Wildland ‘Firefighter’ Might Be a Misnomer
By Megan Martinez, Zone Fuels AFMO, Custer Gallatin National Forest
Say the word “firefighter” and courage, hard work, and clarity of purpose come to mind. The men and women of the federal wildland fire management agencies who believe they deserve explicit recognition as “firefighters” fit this description to a T.
Yet there’s one drawback to defining our main task as fire suppression: In our Western forests, our extensive reliance on firefighting isn’t working.
I used to think it was.
The summer after my freshman year in college, I got a job on a 20-person fire crew in Region 5. For more than a decade, I happily worked my ass off as a “firefighter.” Enduring discomfort was a badge of honor, and I didn’t wonder if my actions had any long-term negative consequences to our natural resources, my health, or the safety of our personnel or the public.
I’m now a Fuels AFMO for the U.S. Forest Service. In the two decades since I started working in fire, I’ve gotten a lot of instruction on operations and risk management, but my training has rarely addressed the “big picture.”
Of course it’s important to work hard, communicate effectively, be good at tactics, and lead decisively. Long term though—not at the end of each fire, not at the end of each fire season, but in a decade or a generation or a century—what are we trying to accomplish?
Have you heard the term “fire paradox”? Here’s a definition from “Systems Thinking and Wildland Fire Management”:
“… a legacy of fire exclusion in fire-prone forests has led to hazardous accumulations of flammable vegetation such that future fires burn with higher intensity and are more resistant to control; today’s “success” begets tomorrow’s failure.”
Two Concepts You Should Know
To work toward tomorrow’s success, I’m convinced there are two big picture concepts every wildland fire professional should know. The first is the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. It has three components: Safe and Effective Fire Response, Resilient Landscapes, and Fire-Adapted Communities. The second is what management options we have on unplanned wildfires.
Before I explain these concepts, I’ll dispel a couple of myths. First, an understanding of this information is not someone else’s job. If you work in wildland fire, even as a first-year seasonal, how you act and how you communicate about our work matters. Second, although targeted fuels treatments are important, they’re not a silver bullet. There will still be wildfires.
Don’t stop reading. I’m not suggesting we stop suppressing fire.
At times wildfires burn too hot or too frequently, kindled by human starts, invasive weeds, changing climates, or ever-increasing fuel loads. There are tremendous political issues and safety risks that decision-makers must weigh before any decision other than the popular, comparatively easy course of action that has long remained the U.S. Forest Service default: trying to catch fires small. This decision makes perfect sense to me where fire poses an imminent threat to life, property, or highly vulnerable natural resources.
That said, we’re not doing ourselves or anyone else any favors by acting and communicating as though this default course of action has no limits. We’re in the business of taking care of public land, natural resources, our personnel, and the public into perpetuity. Relying on firefighting alone won’t achieve that.
National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy
I mentioned the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. How many of you ground-pounders have heard of it previously? I ran across it on my own a few years ago. Its first component we’re remarkably good at: Safe and Effective Fire Response. The other two components are Resilient Landscapes and Fire-Adapted Communities. We will only succeed at long-term fire management if we promote all three.
Ever heard someone say: “All I need to know about fuels is whether they’ll burn or won’t burn?” That logic is outdated. The best wildfire professionals I’ve worked with plan their actions based on fire control when and where necessary and what’s best for ecosystems in the long term. If you want to brush-up on how to promote resilient landscapes, here’s a good resource: the Fire Effects Information System.
As for fire-adapted communities, can you describe to every landowner you encounter how structures burn in wildfires? If you can’t, check out this video by retired U.S. Forest Service researcher Dr. Jack Cohen. We want communities to be fire-adapted prior to trial by fire, but where’s the incentive for private landowners to prepare for fire if they believe our fire suppression and fuels treatments are all that’s necessary?
Fire Response Options
Now that you know about the Cohesive Strategy, it’s time to clarify our fire response options. My first season in fire was 1998. At that time, our training emphasized fighting fire. In my second season, I learned about Wildland Fire Use for Resource Benefit. Apparently we’d just switched from calling it Prescribed Natural Fire. In 2003, I started filling-in with a Fire Use Module. In 2009, we got rid of the term “fire use,” and started calling all types of wildland fire either planned (prescribed) or unplanned (wildfires). The longer you’ve been around, the more likely it is you find all this very confusing.
As far as I can tell, a clear explanation of our current options hasn’t made it into our training. Yet we need every one of our personnel to understand it. Here it is: The initial response to human-caused fires is required to be suppression. Beyond that, unplanned fires can have a full range of strategies and tactics. We no longer choose whether a fire is “suppression” or “fire use.” One flank might have direct line built, while another has monitoring with infrastructure prep and a plan to fire out if necessary.
We will always need a workforce proficient at safe and effective fire response. But we owe it to the smart, badass group of Forestry Technicians* engaged in important, high-risk tasks on the fireline to direct their hard work with a clear view toward long-term success (for them and for wildlands).
There are some fire programs and personnel that already do this admirably well. I’ve seen great examples at many National Park Service units, as well as National Forests like the Kaibab and the Flathead. Overall though, the men and women of our federal land management agencies making field-level fire decisions need better information to make that happen. Please share this post—and your long-term successes!
*Go ahead and identify as a “firefighter” if you want to. Just consider what’s in a name.