Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatments: IV. Framing the Issue: Living with Fire on the Landscape

Western wildfires 2014 from space.

Before we move on to “how have SPLATS worked in practice?,” we probably need to go back to the fundamental beliefs underlying our policy preferences. In political science or policy studies, this is known as the way the problem is “framed.” See this description, if you’re not familiar with the term. I think it’s important in dealing with wildfire controversies as it’s easy to see that different folks in the media, politics and research frame the issues differently. It’s also important to realize that these framings are often imbedded in what and how people write about issues, and so you have to go looking for them (which we can do with stories that crop up). But I believe it’s most important to understand that we each get to choose our own framing. Once we have identified the framing within, say a news story or scientific paper, we are free to say “all that information is well and good, but if I frame the problem this way, it’s really not relevant.” From the above link:

To frame an issue, you should begin by asking these questions:

What is the issue?
Who is involved?
What contributes to the problem?
What contributes to the solution?
Once you’ve asked these questions, you can begin to answer them. For some guidelines on how to do this, see the sections below.

So let’s start.
My framing of the issue is “in the dry western US, how are people and communities best able to live with fire as a part of the landscape?”

Who is involved: Western communities, landowners (including the feds), all levels of government in those areas, insurance companies, scientific disciplines.

Who contributes to the problem: I don’t think it’s really a problem- it’s more of an acknowledgement of the way things are, and a question of the best way to live, given that situation.

What contributes to the solution: Culture, government, finding some kinds of agreement. People are, in fact, living with fires on the landscape. Communities have developed CWPP’s and have done other amounts of work. Suppression forces are very active and successful.

The question seems to be, though, different actors think that the current status quo is suboptimal. Probably the most important thing to do is ask that question.. what exactly is suboptimal about it, and what is your solution?

The southern US has some of the same landowners, including the FS, and the same environmental laws. They seem to have figured this out (how to live with fire on the landscape) due to differences in cultural, physical and biological parameters. Given that, what would our vision of “living with fire on the land” look like for us westerners?

10 thoughts on “Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatments: IV. Framing the Issue: Living with Fire on the Landscape”

  1. It would be interesting to see a map of the western US today. most areas west of the Cascades are being impacted by smoke. While this is “living with fire on the landscape” it has adverse effects on the health of the population living in this area. There are currently air quality advisories out for much of this area.
    Many fuel projects are hampered or stopped due to the inability to get smoke clearance outside of fire season. More chemicals are used vs. fire to prep harvest units on private lands, in large part due to the inability to get smoke clearance when the units are in prescription.
    It seems that we must live with fire on the landscape during fire season, yet we as land managers can’t impact the population with smoke while using prescribed fire. The ability to use prescribed fire can reduce the impacts of wildfire. It would seem that random days of impacting SSR’s outside of fire season, would be less overall impact than the 2-3 months that the same areas are impacted during the summer. My area is currently going on 2 weeks of smoke impact, ranging from higher altitude pass over to visibility reduced to 1/4 mile, and people with breathing issues – asthma, COPD, etc having moderate to severe reactions.
    It would seem that people would be best served by accepting small amounts of smoke intrusion outside of fire season, for a reduced amount of smoke during fire season.

  2. Yes, it would be interesting to see a map of the Western US today. Fortunately, there are plenty of current wildfire smoke maps available. It would’ve been nice for a current, up-to-date wildfire smoke map to be included with the original post here, but oh well.

    Here are a couple images from today, or the past few days. As you can clearly see, much of the wildfire smoke in the U.S. – and especially the westside of the Cascades – is actually coming from wildfires in Canada….a country where the timber industry has lots of access to log trees on public lands and where there are less regulations (and less lawsuits) than int the U.S.

  3. I agree with the point made in the comment concerning prescribed fire. An article I read in the Missoulian or Billings Gazette quoted a scientist making the point with data that when Prescribed fire is used the fuels tend to be more moist and the emissions are less than when fire occurs in the fire season. Winter is tough in much of the Rockies and we look forward to a summer out of doors. Smoke, emissions and fire risk can lessen the enjoyment of that time of the year and negatively impact the tourist season for western towns. Living with fire is not benign – impacts health, economy and quality of life. Some management to lessen the negative impacts of wildfire to humans is not too much to ask.

    • Smoke impacts are just part of the “Whatever Happens” mindset. Same for the accelerated erosion, lack of seed sources and other mega-impacts from firestorms. I guess human suffering is just ‘natural’ in the modern US west, as the preservationists see it.

    • Rebecca, thanks for expanding “who is involved.” Just thinking of smoke, it would be anyone whose air is affected by wildfire (tourists and residents) and definitely the health care communities in those areas. This would be pretty much the whole west, I would think??

