The Meta-Smokey Dialogues: Wildfire’s Learning Culture and the Federal Landscape of Accountability

On one hand, it seems like the Boulder County folks, with help, did an excellent job investigating the Marshall Fire, and changing their practices based on that knowledge. Along with the concept of “lessons learned”. All that information is posted on their website. including an After Action Report and a Facilitated Learning Analysis.

On the other hand, we’ve had a global pandemic. Two federal agencies (DOE and FBI) think it might have been due to a lab leak. Other federal agencies were funding the research that might have led to the lab leak, and don’t think it was.. which seems like an obvious conflict of interest.. and they are continuing to fund similar work. You don’t need to have WHO numbers at hand to know that the Covid pandemic had substantially worse impacts than the Marshall Fire. Through the work of independent investigators, we have found many unsavory things about how gain of function research was managed, and how the discussion was handled in the press and on social media. Scientists are asking “is this research a good use of federal funds? Are the risks too great? Was gain of function research actually helpful in this pandemic, as promoted in the proposals? If it’s essential should it be done in more isolated places..say like Plum Island is for foreign animal diseases. Would it make more sense to have a commission of independent folks look at all this holistically -whether this research is needed and how it’s managed- rather than a variety of intelligence, law enforcement and other agencies coming to different conclusions on the more narrow question of a specific lab leak? Or should the usual “management of research” questions be considered (from London Times story):

It could have been the end of the Wuhan-North Carolina collaboration, but a loophole allowed gain-of-function work to proceed if deemed urgent and safe. Baric made the argument to the NIH, which gave approval.
This triggered alarm bells for the US government because it would have involved the type of gain-of-function experiments that were still barred. According to documents obtained by freedom of information campaigners, Daszak argued the Mers experiment was not gain of function because it was unlikely to make the virus more pathogenic. A compromise was reached whereby the scientists would stop work and report to US officials if they created a new mutant virus that grew ten times faster than the natural virus it was created from.


And the old and familiar, one agency found out something but it didn’t make an impression on another agency.
The US embassy found out about the experiments in Wuhan and sent diplomats with scientific expertise to inspect the institute in January 2018, according to diplomatic cables leaked to The Washington Post. They observed “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory”.

In the case of the New Mexico fires last year, the Forest Service had a 90 day stand-down, and involved the public in figuring out how to improve, and changed practices based on those findings. There’s a public report.

Then there’s the Durham Report. I recommend that if you’re interested, you read it yourself, not believe what others say about it. I think anyone working in a frequently FOIAed/litigated bureaucracy may enjoy it from a “glad that wasn’t me” perspective. There’s some humor in there as well. From page 258:

Within a day of receiving the Alfa Bank materials, Cyber Agent- I and Cyber Agent2 drafted a report of their analysis. he report’s summary stated that they had “assess[ ed) there is no CyD [Cyber Division] equity in this report and that the research conducted in the report reveals some questionable investigative steps taken and conclusions drawn.” The report acknowledged that there was no allegation of hacking and so there was no reason for the Cyber Division to investigate further. The report also said that

it appears abnormal that a presidential candidate, who wanted to conduct secret correspondence with the Russian government ( or a Russian bank), would (1) name his secret server ‘mail’, (2) use a domain ( registered to his own organization, and then (3) communicate directly to the Russian bank’s IP address (as opposed to using TOR or proxy servers).

Cyber Agent- I testified that both he and Cyber Agent-2 did not agree with the conclusion in the white paper and assessed that (i) the authors of the white paper ‘jumped to some conclusions that were not supported by the technical data,” (ii) the methodology was questionable, and (iii) the conclusions drawn did not “ring true at all.”

Now, I don’t expect the FBI to stand down for 90 days and look at how they went off the rails and how they might fix it. But why not have a report of what they found they had done wrong and how they plan to fix it in the future? After all, I’ve heard another election is coming up…

Here are my hypotheses:

-Fire culture has a history of lessons learned, others don’t.
-Important people don’t really want to know or improve; it’s OK for fire folks to undergo review, but not really important people.
– Partisans will try to get partisanship to creep in certain reviews and not others, and once partisan demons have entered the discussion, any review and improvement is DOA (dead on arrival). It has already reared its head with Covid in ways that I find, as a non-partisan, unfathomable. I understand how it happened with the Durham report, which was after all, about the FBI putting its thumb on the political scales before an election to the benefit of one party. Notice the Politico headline “Republicans dive into politically fraught push for Covid’s origin.”

