to adapt to the new situation. In reverse now, a fire might be managed under a full suppression strategy up until a certain date, then “released” to meet resource objectives. It is not uncommon now, for part of a fire to be managed for suppression objectives, while another part is managed for resource objectives.

    Fire managers all over the country are using this flexibility – on the Gila, in the Northern Rockies, and even in the Wasatch and Unitas. California is a special case. The way air quality laws are written in the state, any naturally-ignited fire being managed explicitly for resource benefit falls under Title 17 rules that bring local air districts into a regulatory role governing the fire, which is still a dynamic emergency event. In California, enforcement of the Clean Air Act, falls to local air districts. In wildfires, we defer Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act rules, placing enforcement organizations like U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service into an advisory role, until the emergency is over. In the early days of managing long-term wildland fire events, air districts were mislead to believe there could be some modicum of control with these incidents, meting out 10 acres of growth here and a hundred acres of growth there. Each day, the IC has to get “permission” from the local air district for the expected acres of growth. Exceeding the approved growth could elicit a fine, and in some districts, land management agencies are assessed a per acre fee. In effect, there is an attempt to manage a wildfire like a prescribed fire. This was never a tenable arrangement. So now, in most cases, California fire managers play the perfectly valid firefighter safety card and call the remote fires suppression fires, utilizing a confinement strategy.

    So Bill, while I share your pain about the “other than full suppression” nomenclature, the days of good vs. bad fire are over. You mention exposure, and what you fail to recognize is our obligation to future firefighters. Contemporary risk management that only considers risk on an incident-by-incident basis is shortsighted, as some minimal exposure that treats thousands of acres, reduces firefighter exposure on the same patch of dirt for years to come. Like the shortsightedness of a company that only serves to enrich its shareholders on a quarterly basis, while ignoring the needs of the surrounding community or the local ecology; ignoring the benefit to future firefighter safety is to ignore the legacy of snags and the accumulation of fuel from a century of fire suppression. The utility of large, recent fire scars on the landscape –derived through some minimal firefighter risk exposure—is well demonstrated today on the Ferguson Fire as I have blogged about at fusee.org

    You are correct regarding staffing on “huge weather and fuel driven fires.” The Carr Fire is just such a fire, yet if anything less than a full response were mounted, public outrage would ensue, given the values at risk…no matter the futility at times. On the other hand, up in the Klamath Mountains, Incident Management Teams are turning ever more toward the best practices honed during the days of PNF and WFU, as they are simply deprived of resources. The Operations branch may pout about the lack of available resources, but the Geographic Area Coordination Centers (GACCs) and Multi-Agency Coordinating (MAC) groups are becoming quite adept at allocating resources between incidents based on relative threats. If an “other than full suppression” fire is threatening nothing in the wilderness or roadless area, and there are 900 unfilled orders for engines, as there just were in California, that fire will simply have to make do, with the forest “suffering resource benefit,” as retired Shasta-Trinity Forest FMO, Arlen Cravens, likes to say. The scattered residents in those areas will have to band together and do what they can, as a community. That is really, the message of the “all-lands” collaborative approach called for in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. No amount of heavy metal and “next-gen” airtankers are going to fix this, and we aren’t at war with nature. That’s a simple meme for simple minds.

    Bill, you suggest that “having people assigned for months to a fire…exacerbates the situation, exposing more firefighters for longer periods of time,” yet when two or three seven-person fire modules, well-trained in wilderness fire management, can manage a fire covering thousands of acres, there is no more cost-effective fuel treatment available. Indeed, it is the only fuel treatment available in many protected areas. Ecologists are pleading for the much-needed resilience building of fire in dry pine forests to protect the oldest trees facing a changing climate, and we owe it to future generations not to make the same mistake of excluding fire as a natural process. The very definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting different results. Yes, decades of fire suppression have contributed to the current problem. That, like climate change, is settled science. The cacophony of retired firefighters and foresters that make the claim that they had it all figured out back in the day fail to really get the “new normal,” that includes drought-stricken, bug infested forests ready to burn repeatedly, leading to a type-conversion, as grasses, shrubs and forests migrate higher on the slopes. This has all bee foretold by climate scientists. Firefighting in the mid-twentieth Century was aided by a cooler, wetter period; less accumulated fuel load from fire exclusion; and much less impact by climate change. Get over yourselves, sit down, enjoy your pension, and let the new crop of fire managers adapt to these rapidly changing conditions. That is what I would say to the small cabal of retired, mostly U.S.F.S firefighters, egged on by the timber industry, that are calling for a return to the 10am policy.

    Lastly Bill, you close using the term “let burn” in two back-to-back sentences. One could almost believe you are being intentionally provocative using this much-reviled terminology, circa 1988. You ask, “will we ever treat enough land to make a difference in the long run?” Well, we already know we won’t do it with prescribed burning. With a wildland firefighter workforce, increasingly wrapped in the patriotic self-aggrandizing hero first responder mythos, these will not be the people willing to conduct prescribed burning on the scale required. Growing increasingly accustomed to the effusive praise and thanks bestowed on them by a panicked public, they are unfit to take the public criticism leveled on those who would dare put smoke in the air intentionally. They don’t have thick enough skin for it and are too needy of that constant approval. The California Cal Fire “full suppression all the time” model is too costly for the rest of the country, and is currently showing signs of serious stress. Add to that the disaster capitalism model applied by the private “for profit” firefighting companies, wherein there is no incentive to put the fire out, and you have a very unstable situation being met by an increasingly insular culture. So, “do we have enough funding and firefighters for let burn fires,” Bill? A good question, but I can guarantee you this, you don’t have any other choice. As is the case right now. There are not enough resources to manage all the fires in the country where values are threatened, so we better have some expertise on managing fires with limited or no resources, so the crews, aircraft and engines can go make “heroic” efforts at fighting those fires that do threaten entire towns and cities. And let me be plain — no timber stand, no home, no critical infrastructure, no regional air quality concern, and no mere possession is worth a single wildland firefighter life. That’s central to Federal fire management policy and it should remain so.

    1. Wow, very well written! Just catching up with articles and read this one and Hunter X’s comment. You nailed it Hunter. The new “deniers” are those who wish to ignore the rapid changes in fuel structure brought by “suppressionist” policies. Wildland fire agencies will use climate change to the fullest to redirect the public’s notion of why there is a “new normal”. As in; If you only give us more money, more aircraft, more fire trucks, crews, etc. we will try even harder to stop fires and keep them small. Not going to work.

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