The Meta-Fire Retardant Dialogues : How Best to Manage Practice Improvements?


So the current fire retardant issue is  interesting, not least because the current and past fire retardant lawsuits have been brought by one of our very own TSW contributors, Andy Stahl.  Who may or may not be able or want to talk about it much. It doesn’t seem like the agency “cone of silence” around litigation applies to plaintiffs.

Anyway, I’ve spoken to current wildland firefighters, retired fire folks, and Andy, and as usual tried to fit all the points of view into a whole zone of agreement.  I was listening to, of all things, a podcast called  “The Witch Trials of J.K Rowling” developed by The Free Press.  On one episode (Chapter 6), a teenager named Noah spoke about (on a completely different subject) encouraging the good things that can happen and discouraging the bad things that can happen.  And of course, isn’t that applicable to many policy issues?

What makes fire retardant more interesting than many of our TSW debates, I think, is that we agree on what good things and bad things are.. or do we?  Good things would be helping fire suppression folks save valuable human and ecosystem assets, and for human health and safety- of firefighters and residents.  Bad things would be dumping in streams or on firefighters. So first TSW discussion question… Do we agree on good things and bad things? Are there more good things or bad things I haven’t considered?

But the meta-dialogue is “how best to increase the good things and decrease the bad things?”  Who should be in the room to decide? Should there be carrots or sticks or some combination?  How are wildfire practitioners and the air resource industry involved?

If I had to guess about Andy’s motivations, it would be to put pressure on the USG to work harder to decrease the bad things.  But the danger with this approach is that involving another federal agency- in this case the EPA-may not be actually all that helpful in terms of adding value to the work- the ultimate work of trying things and doing lessons learned that the fire community is generally better at than most.

So let’s think about some other examples.  For some reason, I thought of healthcare-associated infections. The below is from the Florida state website.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has shown that the implementation of recommendations for HAI prevention from the CDC Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee (HICPAC) can reduce HAI by 70% overall and virtually eliminate some specific types of infections.  Broad implementation of the CDC guidelines saves lives, reduces suffering, and decreases health care costs.  Through partnerships and the commitment of stakeholders, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) HAI Prevention Program supports health care facilities implementing best practices for preventing the spread of health care-associated infections. Health care facilities are asked to conduct surveillance or track HAI infections, ensure health care workers perform hand hygiene before and after patient contact and when they come in contact with body fluids, use personal protective equipment such as gowns and gloves, minimize use of devices (i.e. catheters), and ensure the patient care environment has been cleaned including the proper cleaning of shared medical equipment such as blood pressure cuffs and glucometers.

So suppose a similar approach was taken for fire retardant. Maybe we would disagree on who would be the best people to put on the advisory committee (HICPAC)   Or would we?

It seems as if in this health case, it is assumed that everyone wants HAIs to be reduced and the academics and practitioners work together to figure out ways to do that. On the other hand, what might make the fire retardant issue is that big bucks are involved and specialized technologies in extreme and dangerous conditions.  Not exactly handwashing or antiseptics.

An Advisory Committee of knowledgeable and experienced people could help add to knowledge and dive into the weeds of specific practices, jointly look at accidents or errors, different formulations, new technologies and lessons learned.  And actually with the big bucks out there for new technologies (drones, AI, and so on) maybe an advisory committee should tackle all that? And no, I don’t think the current Wildland Fire Commission has the right folks to take that on.

With open meetings, public comment and all that.  Because it seems like trust is super-important.  As in the classic difference between the chicken and the pig at breakfast- the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.  Similarly, communities in wildfire areas (which can be much of the US) may not want to be guinea pigs for new technologies- nor may wildland firefighters.  So it seems to me in this case, the more involvement and trust-building the better.

To me, this would seem like a more useful approach than asking the (in their words) overburdened and (in my words) currently non-expert EPA to do a rule and then apply for a permit.

Do you have other examples of mechanisms for how agencies work to increase the good, and reduce the bad, of practices?

And people have studied aerial firefighting.. I think if you read Bill Gabbert’s post here you’ll get some idea.  What I got from it was that you need to actually know the business to know what needs to be improved and how. Which most of us do not.


1 thought on “The Meta-Fire Retardant Dialogues : How Best to Manage Practice Improvements?”

  1. Sharon, decisions to use aerial retardants is tightly connected with many factors at each site and time. A decision tree or decision support system might help fire managers determine whether to use retardants based on fuels, weather, topography, resources at risk, and so on. A company called offers such a tool — its lets you place firefighting resources, including air tankers, and “light” fires to see how they interact with suppression efforts.

    I wonder if such a tool might be helpful in planning for the use aerial retardants in specific firesheds/WUI zones. One might add effects on streams, fish, etc. I’d love to see a Smokey Wire group, including Andy, use such a tool to talk about the benefits and costs of retardants, and maybe come up with some general rules of thumb for decisionmaking. We might agree that using retardant is warranted in some cases, not in others, and may be an option held in reserve.

    FWIW, my community of Oregon will have a Simtable exercise open to the public next month, to look at how a fire may impact local communities.


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