But despite a growing chorus of bipartisan calls for such a probe, it’s unclear whether Democrats are actually willing to launch a wide-ranging review. The House’s select panel on Covid-19 has not committed to exploring how the deadly outbreak started, with its chair, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), recently suggesting he’d rather look forward than backward.

What is missing from this take on Clyburn’s take on (some) reviews is the idea that information helps agencies improve What if Chief Moore had said “I’d rather look forward than backward” after the New Mexico fires last year, or NASA had said that after the Challenger disaster?

Some (I would argue many or all) things are more important than partisan sparring. Like improving the way our agencies operate, especially those tasked with public health and law enforcement. Especially if you are in a party, I think, which holds the position that the government should be doing more things, an important piece of gaining trust would be being transparent about failures and fixing them… all across the interlocking mass of federal agencies. Among us the knowledge hasn’t been lost on how to do bipartisan commissions and reviews, all that’s lacking is political courage and a certain amount of bipartisan trust.

But even without the Congress setting up a bipartisan review, or the President setting one up.. perhaps they are all too embroiled in power-seeking to hear the call to good governance, there is nothing to keep NIH and CDC, and the FBI, from getting some fire folks in to help them develop the skills to have a more open, lessons-learned kind of culture. Who could be against better governance and developing trust?

4 thoughts on “The Meta-Smokey Dialogues: Wildfire’s Learning Culture and the Federal Landscape of Accountability”

  1. It’s great to see that the Boulder County officials took the Marshall Fire investigation seriously and made changes based on what they learned. They even shared their findings with the public, which is a positive step.

  2. There’s an old Vulcan proverb. “Only the daughter of a war criminal could save American democracy.”

    In 2019 Democratic New Mexico Representative now Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland led a House subcommittee hearing on anti-government extremism emphasizing that the violent ideologies expressed by the Bundy clan were spurred by white elected Republicans in the Mountain West.

    The US Bureau of Land Management even hired a security specialist to outline strategies to defend federal employees and property. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and at least 15 other federal agencies suffered hits to morale while in the clutches of the Trump Organization. The Government Accountability Office documented more than 350 incidents of threats and assaults against federal land management employees during the Obama years but goaded by Donald Trump there have since been many more culminating in an attack on the US Capitol.

    While many agencies have improved under President Joe Biden the National Park Service took hits ranking 371st out of 432 sub-agencies in 2022. The BLM ranked 348th, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ranked 379th, the Forest Service ranked 406th and the Mountains and Plains region of the Environmental Protection Agency ranked 52nd but lost ground since 2021. The Fish and Wildlife Service sits at 204th also retreating as one of the best places to work in the federal government.

    But, in a much quieter way, truly epic storm clouds are gathering on the future of the civil service. “For decades, as the left has continued its march through America’s institutions, conservatives have been outgunned and outmatched when it comes to the art of government.” They’re mounting a counterattack. Schedule F’s vastly greater power to hire and fire federal employees to root out this “deep state” collection of problems would rebalance the system. “Police unions, teachers unions and other public sector unions have built a fortress against supervisory decisions.” [The Gathering Storm Threatening the Civil Service]

    • Larry I hope you don’t believe the hype that the West is full of incipient Bundy’s. D’s criticize R’s for spreading hatred and fear, but this feels like.. spreading hatred and fear of our R western neighbors.

      “In 2019 Democratic New Mexico Representative now Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland led a House subcommittee hearing on anti-government extremism emphasizing that the violent ideologies expressed by the Bundy clan were spurred by white elected Republicans in the Mountain West. ”

      There are violent people at both ends of the spectrum.. it’s no fairer to blame the Cory Gardners of the world for Bundys than Michael Bennet for people who threaten Supreme Court Justices. Just because a politician says something doesn’t make it true…

      As Voltaire said “is politics nothing other than the art of deliberate lying?”

      • James Wesley Rawles coined the phrase American Redoubt in 2011. From his he supposes Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington are survivalist havens for the christian nationalist movement.

        White christians are using their interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to rationalize their commitment to a pending race war pointing at the standoff at Ruby Ridge, the federal storming of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City and Donald Trump’s attempted coup at the US Capitol.

        Late in President Barack Obama’s second term a group of armed thugs allied with Ammon Bundy looted and occupied a national wildlife refuge for forty days in Harney County, Oregon. Think Katrina: if civil order is suspended these idiots will kill only the those innocents they feel are inferior or damaged so unarmed and unprepared people would be preyed upon by those monsters unrelentingly.

        Today, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI, US Marshalls Service and state officials are warning of white christianic zealots telegraphing pending violence against law enforcement especially in Oregon and Idaho.


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