Advice from Some Retirees to the Chief on Managing Fires

The last letter was from a group of some fire scientists (SFS). I don’t know how much experience they’ve had actually managing fires.

This letter is from a group of mostly agency retirees called the National Wildfire Institute (NWI). Similarly, I don’t know the specific fire experience of the folks who signed this letter. They raise, as might be expected, a number of different points from the fire scientists.

One of their concerns is the same as the fire scientists.. that there needs to be more support among  communities for managed fire.  The NWI solution is…planning and NEPA.

Chief, it’s time to declare that all fires will be promptly and aggressively extinguished, period. This would be direction until such time as the Agency would engage the public in a robust and comprehensive planning process to subject fire policy to widespread public involvement and public understanding. Anything less would simply serve to increase already fevered resistance to Forest Service fire policies. We reaffirm our strong support for Prescribed Fire and strong compliance with the law through approved burn plans.

As many of you know, I am a fan of the concept of standing down NFMA plan revisions, and standing up formal fire planning for forests, which could develop the support that both the SFS and NWI feel is needed. But even with delineations of areas where fires can be managed, possible condition and weather-based standards and guidelines, even with notice and comment of burn plans or other potential innovations, it seems to me that wildfire use is in a special category.  WFU is opportunistic by nature, and I don’t think they can be nailed down in advance and carefully reviewed by scientists, the public and legal authorities, like, say, a hazard tree project or a grazing permit renewal or pretty much anything else that’s subject to NEPA.

Because it’s a judgment call given the ever-changing conditions. And we’d probably agree that the best folks to make those judgment calls are the experienced fire professionals certainly informed by whatever has been hammered out in a plan.  Fires may not respect area delineations or any other plan components.

We also believe these uses of wildfire to manage natural resources and profoundly change ecosystems are not wise, especially during this time of severely clogged forests (forests are more than just trees); the expanding Wildland-Urban Interface; and the impacts of severe drought. We are concerned that the practice of “managed fire” has never been subjected to NEPA, NFMA, or to the plain requirements of the substantive Acts such as Clean Air, Clean Water, the Endangered Species Act, ARPA, and others. The truth is that our wildfire use has dramatically changed land and resource management plans and there seems to be no accounting for the cumulative effects and outcomes.

What’s interesting to me about this is that I agree in concept, the nature of different ICs doing different things on different fires under different conditions seems like it would make it impossible to predict any impacts. Of course, agency employees are perfectly capable of making assumptions.. but would they be meaningful, since fire weather and conditions are specific to time and place? I suppose you could do simulations under a variety of conditions but.. how close would they be to reality?

Perhaps public engagement is more important when impacts are more or less unknown or unknowable (and perhaps so is the no-action alternative), because only being honest and building a track record will build trust. In fact, we have many social scientists who have been studying communities and their responses to prescribed fire so those scientists could be brought together and asked to weigh in- and also explore peoples’ views about managed fires.

We think that now is the time to engage the public and the agency to disclose the cumulative effects of our wildfire use programs, gain public understanding and acceptance, align our actions with our appropriations, and carry on together in a unified way with our partners and our people.

10 thoughts on “Advice from Some Retirees to the Chief on Managing Fires”

  1. Glad these folks are retired and no longer making decisions. It’s this type of thinking that has created the mess of overstocking and issues that were brewing during all of their careers. It’s comical they would call for the agency to engage the public to talk about the cumulative effects of wildfire use when no such discussion occurs about the cumulative effects of full suppression. Not to mention, most agency folks don’t understand cumulative effects analysis, much less the public at large.

    Asking the Chief to “promptly and aggressively” extinguish all fires sure sounds like the old 10am policy. Not founded on the best available science and definitely not in the interest of most western ecosystems.

    These guys (and note that they all appear to be old men) should go play some golf and leave the land management to those who follow the science.

    • WesternLarch.. you know you can disagree with retirees without accusing them of screwing things up in the past, telling them they must not be up on the current science, nor that they need to check out of our mutual work in the world. We certainly disagree with each other (see me, Jim Furnish and Jon Haber) here without doing that, and many cultures value the experiences of elders including Native Americans.

