Enough is Enough: Situational Assessment at the Policy Level: Adapting to a New Reality


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By Jerry Williams, former National Fire & Aviation Director, U.S. Forest Service, retired.

Not since the turn of the last century have wildfires been worse in much of the West.  In an era when firefighting budgets cannot seem to keep up, it is incomprehensible and contradictory that wildfires of this magnitude are occurring with such frequency.  However, over the past several years, the onset of drought, the deteriorated condition of many western forests, and a surge of largely unconstrained growth at the wildland-urban interface have converged, resulting in catastrophic, record-setting wildfires.  On a growing number of wildfires, we are past the limits of firefighting effectiveness and beyond the margins of firefighter safety.  We seem to be crossing an important threshold, in terms of “acceptable loss.”

When we look back at many of the more recent highest cost, highest loss wildfires in Montana and elsewhere across the West, several observations deserve our attention:

  • Most of the total acres burned on the highest consequence wildfires have occurred in the drier forest types, where the exclusion of periodic low-intensity burning has resulted in high fuel build-ups over broad landscapes.  Notably, these forests are often at lower elevations, where people and homes are concentrated.  Ironically, these same forests – one-hundred years ago – were more open with lower fuel loads; they exhibited much lower, less severe fire intensities than we see today.
  • On several high-impact wildfire landscapes, governing land/resource management plans often called for undisturbed, dense conditions.  Thinning, prescribed burning, and other fuel reduction treatments only occurred at very small scales or not at all.  The observation highlights an important relationship between the management of fire-adapted landscapes and resultant wildfire outcomes.  This relationship is incompletely reflected in many of our forest management plans, policies, and practices.  Management practices that worked well in a relatively cooler, wetter cycle may no longer be sustainable as the climate shifts to hotter and drier conditions.  In fact, these practices, left un-changed, may only imperil the very values that they intend to save.
  • Within the perimeter of many high-impact wildfires, there were small areas where understory thinning and/or prescribed burning preceded the wildfire.  Despite the severe burning conditions that consumed much of the rest of the forest, these areas came through largely unscathed.  Although they were relatively small-sized, forest resilience was much enhanced by these treatments where they occurred.

We are at an important crossroads.  Do we attempt to match increasing wildfire threats with yet greater suppression force or do we take stock, adapt to a changed circumstance, and more comprehensively modify our wildfire protection strategies ?  Some important questions beg an answer:

  • In regulatory language, should wildfires continue to be treated as unavoidable accidents of nature, free from scrutiny, and exempt from evaluation of effects?  Proposed fuel reduction treatments (e.g. selective cutting, thinning, and prescribed burning) often cause controversy, but as droughts deepen, leaving high volumes of fuel on fire-prone landscapes promises much greater consequence.  In this context, can we continue to equate “no-action” with no-consequence in regulatory requirements, policy and planning?
  • Can we mitigate fuel hazards at the scales necessary to reduce high-impact wildfire threats under existing regulatory constraints?  Many of the regulatory requirements that influence fuel reduction treatments were enacted some forty-years ago in a cooler, wetter climate cycle.  A generation ago, little was known and less applied about fire regime dynamics and disturbance ecologies in the West’s fire-adapted forests.  Certainly, climate change was not foreseen.  What are the risks if we leave these regulatory constraints unchanged?
  • Can critical natural resource values (watersheds, endangered species habitat, air quality, and others) be sustained by managing whole landscapes for un-attended and undisturbed conditions?  Should forest and natural resource management goals better reflect fire’s role and better optimize its use at more meaningful scales, more appropriate intensities, and at due intervals?
  • Should landowners’ freedom to build where they want and how they want occur at the expense of public land impacts, public cost, firefighter safety, and their own security?  What are the long-term effects of protecting homes at the expense of watersheds, habitat, and other general forest values?
  • With growing concerns about carbon dioxide emissions and given widespread efforts to use our forests to sequester carbon, should we be doing more to pre-empt high intensity wildfires in historically low-intensity ecosystems by more actively managing these forests to reduce fuel loads and biomass levels?
  • In an era where federal budget deficit reduction efforts need to occur, should we go “all-in” with suppression capacity, or should greater priority be given to prevention and hazard mitigation?  What are the long-term risks and consequences of alternative wildfire protection strategies?

As much of the West continues to move into a hotter, drier climate cycle, the need intensifies to more urgently adapt regulations, policies, plans, and practices to a changed circumstance and a new reality.  Perhaps it is time to pause and — much like we ask of our firefighters – re-assess the situation before we go much further.  At this point, the consequences of doing what we have always done may be pushing a potentially bad position that is not well accounted.

For PDF click here Jerry Williams Op Ed

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