What Would Help Increase Use of Prescribed Fire? Practitioner Interviews: Schultz, McCaffrey, Huber-Stearns 2019

Prescribed burn Deschutes NF

Thanks to Bill Gabbert of Wildfire Today for posting this. What I like about this study is that researchers interviewed people (PB practitioners) working in the field. Well worth reading in its entirety (no firewall). Schultz, Courtney A. ; McCaffrey, Sarah M. ; Huber-Stearns, Heidi R., 2019.

I got the impression of “a lotta things have to go right at the right time for it to work” and “air quality (public or regulators) can or can’t be a major factor. It depends on where you are.” People have to be there at a particular time and there might be a narrow window when conditions are right or none at all that year. Very very difficult to budget and organize for, especially when the trained folks might also be called out on wildfires.

Here are the key findings:

*Findings support previous survey work that found that capacity is a major limitation for applying prescribed fire. We found less support for previous findings that air quality regulation is consistently a significant barrier, except in specific locations.
*Interviewees emphasized that owing to a lack of incentives and the prevalence of risk aversion at multiple agency levels, active prescribed fire programs depend on the leadership and commitment of individual decision-makers and fire managers.
*Successful approaches rely on collaborative forums and positions that allow communication, problem solving, and resource sharing among federal and state partners, and that facilitate dialogue between air-quality regulators and land managers.
*Although not a focus in the present work, interviewees also discussed other barriers to burning, like drought conditions, short burn windows, and the presence of challenging landscape conditions, such as the presence of invasive cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), that limit their ability to conduct prescribed fire.

I think it might be splitting hairs to say “We found less support for previous findings that air quality regulation is consistently a significant barrier, except in specific locations.” It’s one of those things we often see where findings are dependent on the spatial scale the researchers choose. It could be consistently a significant barrier in Washington State but not in Nevada and in this case it’s hard to think how you could average the various hassles across the western States to arrive at a western state-wide conclusion. I’d say that peoples’ experience and this research both show that both can be problems, and both need to be solved in some way, for PB efforts to be more successful. Again, perhaps splitting hairs, but another both/and thing.

One thing I thought was interesting was a characterization of fear of escapes. I’d think that would be an important factor, especially with people living near the PB (and of course we had three deaths in Colorado from the North Fork PB escape) but maybe that’s more of a localized concern?

There’s a bit of a mention in the Leadership section.

Leadership, riskaversion, incentives
‘There’s always disincentive. If you have the potential for putting your whole career on the line and all your people and everything else, why would you do that? What is there that gives you points for that? Really, nothing.’
‘While we intellectually recognise the need and value of prescribed fire, our culture is that of ‘firefighter’. And we are also pretty risk-averse organisation that really gets scared by the possibilities of a major escape.
We have plenty of opportunities to draw on negative experiences of others.’
‘I mean the personality of the person that’s talking to the burner, the person signing the permit, all the way up to the commissioner of public lands, who’s an elected official, [those things all matter]… If the elected official is extremely risk-adverse, that pretty much shuts down burning. If the [decision-maker] is a very proactive, forest health-[focused person], we can have a little bit of risk, and maybe a [smoke] intrusion and learn from it moving forward.’
‘We had the projects lined up. The burn window looked great, actually, for our region. But the politics of it… [an agency leader] asked me to cancel the event, for one because of the resource draw-down, but also just the optics of doing any kind of prescribed burning while people are losing their homes and people are losing lives and stuff. And I understood thaty But I did have this feeling like… when we start cancelling the good work that needs to happen because bad things are happening somewhere else, we’re just getting farther behind.’

I wonder if these risks feel the same for WFU vs. PB? Also how does AQ regulation work for WFU compared to PB?

6 thoughts on “What Would Help Increase Use of Prescribed Fire? Practitioner Interviews: Schultz, McCaffrey, Huber-Stearns 2019”

  1. “Successful approaches rely on collaborative forums …” It seems like it would be impossible to avoid discussing the use of prescribed fire in the forest planning process public forums, at least where achieving the desired conditions depends on fire. If the reality is that an outcome is not going to be achievable because of these kinds of barriers, then the forest had better not plan for it and own up to the consequences. Examples out there? (This reminds me of the failure of existing forest plans to account for real limits on timber harvest, so the plans overpromised and implementation underdelivered.)

    • As usual, you are saying that it should be covered in the forest plan which considers reality.. including budgets, wildfire acres, and so on, which are only predictable to a certain extent. Especially for 35 years. So perhaps the FS is not failing at planning, planning is failing the FS.

      • As usual, you are saying that it is pointless to plan, and fail to recognized that plans can be changed well before 35 years when we realize we got something wrong.

        • No I’m not saying it’s pointless to plan. I’m saying NFMA planning as currently constructed is too unwieldy to respond to changes effectively. Plan amendments can be done but how easily? My conversations were always “we want to do this, do we need a plan amendment?”. Not “we had a huge fire so let’s re-look at everything and do a plan amendment” because maybe that would devolve to a revision, which there is no money for…

          • I might agree with you that Congress shouldn’t pass laws they are unwilling to fund. But since they passed NFMA, the agency needs to make a better effort to get it funded. I never saw them argue very hard for planning dollars, and when they got them, they found ways to use them for other things.

            Many forests were good a keeping their plans up to speed on the smaller stuff using amendments. I never understood FS priorities for revision, but they should be based on the “need to change the forest plan” – a case to be made in an assessment (“let’s relook at everything” – 36 CFR §219.5). In fact, they set up a revision schedule that includes the assessment, instead of using the assessment to determine the revision schedule.


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