Practice of Science Friday: Reflections on “Science and Scienciness” from 2010 and the 2020 Fire Season

This is from the JFSP Fact Sheet.

In the interests of “how I would change what I wrote in the past given the 2020 fire season”, I remembered a series of posts from 2010 (many readers were not with us then) called Science Situations That Shout Watch Out. Here’s a link to 1-3, there is also 4, when scientists speak for nature 5 Sleight of Science, 6 and 7 Warm Lake Fire Excerpts. Looking back, they are almost identical to some of the discussions we’re having today re fuel treatments. For new readers, we also did a series on “Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatments” that you can search for in the search box.

Situation 3. When Scientists Frame the Issue. This is a situation that occurs more frequently than desirable, and is actually the source of unnecessary tension between scientists and managers. Here is the way this dysfunctional cycle operates. First, there is a pot of money, to be distributed through a competitive process with a panel of other scientists. A scientist writes a proposal with a certain framing (e.g., fire protection of people and their communities is the same as protecting houses). Since none of the communities involved are at the table, and the framing sounds plausible to the other scientists, the proposal is funded. Then the scientist does the work. When they hear about the research results, managers then ignore the results, or only partially use them, because the results aren’t relevant to their framing of the issue. The last step of the cycle is that the managers are accused of “not using the best available science.” I have seen this cycle play out many times.

The scientific evidence is clear that the only effective way to protect structures from fire is to reduce the ignitability of the structure itself (e.g., fireproof roofing, leaf gutter guards) and the immediate surroundings within about 100 feet from each home, e.g., through thinning of brush and small trees adjacent to the homes (–see studies by U.S. Forest Service fire scientist Dr. Jack Cohen)

In this case, the difference in framing is as simple as it’s not about the structures- it’s about the fact that people don’t want fire running through their communities. It is about all kinds of community infrastructure, stop signs and power poles, landscaping, fences, gardens, trees and benches in parks, people and pets and livestock having safe exits from encroaching fires. It is about firefighter safety and about conditions for different suppression tactics. That’s why fire breaks of some kinds around communities (not just structures) will always be popular in the real world. Of course, people don’t actually fireproof their homes either in the real world. “How can we best keep wildfires from damaging communities and endangering people” would be a more complex, but more real framing of the question. Note that one scientific discipline can’t provide the answer to this framing- there are elements of fire science, community design, fire suppression practice, sociology, political science and economics.

I think my bolded statement stands the test of time. Check out this link from Newsweek where you can see the before and after of communities in Oregon from satellite photos.

Since fires happened in California, and can be blamed on anthropogenic climate change, (as of summer 2020) we no longer have to debate that Bad Things Can Happen with Wildfires. We’ve only added more- problems with air quality, bad chemicals being released, damage to power infrastructure (possibly located in “the backcountry”) and so on. Looking back, I think we would have had much more helpful scientific information if in fact stakeholders had framed the issue and determined relevance- then written up an RFP. And yes, I appreciate greatly the efforts of the Joint Fire Science Program (see link in the image above). I also wonder why folks think it’s better to have splintered by agency (USDA NIFA, FS, USGS, NSF) and investigator-driven research than a coordinated and focused approach, with stakeholder involvement in prioritization and design.

In fact, if any grad students are interested, it would be fascinating to look at funded wildfire studies across agencies, develop a landscape of the different topics (from physical fire models to social studies of landowners). I see a potential committee of stakeholders, scientists and research administrators developing recommendations to 1) stop duplication, 2) fund gaps and 3) have practitioners and stakeholders interrogate the utility of each study. And maybe for communities, we don’t need more research as much as sharing of best practices. But researchers might not arrive at that conclusion on their own. That’s why I think we need to rethink our institutions and decision-making processes.

1 thought on “Practice of Science Friday: Reflections on “Science and Scienciness” from 2010 and the 2020 Fire Season”

  1. I would prefer that the Forest Service frame the issue for management of its lands (using the forest planning process, for example). That process might reasonably conclude that “stop signs and power poles, landscaping, fences, gardens, trees and benches in parks” are not worth the expense and impacts on public property that people are, and that choice might result in different management of national forests. (And if the local community wants to protect its stop signs, I’m sure they could come up with ways and funds to do that in the stop sign ignition zone that wouldn’t involve national forest management.)


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