Some Thoughts on Questions for the Prescribed Fire Review: Re Research and Models

The release of the Forest Service report on prescribed fire appears to be on the horizon. On September 2, Source New Mexico reported that the review is in the latter stages;  somewhere else I read that the Chief is reviewing the report. According to the news story:

Questions the Forest Service review hopes to answer, according to Chief Moore:

  • Does our prescribed fire program incorporate the most current research on climate change?
  • Do we use our climate models to add to the expertise of decision-makers on the ground?
  • What in our burn plans might need to change?
  • Do we have access to accurate weather forecasts?
  • Do we have enough personnel for the scale of prescribed fire needed to match the scale of wildfire risk across the landscape?
  • Do our existing policies and authorities affect our ability to make sound decisions on the ground?


It won’t surprise any TSW readers that  I would have added some questions about research and models…

(1) To what extent have decision-makers on the ground, and fire behavior analysts, specifically, been involved in developing and ground-truthing models that incorporate climate change?

(2) Is the institutional forum for linking modelling improvements and research requested by fire practitioners and that developed by universities and government research entities? Or are those entities simply funding “research that sounds useful to the fire community” without their direct involvement?

(3) Is JFSP the only program specifically targeting practitioner needs? How well are they doing at this, and are any improvements needed? Do they need more funding? How could it be taken from the “sounds plausible” research panels and redirected to research prioritized by fire managers and practitioners?


I know the Chief is quite knowledgeable about all this, and how it works, from his many years interacting with FS and other researchers.

But the first two questions seem to assume that existing research is 1) relevant and 2) correct for that problem/area, and it’s only a  question of managers adopting it, what I call the “briefcase left under the bridge” view of research links to management. “Pick it up and use it, whether you think it’s useful or not, because someone you don’t know and have never spoken with determined that you need it.”  Soon to be followed by accusations of “not using the science” if it is determined not to be relevant or correct. Which of course brings up issues of power and privilege between the studiers and the doers.  And of course there are researchers that work closely with practitioners to produce research.  But now that wildfire is a cool subject to study in the eyes of the world, various disciplinary crows are circling the funding carcass and not all of them know how to, or will, involve the practitioner community.

I think research should be considered relevant if, and only if,  fire practitioners have asked for it, and given input into how and where it’s designed, carried out and interpreted.

I think research should be considered correct if, and only if, it has been ground-truthed by fire practitioners.

These two are not hard targets to achieve. It only appears difficult, in my view, because our research institutions are not (for the most part) currently set up with these goals in mind.  So here’s an idea..

Any study that states that it has utility for practitioner communities should be reviewed by representatives of those communities.  That information would be available via a link to each journal article.  Or better yet, put practitioners on review committees for funding proposals.  We tried that when I worked at CSREES, now NIFA, and it resulted in a very different landscape of approaches and designs.


4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Questions for the Prescribed Fire Review: Re Research and Models”

  1. The excuse-ism! After destroying the forest we in the FS are going to now get our act together. If you accept that , as the public involvement you are forgiving to their failures and incompetence ( gross negligence) and consenting to the same people doing the same destruction under in the future. Whence after the catastrophe will come the word scramble , in house review and now we know what we are doing. And everybody keeps their jobs and gets their raises. America run amuck as we gather glimpses of similar incompetence over at NASA and Artemis 1.

  2. Rx burning practices MUST be geared to local conditions. What works in PPine landscapes will almost certainly be a disaster 100 miles to the west in the steeply sloping understory jungles of the OR Coast Range. In fact it seems there are (almost!) zero examples of Rx understory burns on the east slope of the Coast Range ==> zero experience doing this successfully (meaning w/o the burn escaping and causing a disaster). Despite this lack of data, it is argued that Rx burns are the only “salvation” for our area.

    Note that I said “almost”. In a very forward-looking attempt about 10 years ago, a colleague of mine had an MS student who did a set of Rx burns in this region. Results were never published. Apparently, it was reasonably easy to keep the burn from escaping, although this was in part due to gentle slopes. Unfortunately, it seems likely that understory fuel levels before and after were not measured as that was not the focus of the study. Rumor has it that some new Rx burns are being planned. Fingers crossed!

  3. Damn Tricky Duck, give us a break…. Actually, just kidding; we no longer hold our employees, in general, and Line Officers in particular, accountable! That would solve some of the “escapes”.

    As for Sharon’s wise suggestions, I feel we put too much blame on climate change. More than likely, our fuel models are not doing the job of adequately portraying predicted behavior (is that double speak for climate change?). I also have a big problem with too much emphasis of prescribed fire being housed within the fire shop. Used to be, our timber folks (mostly professionals) were the practitioners as burn bosses. Not throwing shade, but a more scientific understanding of the behavior aspect was actually taught at the college level!

    Line Officers are certainly not presently prepared to sign off on these burn plans, by only “checking off” peripheral knowledge, they need to breathe some smoke. Then, if they screw it up (like New Mexico), the burn boss needs to be removed from burning, and the Line Officer asked to enjoy another career! Harsh? No! That’s the way it used to be! I am not talking about some anomaly that was truly unforeseen, and a burn escaped, I’m talking about negligence!

    Remember the burn program at Colorado State Forest Service? Yeah, they ain’t one any more. The FS is treading on the same grounds as CSFS….

  4. Hard to argue with you on this one, Sharon (yes, I said that). But I’m sure somebody does, and I imagine you’ve heard the counter-arguments. Care to share? I remember conversations between regions and PNW along these lines, but apparently they didn’t bear much fruit?


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