      In American Indian cultures, elders are valued as protectors, mentors, teachers, keepers of wisdom, and intergenerational transmitters of cultural knowledge (12).

      Perhaps we have more to learn from them than cultural burning practices?

  2. Very fine letter that makes a very valid point; it is time to suppress all fires this fire season! The prohibition on prescribed fire is not new, the PL-5 level generates the “Moses Letter”, and puts the kibosh on most Rx fires – always has.

    The signatures of this document are a fine collection of professionals, some whom have made those tough decisions on managed fire use.

    I very much caution throwing shade over the impacts these individuals can yield. They have (most of them) have walked the talk.

    I am not a member of the group, but feel every bit as “on board” as they help the Agency find the correct path forward. I also caution against unchecked fire use; one really bad outcome and that option within the toolbox will be gone forever!

    • This letter isn’t asking the chief to suppress all fires this fire season. It’s asking him “to declare that all fires will be promptly and aggressively extinguished, period. … until such time as the Agency would engage the public in a robust and comprehensive planning process”.

      It’s asking for a change to the policy for an indefinite amount of time (likely decades given how long forest planning takes).

      Certainly, if this letter was asking for full, aggressive suppression this fire season, most (all?) people would support that. But unfortunately that’s not what these folks are asking.

      • W.Larch, or Larix occidentalis, the amount of managed fire to prescribed fire across the Agency is just a blip. If I read it right, they are supporting the aggressive, prescribed fire program, while asking for dialogue on managed fire, suppressing all fires this season.

        Doesn’t matter; the Chief has already stopped managed fire. Long term planning for managed fire use is the missing piece giving the public an opportunity for a say in managing public land.

      • Well, as I said in my post, I don’t think you have to do plan revisions to do plan amendments around fire. It would be interesting to engage with the authors to see exactly what they envision in terms of scale, scope etc. of the effort.

        Certainly plan revisions are not the solution, timewise. It’s possible for some kind of effort to be done in five years, I would guess, if the FS focused on it.

        I’d see this letter (as with the scientists) the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

  3. Some well known names on that letter, yes, but each of them including their years of service is silly. 35+ years in the agency (or any number, for that matter) doesn’t mean you have good ideas. Sorry, not a substantive comment on the content, but using length of service to attempt to add weight to your ideas doesn’t sit well with me.

    I only have 17 years in. I’ll start drafting a letter to send in 2035 when I can say “31 years”.

    • George, that’s one of the reasons I juxtaposed this and the fire scientists’ letter.. the different claims to authority. Never having managed fires, versus perhaps having managed them in the past.

      I guess just visioning here, the convo needs to happen among current suppression people and current inhabitants of the land, with all kinds of scientists (including social) lending their research results and perspective, as well as experienced practitioners and wonks who can give input (retired and not).

      OTOH, I’m not necessarily a fan of “drafting letters” as a communications tool; I’d much rather sit down with the individuals concerned and engage in dialogue.

  4. I am for one glad to hear this discussed. Our Westside forests did evolve with fire but they were not the same forests we have now. To think you are going to get a “beneficial” fire with the forest we have today is foolish. Just look at the results of the last 25 years, catastrophic fires that kill everything. I have even seen “beneficial” fire and prescribed fire that didn’t get away that look like brush patches with dead trees. Hardly the forests that these beneficial fires are suppose to produce. I think we have been mislead by the philosophy that the forest need fire and these fires are the result of our past fire policies.
    I rather see more thinning, grazing, mulching and less smoke.
    Comments from a very smokey Oregon.

    • Bob Sproul, having worked and lived in Oregon (all East Side), you are right on target!

      Unfortunately, it is a common thread all across the West. Having spent some time working (and living) in the South, if the return fire interval is missed only a couple of years, mechanical treatment of timber stands is necessary to keep from losing the whole “Mary-Ann” in a recurring Rx burn!


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