Science Story

Why Big Blazes are Burning up Budgets and Landscapes

Diane Banegas
Research & Development
July 21st, 2017 at 3:00PM

In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its total budget on fighting fires. Today, it’s 52 percent and growing. What’s changed?

“Everything,” said Matthew Thompson, a research forester who works at the agency’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado. “The length of the fire season, more people on the landscape to start fires or to be impacted by them, more community interest in the relation between managing fires and protecting lives, property, and natural resources, and more media interest partly because there is so much more media today, including social media.”

A fire whirl burning in chaparral
A fire whorl in chaparral. Research can ideally help fire-managers make better, more cost-effective decisions when dealing with big blazes, and it can help everyone understand the trade-offs of fire-management decisions so fire managers can make the best possible decisions at all times for future wildland fires, according to research forester Matthew Thompson.

What hasn’t changed is the agency’s key role in managing wildland fires that threaten local communities and natural resources and its desire to manage them as safely and cost-effectively as possible.

The Science of Decision-making

Decision-making in the course of managing fire to safely and effectively protect communities and to protect, maintain, and even restore landscapes is a science unto itself, and Thompson is at the forefront of that research. Thompson recently earned a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for his work in applying principles and practices of risk and decision analysis to wildland fire management. His research investigates, among other topics, incentives and accountability of fire management decisions. Ultimately, the findings will ideally help bring firefighting costs down, make it safer for the men and women who risk their lives battling the big blazes, and support the agency’s mission of restoring resilient landscapes, many of which benefit from regular, low-intensity fires.

When Thompson, an engineer by training, began this line of research, he found a body of research that identified key insights but was unconnected and limited in scope. In spite of the Forest Service’s long association with fire management, only a limited record of decision-making existed, with limited data to support how past decisions were made or to describe what actions were taken, why, and with what outcomes.

“It’s impossible to evaluate fire-management decisions without data; people can’t be held accountable for their decisions,” he said. How and why fire management decisions are made can’t be answered until Thompson and other scientists understand the context surrounding the decisions; the fire managers’ motivations and incentives; and community, media and other pressures.

Current drought conditions and a climate variability leave forests more vulnerable to pests, diseases, and intense fire activity. The “suppress every fire” policy was the dominant response when the U.S. government looked to national forests as a source of timber to ensure affordable housing for all Americans, particularly when GIs returned home from World War II, and timber on state and private lands could not meet the demand for new housing starts.

By the 1960s, mainstream Americans began to embrace a conservation ethic that cared less about a steady timber supply from national forests and more about sustaining them for their multiple environmental benefits: habitat for fish and wildlife, including many threatened and endangered species; an environmental purification system that cleans air and water; and a place for people to recreate away from crowded cities and planned, manicured suburbs. Over time, with logging greatly diminished and fires still extinguished more often than not to protect natural resources and local communities, national forests built up unnatural amounts of excess fuel.

As a result, “fire exclusion practices have caught up with us in many areas,” Thompson said. “The bottom line is, current science suggests we need to be burning more to remove the excess fuel and enhance ecological conditions, either by using prescribed burns or opportunistically managing naturally ignited fires for resource benefit whenever possible instead of aggressively suppressing them.”

Rethinking the Role of Fire

Current public policy gives land managers and incident commanders who manage firefighting efforts great leeway in how to manage fires. But the growing wildland-urban interface (called “WUI”) that puts people and their homes in wildland fire zones combined with the inherently risky nature of fire; the intense focus paid to fires by local communities, national and social media, and elected officials all serve to steer fire managers toward risk-averse decisions. The option of using fire as a tool in the landscape to burn up excess fuels and leave forests healthier overall and communities safer is often not available to managers if they want to keep relationships with partners and communities good.

Excess fuel also can be removed using mechanical thinning methods, but it’s costly and time consuming and doesn’t address grasses and leaf litter on the forest floor. As with any forest project, the best approach will vary with the purpose and ecological context. In many cases, the best treatment practice based on numerous studies is mechanical thinning to remove spindly trees and brush followed by a prescribed burn to clean the ground. But here’s the rub: The rising costs of fighting fires means that every year, there are fewer resources available to treat excess fuels that pose increased fire threats to communities and ecological resources. Thompson’s research seeks to tame the cost of firefighting so that resources originally budgeted for fuels treatment projects and other land management purposes will be used as intended.

“Only when we’ve got good data can we help fire managers make better decisions under a given set of conditions. And only after they’ve received science-based training on such decision-making can they be held accountable for their decisions.” He stressed that fire management can never be reduced to a simple “decision tree” process. “We can never remove intuition and experience from the process.”

