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?