Leadership Corner

The best ridge, not the next ridge

September 14th, 2018 at 10:30AM


Portrait of Jason Kuiken
Jason Kuiken, Forest Supervisor, Stanislaus National Forest

Editor’s note

: This article continues our ongoing “Improving the wildland fire system together” discussion. Join the discussion over at the Leadership Corner Forum and share ideas you have about managing change in the wildland fire system.

Wildland firefighting is full of risk. Throughout the year, tens of thousands of firefighters put their lives at risk to protect the public, communities, critical infrastructure and more. We are seeing fire behavior and intensity increase in ways previously not thought possible.

With that in mind, please ponder the words central to the Chief’s Letter of Intent for Wildland Fire in 2018: “We will deploy our people under conditions where important values actually at risk are protected with the least exposure necessary, while maintaining relationships with the communities we serve.” 

The question is, how do we strike that critical balance?

When I reflect on my own journey, several fires shaped my view of risk, but the Carlton Complex in eastern Washington in 2014 has had a lasting impact on the way I think about risk.

I was the deputy forest supervisor on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington when a lightning storm started numerous fires. Two fires escaped initial containment west of Leavenworth, a major tourist destination, and four other fires started in the beautiful Methow Valley. Even though we did everything we could to stop the fires, the fire behavior under the conditions we faced was beyond our control. Within days, the four fires in the Methow Valley had combined into the Carlton Complex and burned 256,108 acres, over 350 homes, utility lines and numerous other assets.

To say the least, it was a humbling fire. I remember standing in a grocery store in Methow Valley when a boy came up to ask me whether the fire would burn into the town of Winthrop. All I managed to say was that many firefighters were working hard to keep the fire out of communities and homes.

That was true, but I wanted to say more. I wanted to be able to tell the boy and his mother what the strategy was, what our challenges were and—most importantly—why we chose the strategy we did.

So in 2015, I started each fire readiness review with these same words: “There is no house, no tree, no species on the landscape that is worth anyone’s life. The role that each firefighter has at home with their family and friends is more important than the fires we manage.”

That was another big fire year. We had close to 900,000 acres burning on or around the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. More homes were lost, along with powerlines, cell towers, critical habitat and much more. Yet none of those losses compared to the loss of Richard Wheeler, Tom Zbyszewski and Andrew Zajac, as well as the serious injury to Daniel Lyon on the Twisp River Fire.

So I continue to start each fire season with those same words, and I believe in them now more than ever. Due to my experiences and my belief in balancing risk, I am committed to working with others to continually improve our collective decision quality on wildland fires.

My experiences are not unique. Everyone involved in fire has been close to firefighters who were killed in action. We have all been associated with fires that have humbled us in one or more ways. It’s experiences like these that have brought folks together to create risk management assistance teams. 

The purpose of an RMAT is to enhance safe, effective, risk-informed wildfire response through accountable and high-quality decision making. Each team works with agency administrators (usually forest supervisors) and, through them, the incident management teams to develop and apply a broad set of tools and information of all kinds. The purpose is to expand decision space and systematically assess risk tradeoffs in an increasingly complex physical, ecological and social environment.

In other words, using the best available science and tools, we can structure dialogue differently than we have in the past. We can more clearly tell folks—like that boy back in Methow Valley—what the risks are to firefighters on the ground as well as to the public and partners we serve. These new tools and processes do not always modify the decisions made, but at the very least they can increase the potential for dialogue and understanding of why we are managing fires in the way we are.

If I were to sum up the change in strategy in a few words, I would say we are looking for the best ridge, not the next ridge. Our past approach was to create a defensible line close to the fire, where the risk was high and the probability of success was low. Our approach now is to back up to the next best ridge or location for stopping the fire, where the risk is lower and the probability of success higher. And then we work with communities to carry out that strategy.

We are recognizing that our systems for responding to wildfires don’t match the fire behavior we are seeing. We are adjusting the entire Wildland Fire System to respond to these changes.

As a member of the RMAT on the Ferguson Fire in California this year, I could see the benefits of this approach. I can’t say that the RMAT made our decisions on the fire different. The difference was in our ability to think about and discuss our options before deciding.

If I were to put myself back in that grocery store in the Methow Valley in 2014, I would now be able to explain to that child what we were doing and why.