The current U.S. Forest Service wildfire policy is rather ambiguous and its real intent unclear. In fact, one could question whether it was intended to obfuscate. Therefore, the policy merits examination and clarification to meet government’s responsibilities to taxpayers.
For many reasons, we believe the policy should be modified to focus on priorities applicable to all wildfires — in urban areas, in the wildland urban interface (WUI) and in the wild.
The estimated lost acreage due to wildfires in the United States in 2021 was a staggering 7,139,713 acres. The accumulated acreage lost from 2017 to 2021 was an eye-watering 40,408,070 acres — an area larger than the state of New York!
All wildfires have the same net effect. They spew toxic particulate matter and carbon, which pose both health and economic threats to tax-paying citizens.
We call for a simple policy: First, put out the fire! Of course, wildland firefighting is hardly simple, and any policy change must consider inherent complexities. Nonetheless, by first squelching the fire, lives and property are immediately preserved.
An unspoken truth of living with wildfires — whether in close proximity or miles away — is the emotional stress and mental trauma experienced by those who live in fire-prone country. Consequently, we focused on people-related aspects of wildfires in our work, Running Out of Time: Wildfires and Our Imperiled Forests. In fact, 70,000 communities and 46 million homes are at risk from wildfires. Yet despite this ever-present threat, the U.S. Fire Administration has seemingly made little headway in changing Forest Service policy.
Why can’t the Forest Service adequately perform the mission of forest management? Funding immediately comes to mind, but equally important issues include manpower, technology transfer, cooperative involvement with the forestry industry, good leadership and competent management. Problem-solving is a manager’s integral skill set and begins with close observation. Merely paying attention leads one to observe, for example, that more-mechanized equipment will help firefighters clear wildland fuel much faster than hacking away with shovels and pulaskis.
And think about the individual wildland firefighter who is temporarily employed when fires are raging and dismissed when the fire season ends. Expertise gained by trained individuals actually fighting fires is immediately lost and is not easily replaced. These people should be shifted to other work that contributes to the Forest Service’s wildland management mission. Ultimately, this approach would be less costly than finding, on-boarding, training, and assigning new employees to field operations every year.
Professional, experienced commanders in the wildland firefighting business also should be recognized and better appreciated. They, too, are in the field, putting their lives on the line every day, just as an urban firefighter does. Among their myriad tasks, they maintain critical communication links between ground operations and aerial firefighting forces. Their coordination ensures the entire team stays focused on the overriding priority: First, put out the fire!
The breadth of complex questions and potential answers should not get in the way of basic decision-making required to immediately bring wildfires under control. Key decisions should be made by one person, not multiple individuals across various agencies. Decision makers must be able to weigh complex inputs, assess operational facts, understand the impacts of specific fuel loads, weather and terrain, and act decisively! Having made a decision — without second-guessing by higher-ups not on the scene — execution of a plan should be carried out efficiently. And everybody involved must keep two immutable tenets in mind: firefighting is not a game, and stupid hurts! Never forget that people’s lives and property hang in the balance.
The nation has suffered far too much destruction from wildfires: the Tamarack fire in California, Bugaboo fire in Georgia, Marshall fire in Colorado, and countless others. Preventing such conflagrations requires a return to basics. Put out the fire. Make certain the fire is completely and totally extinguished. Double-check to ensure there are no hot embers hiding in duff, downed timber or standing snags. Do it right and be the professional example of good forest management, a template for the rest of the world.
To upgrade Forest Service policies, practices and procedures, government and forest industry professionals must toss out age-old biases, suspicions, and misunderstandings. Join forces with aerial firefighting contractors and the forestry business sector to initiate and continue honest discussions with Congress, making the case for additional funding that will save jobs, create safe environments, and clean up America’s forests. Tear down decades-old barriers. Develop and field new and evolving technologies. Eliminate chronic distrust between business and government. Treat suppliers with respect. And open all minds to nontraditional approaches. New players can help solve old problems.
And live by the firefighter’s mantra: First, put out the fire!
(Jeffrey A. Lehman has served as a C-level consultant to multi-national corporations such as McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, the Battelle Memorial Institute, and government and military entities for more than 30 years. His experience includes program management, operations, strategic planning, logistics, and more. He is the co-author with David L. Auchterlonie of Running Out of Time: Wildfires and Our Imperiled Forests. For more information about their book or to order a copy, visit www.wildfiresinamerica.com.)