How Tribal Experts Are Shaping the Federal Government’s Wildfire Strategy

An NPR podcast:

How Tribal Experts Are Shaping the Federal Government’s Wildfire Strategy

But going forward, one solution supported by indigenous communities in Australia and here in the United States involves setting fires intentionally. 

Today, scientists and the United States Forest Service largely agree with tribal members that intentionally burning sections of forests is an important way to protect against wildfires. But many tribal experts say that the scale of these prescribed fires still need to be dramatically increased going forward.

Also, this site has lots of info on fire ecology and management in Australia:

Largely as a result of European misunderstanding and fear of fire, fire suppression rapidly became the dominant paradigm in fire management; in most areas there was a large shift away from traditional burning practices.

In northern Australia, the disruption of traditional burning practices means that many areas (e.g. the Top End) are now prone to extensive wildfires that sweep through the country late in the dry season.

Sound familiar?


14 thoughts on “How Tribal Experts Are Shaping the Federal Government’s Wildfire Strategy”

  1. Coincidentally, here’s an ongoing example of a Native American Tribe doing the environmental analysis (no mention of EA or EIS yet) and implementing a project on national forest lands to reduce wildfire risk (not clear how much logging vs burning). It’s another big project, but I like the fact that collaboration (including some environmental interests) was apparently used at the outset to determine which areas are a priority for treatment.

    Back to Australia, I haven’t noticed them blaming the fires on “lack of treatment” like logging proponents do here.

    • RE: Back to Australia, I haven’t noticed them blaming the fires on “lack of treatment” like logging proponents do here.

      Sure looks like the U.S. Congressional Western Caucus is blaming the wildfires in Australia on environmentalists. Or maybe just supporting the blaming…or just promoting the blaming.

      • By the way, the Western Caucus is chaired by Rep Paul A. Gosar, who earlier today was so incredibly busy with the “People’s Business” that he took to Twittter to share a totally fake and photoshopped photo that depicts of former President Obama meeting and supposedly shaking hands with then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011.

        After backlash, the esteemed Dr. Gosar then managed to drag himself away from the “People’s Business” to hop back on Twitter to attack “dim witted reporters” who felt as if Rep Paul Gosar sharing a totally fake and photoshopped photo amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran might not be the brightest idea in the world.

        On his official Congressional website, Rep Paul Gosar brags about a “100% rating with the Christian Coalition of America.”

        According to god, her 8th commandment is: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

        “Thou shalt not bear false witness” forbids: “1. Speaking falsely in any matter, lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbor. … Speaking unjustly against our neighbor, to the prejudice of his reputation; and (which involves the guilty of both).

        Also, some folks on this blog have a history of picking apart a social media post from a forest protection group, or complaining about media coverage. Wonder how a sitting Congressperson of the U.S. sharing an entirely FAKE photo during a potential global nuclear crisis (and then the same Congressperson calling reporters stupid) fits into that analysis?

        • Matt, what does the photo and Twittering by Rep Paul A. Gosar have to do with Aussie bushfires?

          Here’s something pertinent: 2019 was an extremely dry year in Australia — an outlier — but the 120-year trend is wetter, and the 1920s and 1930s were nearly all drought years, according to data from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology:

          Maybe climate change has had an effect this year, but there is more, and more data, to the story.

          • Howdy Steve. As I mentioned, the Western Caucus is chaired by Rep Paul A. Gosar. Earlier today Gosar’s Western Caucus shared a tweet which seemed to indicate the Western Caucus was blaming the wildfires in Australia on environmentalists. Or maybe just supporting the blaming…or maybe just promoting the blaming of environmentalists for the wildfires. Also today, Rep Gosar used his official Twitter account to share and promote (during the time of an international crisis) a totally fake photo of President Obama shaking the hand of a former Iranian leader.

