Planning for Fire: Beyond Appropriate Management Response

In 2009, I had the opportunity to be involved in an effort known as the Quadrennial Fire Review.  Here is an excerpt from the final report explaining what the effort is about.

The Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR) is a strategic assessment process that is conducted every four years to evaluate current mission strategies and capabilities against best estimates of the fu­ture environment for fire management. This integrated review is a joint effort of the five federal natural resource management agencies and their state, local, and tribal partners that constitute the wildland fire community. The objective is to create an integrated strategic vision document for fire management.

The document provides a solid foundation for policy discussions within the federal agencies and, importantly, among the federal agencies and state, local, tribal, and other partners. While the QFR is not a formal policy or decision document, it sets the stage for a “strategic conversation” about future direction and change in fire management.

Several assumptions underlie the document’s analysis and conclusions:

The effects of climate change will continue to result in greater probability of longer and bigger fire seasons, in more regions in the nation.

Cumulative drought effects will further stress fuels accumulations.

There will be continued wildfire risk in the Wildland Urban Interface despite greater public awareness and broader involvement of communities.

Emergency response demands will escalate.

A lot of discussion in the document is devoted to “appropriate management response” sometimes miscategorized by the public as “let burn.”

The first QFR core strategy outlines a course forward that moves beyond appropriate management response to strategic management response that creates a framework for a multi-phased approach for incident management. Elements within strategic management response will include ensuring proactive wildland fire decisions with greater transparency and accountability, recalibrating fire planning, and establishing more robust fire outcome metrics.

Appropriate management response is often referred to as common sense fire management, but what may seem like common sense to one set of decision makers can easily run afoul of other stakeholders and decision makers with different missions, competing objectives, and conflicting perspectives on situation information. Moving to strategic management response is designed to ensure a higher level of transparency, accountability, and support for specific fire decisions and to better display the costs and benefits of suppression strategies. This approach would weigh factors such as suppression costs and value of resources lost against the value of ecosystems restored and improved and infrastructure protected.

Some questions:

Is there evidence that   the Forest Service has embraced the concept of strategic management response?

What kind of public involvement/collaboration will be needed to implement such an approach?

Can those who have opposed appropriate management response find something to like in strategic management response?

Does the the new planning rule provide appropriate guidance regarding the relationship of forest plans to fire suppression strategies?

3 thoughts on “Planning for Fire: Beyond Appropriate Management Response”

  1. Where do fire people get names for their concepts? An Appropriate Management Response reminds me of Inappropriate Management Responses (does paint a bit of a picture, doesn’t it?) and a Strategic Management Response perhaps a Random Management Response. Or another favorite, the Cohesive Strategy reminded me of its likely predecessor, the Disunited and Incoherent Strategy.

    I suppose if you get five agencies together, you expect five times the complicated nature of frameworks, strategies, and “integrated strategic vision documents”.

    • Fire people get names from the military, of course! The QFR was modeled after the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). In my early fire days we had Fire Bosses. Now they are Incident Commanders. Names are important, as you have pointed out. That’s why the use of a misnomer like “let burn” really burns fire people who genuinely believe that the concept of appropriate management response (AMR) needs to be understood and implemented consistently. It’s like calling carbon credits a “carbon tax”– designed to discredit and inflame (no puns intended, well maybe).

      The QFR (fire people, like the military, love acronyms) is supposed to be forward looking. That’s why the 2009 QFR recommended moving to the new concept of strategic management response (SMR) before the concept of AMR from the 2005 review was widely accepted. Perhaps the authors should have been more strategic in the naming of the concept. For me, implementing the strategic part of the concept means that interested stakeholders must collaborate in advance of fires to establish a shared vision of how ecosystems should be managed with fire and how human communities can be protected. Then when the “incident” occurs there is already some shared agreement in place regarding what actions should be taken. Even the most forward-looking fire dogs aren’t quite ready for collaborative management response (QMR?) though!

      • Dang, Jim! You keep taking the words out of my mouth!

        To some of us, this fire program evolution is still in its infancy. The fire folks are as convinced of their righteousness of their efforts, just as foresters have done (mostly, wrongly but, recently with major improvements) in timber for decades.

        Firefighters believe that “ONLY THEY” can manage fires as they see fit. They feel that they should be left alone to do the jobs they are best at, fighting fires. The rank and file simply want summers filled with action and work.

        Sadly, their track record in the myriad of “Let-Burn” approaches has not been good, both from an ecological standpoint and an economic standpoint. I wonder if the drivers behind these actions feel that since mechanical fuels treatments are subject to limitations and litigations, that they are the last line of defense for managing the forests for fire safety. Sadly, they have failed to do the scientific, site-specific work to bring a sensible, effective and thrifty program of fire management under NEPA. (That’s quite a mouthful!)

        Yes, their hearts are in the right place but, “good intentions” hasn’t resulted in Strategic Management Response. It seems that since timber management cannot settle its own issues, this severely limits the options open to fire managers. I think there is still too much inertia and lack of reform to find the right fits before the fires do their damage.

        The Japan situation shows how things can spiral out of control, despite all of their apparent preparedness. It is those unforeseen events that weren’t studied enough that leads to preventable tragedy. (Remember the Hayman Fire?)

        Thanks for the post, Jim.


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