      As we’ve seen in Colorado, we need to include water providers, and towns potentially impacted by post-fire floods. Since fires happen in the summer generally, and people recreate in the summer, these folks
      are also affected.

  4. Below, please find my thoughts on Sharon’s question: “The southern US has some of the same landowners, including the FS, and the same environmental laws. They seem to have figured this out (how to live with fire on the landscape) due to differences in cultural, physical and biological parameters. Given that, what would our vision of “living with fire on the land” look like for us westerners?”

    I think that the differences are as follows:
    1) Rural populations and smaller city populations who have grown up in close proximity and dependency on agricultural and forest economies see themselves as a partner integrated with the rest of nature rather than separate from a nature that has to be visited. So I would rephrase the difference as being between the general population who have regularly refreshed rural roots and those who live in large cites regardless of region.
    2) The NE, East and SE have a longer history of living among a mix of developed and undeveloped acreages. Even in our mountains there are significant road systems. Growing up in Arlington, Va (a bedroom community of D.C.) I visited the 469 mile Blue Ridge Parkway innumerable times and saw countless examples like a farm with apple trees in bloom within the Blue Ridge Parkway adding beauty and a sense of mankind being able to live in harmony with nature. Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so as 14 million people visited and had nearly a billion dollar economic impact in 2015. See the pictures of “America’s Favorite Drive” @ https://www.nps.gov/blri/index.htm
    3) The long established and more extensive road system in the NE, East and SE makes controlling fires easier.
    4) That same extensive road system allows more people to see the beauty of the forest than if they had to hoof it for miles to see major beauty like the cirqe in the Trinity Alps that I visited many times.
    5) In addition, the larger acreage in forests in the East makes them part of everyday life and when a neighbor cuts his trees it’s not a big loss ’cause there are plenty more where those came from and next summer that former farmland will be back in young trees without any effort to replant. In addition, cutting his trees relieved me of a little concern about the possibility of a crown fire endangering my house and now serves as a mid-term firebreak rotating among the neighboring woodlands. None of my neighbors blinked or whined about the trees being cut – it’s just part of life in the south – The trees always come back with a vengeance.

    • Thanks for these thoughts, Gil. I am no expert on the south (did my Ph.D research in South Carolina, did a post-doc at NC State, served on the Science Cabinet of The American Chestnut Foundation, attended many genetics conferences and SAF meetings in the south, so kind of random experiences.) I would add that they tend to be less attached to the veg ecology idea of “the way things were”. When “what they were” used to be cotton fields or the main species was killed by chestnut blight, people have to say “I want that species back (say longleaf or RCW)” and less “we’re going for the HRV.”
      I think history is also a factor in terms of traditional burning. If you put them all together, cultural historical and political factors- I think that would be a terrific basis for a book.

  5. The art of compromise is to give a little to get a little. A problem these days is that too many people won’t give an inch as they demand the entire mile.

    Here in the mid to southern parts of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, grass seed farming has long been the dominant farm crop and the norm was to burn the residual straw after harvest. This removed the straw, reduced various grass diseases, reduced the vole population, etc. and require no irrigation. Yes, even though burn days were restricted, it did produce smoke and yes, it did reduce the views into the Cascade Mountains. (With all the wildfires of late, I haven’t seen the Cascade Mts. for a couple weeks.)

    Our growing urban communities did not like the smoke and field burning was legislated out of existence. Now the farmers had to find a market for straw (Japan – probably not a bad thing), find ways to reduce diseases problems, etc. Some have even switched crops which meant they had to develop irrigation systems (if they were lucky, they had pre-existing water rights to streams or they drilled wells). In other words, there were unintended consequences]

    Gil’s bullet #1 is on target. Our growing urban population is so separated from rural life that they no longer understand that ALL of their life’s needs come natural resources. It is those people in the rural communities who produce those needs. We have forgotten that we (ALL OF US) are still very much a part of the natural world.

    His bullets #2 and 3 are also on target. The Euro-American impact on the natural world has been a long-time proposition and people see it as the norm. Here in the West, Euro-American impact is much more recent and many people see it as a recent (negative) impact.

    People also seem to forget that people have lived on the N. American continent for many thousands of years and, like people have since the very beginnings of human civilization, they manipulated the environment to better suit their needs. Fire was probably their most frequently used tool and, between prescribed fires and wildfires, fire was the norm.

    Compromise would seem reasonable; if people do not like the massive smoke intrusions from wildfire, then accepting prescribed fires under tightly regulated conditions (to minimize smoke intrusions into urban areas) might seem entirely reasonable. But, that means being willing to give a little to get a little.


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