            Ironically I only caught wind of Rep Gosar’s fake Obama/Iran photo because I was verifying his chairmanship of the Western Caucus. So please just consider Dr. Gosar’s fake photo sharing to be bonus coverage by the Smokey Wire. Also, if you wish to consider the fake Obama/Iran photo sharing (and media bashing) part of a larger indication of what some of the most pro-logging, pro-drilling, pro-fracking, pro-coal, pro-grazing, pro-“family values” and pro-“Christian” members of the U.S. Congress think, please feel free to do that.

            Also, yes, it has been a very, very hot and very dry past year in Oz. Are the record-breaking fires in Australia the direct result of record heat and drought? Or are the environmentalists the main blame, as Rep Gosar’s Western Caucus seems to indicate? Also, have you heard that warmer air can contain more moisture and that in some parts of the world “climate change” may result in wetter conditions and more down-pours, and in other parts of the world it may be record, prolonged droughts?

            Thanks for sharing this link too Steve.

            Obviously, Australia is a pretty big country/continent. So I dug a little deeper into your link and the graphs and found all these, based on different regions in Australia. As you can see, many parts of Australia have experienced significant drought in recent years and honestly pretty dry years for much of the past 2 decades, if not much longer. The northern part of OZ, in general, has been much, much wetter (in terms of wetter rainfall anomaly) than the rest of the country/continent over the past twenty years, as well as the past 120 years.

            P.S. Here’s some more Smokey Wire bonus coverage: My organization, the WildWest Institute (known then as the Native Forest Network) was originally founded in Tasmania, on a commune, back in 1992.

  2. See “There’s only one way to make bushfires less powerful: take out the stuff that burns,” on The Conversation, by Rod Keenan, a professor in the School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

    “As monstrous blazes overwhelm Australia’s south-east, the need for a national bushfire policy has never been more urgent. Active land management such as hazard-reduction burning and forest thinning must lie at the core of any such policy.”

  3. Also, for whatever it’s worth:

    Explainer: how effective is bushfire hazard reduction on Australia’s fires?Claims of a Greens conspiracy to block hazard reduction have been rejected by bushfire experts

    Here are some interesting snips. Sound familiar?

    Prof David Bowman, the director of the fire centre research hub at the University of Tasmania, said: “It’s ridiculous. To frame this as an issue of hazard reduction in national parks is just lazy political rhetoric.”

    The claim of a conspiracy by environmentalists to block hazard reduction activities has been roundly rejected by bushfire experts, and experts say it is betrayed by hard data on actual hazard reduction activities in national parks.

    In the last full fire season of 2018 and 2019, the National Parks and Wildlife Service in NSW told Guardian Australia it carried out hazard reduction activities across more than 139,000 hectares, slightly above its target.

    There are two major restricting factors for carrying out prescribed burning. One is the availability of funds and personnel, and the second is the availability of weather windows.

    The 2018-19 annual report of the NSW Rural Fire Service says: “The ability of the NSW RFS and partner agencies to complete hazard reduction activities is highly weather dependent, with limited windows of opportunity. Prolonged drought conditions in 2018-19 adversely affected the ability of agencies to complete hazard reduction works.”

    The RFS said 113,130 properties had been subject to hazard reduction activities, which was 76% of its target. The 199,248ha covered was 106% of its target.

    A former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, Greg Mullins, has written that the hotter and drier conditions, and the higher fire danger ratings, were preventing agencies from carrying out prescribed burning.

    But as well as climate change narrowing the window to carry out prescribed burning, Mullins said some fires have become so intense they have burned through areas that had been subject to hazard reduction.

    Mullins has been fighting fires in NSW for months. Speaking to the ABC on Friday, he said he witnessed a fire in Grafton in an area that had burned only two weeks previously, but “the burnt leaves were burning again”.

    He said: “There has been lots of hazard reductions done over the years – more by national parks than previous years – but the fires have burned through those hazard reduction areas.”

    Mullins dismissed suggestions that the bushfires were down to “greenies” preventing hazard reduction activities.“This is the blame game. We’ll blame arsonists, we’ll blame greenies,” he said.

    “When will the penny drop with this government?”

    The National Parks Association of NSW’s president, Anne Dickson, has also responded to the attacks on environmentalists.