For example, research reveals that using an air tanker to drop retardant on a wildland fire late in the afternoon on a steep, timbered mountain slope is usually the least effective time to use one, but it’s when managers often call for them. What prompts that decision? Thompson doesn’t have a complete answer to the question, but speculates that external sociopolitical pressures and internal worries about a lack of other options can drive an incident commander to call for an air tanker under these conditions. Better metrics of fire management are needed to help managers know what resources to use in what context. It helps them do their jobs better and provides justification when local officials, media, worried homeowners are calling for something different.

“What drives the behavior of fire managers is key to an effective fire management strategy,” Thompson said. “We know they sometimes face tremendous social pressure, and we know that as of right now, there are few procedures in place to adjust local budgets or evaluate performance on the basis of whether they spent an extra million more than they might have responding to a big blaze. Even more important than cost, of course, is putting life first and ensuring responders are in the right places for the right reasons. We need to be able to justify these decisions to ourselves and to others.

“Research can ideally help fire-managers make better, more cost-effective decisions when dealing with big blazes, and it can help everyone understand the trade-offs of fire-management decisions so fire managers can make the best possible decisions at all times for future wildland fires.”

A key area of Thompson’s research is understanding how fire management operates in real time, something that hasn’t been studied until now. “We haven’t had systems to track suppression resources to determine if they are effective.” Putting those systems in place, which can generate the much-needed data, has been his priority over the last seven years.

“It’s hard to marry a lot of databases and systems together, but doing so is essential for the agency to understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how and when we’re doing it,” Thompson said. “We are just about where we need to be so that we can start extracting knowledge from the data.”

Research forester Matthew Thompson
Matthew Thompson, research forester at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Thompson’s research investigates, among other topics, incentives and accountability of fire management decisions.

A second focus is risk management and risk assessment. The Forest Service has already done a lot of research and analysis in the field of risk assessment, and Thompson’s research is building on this work so fire managers can do a better job of assessing risk proactively.

The Public is a Player

Improving the decision-making process is only half the battle. Another component of more efficient and cost-effective fire management is public outreach and education. Fire managers can do a better job of communicating what’s effective and what’s not effective as well as what is safe and what is not safe.  “Fire safety is always a top priority,” Thompson said. “It might be difficult to justify a decision to send fire fighters into very hazardous conditions to try and save low-value timber stands.”  Other messages are harder to communicate. For example, people in the Southeastern U.S. are more accepting of smoke pollution resulting from a prescribed burn. “People in that region have used fire as a management tool on their own lands for generations. It’s part of the culture,” Thompson said. “In the west, the practice wasn’t as commonplace, so people object to it. We want to encourage people to rethink smoke and air quality. Due to the legacy of fire suppression, a completely smoke-free world is probably not realistic, especially if the trade-off is coping with a few days of smoke annually to keep forests healthier and communities safer.”

Working Together

Shared problems also require shared solutions. Fire doesn’t respect jurisdictional boundaries, so getting government and private parties working together is vital for better fire-management outcomes.

“If homeowners who live in or near forestland can’t or won’t clear space around their homes to keep them safe from a wildland fire, should we really put firefighters in those high-risk situations?” Thompson said. “If we are doing hazardous fuels reduction in forests, it’s imperative that homeowners do the same.” Retired Forest Service scientist Jack Cohen, who did extensive research on protecting homes from fire, recommends no fuels within 30 meters of the home.

Even when homeowners know the risks of keeping too much fuel too close to their homes, they sometimes avoid taking action that could save their properties and even their lives. Thompson’s research encompasses that decision-making process as well. “How do people make these decisions?” he asked. “We know that money is not always a big factor in their decisions.” He believes the solution may lie in how decisions are framed in advance. He pointed to an example comparing the organ donation programs of two Scandinavian countries with very similar cultures. In one country, 90 percent of its citizens are part of the lifesaving organ donation program, while the other country’s program only includes 10 percent of its citizens. The difference is that the former country has an “opt-out” program, while the latter uses an “opt-in” model. “Simply reframing our defaults could make a big difference in the decision-making process,” Thompson said.

A Future Plan

Given that most national forest units are or will soon be creating their forest plans for the next five years, the timing is ideal for some pre-fire planning, Thompson notes.

“We need to live with fire, where we want to, and take advantage of it where we can manage it,” Thompson said. “The new forest plans can reflect that approach if our research gives them the knowledge to make it happen.”