    In November 2019, she said: “The increasing intensity and frequency of fire is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and natural landscapes. It may be politically expedient to pretend that conservationists exercise some mythical power over fire legislation and bushfire management committees, but it is not so.

    “Such wild and simplistic claims avoid the very real and complex challenges of protecting our communities and the healthy environments that support our quality of life.”

    Bowman said that separate to the “lazy political rhetoric” of blaming environmentalists, there should be an examination of the benefits and limitations of hazard reduction.

    But he said there was also a reality to consider: “A lot of people are thinking that hazard reduction burning stops fire. It doesn’t, but what it does do is to try and change its behaviour.

    “But let’s say you embarked on the biggest fire reduction program the world has ever seen. What’s the budget for that? Who will pay for it. Of course there is a place for hazard reduction but if you have massive increases, where does the money come from? The reality is that you can’t treat everything.”

    Prof Ross Bradstock, the director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, has previously told Guardian Australia: “These are very tired and very old conspiracy theories that get a run after most major fires. They’ve been extensively dealt with in many inquiries.”

  4. The Aussies have their own brand of right-wing politics. They can be as ridiculous as our own far-right folks, spewing fabricated conspiracy theories, without any ability or desire to defend them. Their forests are even more flammable than our western forests, with no real commercial way to thin them out. I’d bet much of their general public doesn’t see all the aspects the issues, like ignorant people, here in America. They prefer to be told what to think. Sadly, in this age of Photoshop and fake news, people have become so gullible and politically-dense.

    I’m sure there are preservationists and eco-activists in Australia, as well. America needs to see how Australia takes care of its problem, because we’ll be seeing worse, in the next 20 years.

  5. I think the Native Americans burned to keep the grasslands open and productive. These fires would often die out when the got into the timber. I don’t believe they went about burning up the forests as our modern day box and burn strategists do today.
    Also they did not have the tools available to them that we have today. Nor did they have the need for wood products that we have today.
    I have been clearing the brush that has grown up along the edge of the forest and county road to hopefully make it more fire resilient. (We have had a couple of fires start there, which were fortunately quickly put out.) After awhile I started wonder if this was a great idea when I started realizing that this brush was home to wide variety of birds, mammals and native plants.

  6. OK so some people say it’s all about climate, some people say it’s the enviros fault. To me that’s a political framing, either way, that we can easily reject because we do not find either framing completely accurate and not helpful.

    We and the Aussies still need to manage fuels, protect infrastructure, and so on. And it’s not easy for a similar variety of reasons ($, burning windows, people living in the bush). The conundrum of wildfires being “natural” and plants being adapted to them.. and still fires having sometimes overwhelmingly negative impacts on people, livestock, water, and wildlife. And we’ll never know how much is “natural” and how much “unnatural” due to climate change- nor do we have any idea if we stopped climate change, would weather go back to the way it was..

    • Whether or not climate change is affecting fires in Australia and the US, active management that focuses on resilience is crucial. Ashland, Oregon, is an excellent example. See the Ashland Forest Resiliency project.

      In December I hiked along a trail in one of the treated areas just outside of town, in an area with many scattered, expensive homes (I have family living in Ashland, a few blocks from this WUI zone). In forested areas, trees had been thinned and ground fuels removed, and gated roads that serve as recreational trails will allow fire crews to gain access. This sort of active management will help slow the inevitable fire and give firefighters a chance to keep the fire from spreading into the town. In brushy areas, wide buffers of brush had been mulched around houses. Whether these defensible spaces are wide enough remains to be seen. One house, for example, was surrounded by a cleared zone at least 40 feet wide, but the 25-foot-tall manzanita and other shrubs could burn at a high intensity, making it tough for the house to survive (I wasn’t able to see if the owners had taken steps to harden the structure against fire). My guess was that the owners wanted to preserve some of the manzanita as a privacy screen.

      Ashland residents have largely been supportive of this sort of active management, even though it involves commercial timber harvesting (thinning) as part of the overall strategy.

      Communities in or near WUI zones that do not take such measures, whether in the US or Australia, are putting people and property at risk.

  7. These measures may appear expensive, the FS has spent millions of th Ashland project, but hopefully in the long run they will be well worth it.

  8. This sounds pretty familiar.

    ‘What could I have done?’ The scientist who predicted the bushfire emergency four decades ago

    Dr Tom Beer’s pioneering 1980s research into bushfires and climate change has, to his dismay, proved all too accurate


    From his lounge in Brunswick, Melbourne, 72-year-old Dr Tom Beer has been watching the fury of an unprecedented Australian bushfire season unfolding on his television screen.

    “I feel really sorry for the firefighters who’ve got extraordinarily tough jobs ahead, and it’s only going to get tougher,” says Beer.

    “But I feel maybe I was not enough of a prophet crying in the wilderness.”

    Back in 1986, Beer was working as a CSIRO meteorologist looking at bushfires when he was asked by his boss, Dr Graeme Pearman, to go and find out what the greenhouse effect might mean for the future of fires.

    Beer’s findings in 1987, published in 1988 as “Australian bushfire danger under changing climatic regimes”, became the first study in the world to ask what climate change was going to mean for wildfires.

    “It seems obvious, but actually we found the correlation was not temperature and fires, but relative humidity and fires. Temperature goes up, it gets drier, and then the fires go up,” says Beer.

    Australia’s bushfire season has started early this year, with fire chiefs saying the length, extent and intensity of the fires is unprecedented.

    More than a million hectares has been burned, entire towns and communities have been decimated and lives have been lost. In just one week in NSW, 259 homes have been destroyed.

    With months of firefighting ahead of them, fire chiefs are starting to worry about the fatigue and stress on volunteer firefighters. Now, as more dangerous fire weather is forecast, Beer and Pearman are asking what else they could have done as scientists who were sounding the early warning bells for the current suffering. Why did the science not lead to action?

    “I would blame most of that on the lobbying”,” says Pearman, now 78. “That lobbying has been extremely powerful in a country driven by the resource sector that includes uranium, coal and gas.

    “There’s a huge reluctance to reign that part of our economy in with a more strategic perspective.”

  9. This sounds pretty familiar too.

    Former Australian fire chiefs say Coalition ignored their advice because of climate change politics

    Former heads of state fire services say government ‘fundamentally doesn’t like talking about climate change’


    A coalition of former fire chiefs have said the government “fundamentally doesn’t like talking about climate change” and that politics is the reason the government was ignoring their advice.

    Former heads of the New South Wales, Queensland, Victorian and Tasmanian fire services met in Sydney on Thursday after fires that killed four people tore through the the Australian east coast this week.

    They said the climate crisis was making bushfires deadlier and bushfire season longer, and the federal government needed to act immediately.

    “Just a 1C temperature rise has meant the extremes are far more extreme, and it is placing lives at risk, including firefighters,” said Greg Mullins, the former chief of NSW Fire and Rescue. “Climate change has supercharged the bushfire problem.”

    “Bushfires are a symptom of climate change,” said Neil Bibby, the former chief executive of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority.

    “Firefighters are the immune system that gets rid of that symptom. But [the problem is] still there.”

    Mullins said he and 23 other fire and emergency chiefs had been trying to have a meeting with the prime minister, Scott Morrison, since April because they “knew that a bushfire crisis was coming”.

    Instead, he said current fire chiefs had been locked out of discussions and were “not allowed” to mention climate change.

    “This government fundamentally doesn’t like talking about climate change,” Mullins said. “We would like the doors to be open to the current chiefs, and allow them to utter the words ‘climate change’. They are not allowed to at the moment.

    “The Grenfell fire in London, people talked about the cause from day one. Train crashes they talk from day one. And it is OK to say it is an arsonist’s fault, or pretend that the greenies are stopping hazard reduction burning, which is simply not true.

    “But you are not allowed to talk about climate change. Well, we are, because we know what is happening.”

    Bibby, who was in charge during Victoria’s Black Saturday, said politics was the reason the government was ignoring the former fire chiefs’ advice.

    Other interstate fire chiefs were outspoken about the effect global heating has on bushfires.


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