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Scenarios for Compound Disasters: COVID-19 and Wildfire Management

Four possible scenarios for fighting wildfire in the time of COVID-19, depending on high or low COVID-19 impacts and a high or low fire season.

Director's Choice
A Minute with the Scientist

Lynne Westphal: Well, the ELT—the Executive Leadership Team—of the Forest Service stood up a rapid response group to, sort of more broadly, look at this whole issue of COVID-19 and fighting wildfire. They knew of us and turned to us to say, ‘Can you help with scenario development?’ That was Tuesday, by Friday morning the scenarios were being presented to the ELT. COVID was just starting, this was in March, so, you know, it hadn't yet really taken off, but the potential was clear. So, yes, it was one of those times where you just drop everything because it really needed thinking about and doing, and if we could contribute we wanted to.

Dave Bengston: I mean, for me, it was just—at the time it was just a blur. At the same time, it was also just exciting to be able to do a project like this, in real time, for real decision makers and policy makers. Because, most of the time in social science research, what we do is—because of the time lag it's not an immediate concern, it's more of a longer-term concern, a question that decision makers maybe are interested in. And, in futures, it's to better understand the range of possible, plausible, and preferable futures that are out there that they might need to think about. But, this was not something that we experienced very often in research, and so, it's kind of exciting to do that, but also, happy to get back to doing the way we usually do research.

Lynne Westphal: Yeah, I'm not sure I've recovered; it was really intense and exhausting. Pandemics are—the new normal is maybe putting it a little strongly—but, between Ebola,and Zika, and SARS, and this version of SARS, we're getting pandemics, and so, what are we going to do in the future when we're facing the next one? And, that would be the more traditional use of a strategic foresight set of scenarios—is to kind of game things out well in advance and then revisit them. This time however, they were used to help with the immediate, kind of day-to-day, managing of an intense summer.

Lynne Westphal: So, I'm Lynne Westphal, I'm a research social scientist with the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. I work primarily in the Chicago region, and focusing on strategic foresight as it applies to forestry and natural resource management.

Dave Bengston: I'm Dave Bengston, I'm a research forester at the Northern Research Station. The area that I work in is environmental futures research, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Contending with two simultaneous and interacting disasters—wildfire and the COVID-19 pandemic—poses an extraordinary challenge for wildland fire management. All aspects of fire management would be significantly more complex. For this study scientists rapidly developed scenarios to inform wildfire decision making in the face of COVID-19.

Simultaneously combatting the wildfire-like spread of COVID-19 and actual wildfire is an unprecedented challenge for wildfire management agencies, with impacts on nearly all aspects of firefighting, from training new fire crews to evacuating residents from fire zones. At the request of the Enterprise Risk Management Response Team established by the Executive Leadership Team of the USDA Forest Service to look at this issue, the Strategic Foresight Group at the Northern Research Station rapidly developed scenarios to inform wildfire planning and decision making. Scenario planning is a way to grapple with fundamental uncertainty and inform decision making by exploring a range of plausible paths describing how an uncertain future could unfold. Scenario planning helps identify robust decisions and actions across a wide range of potential future conditions. Scientists interviewed firefighting and strategic foresight experts and framed four scenarios: “Necessary redirection” (high COVID-19 risk, low fire risk), “Compound disasters” (risk from COVID-19 and fire are both high), “Enlightenment” where both risks are low, and “Normal interrupted” with lower COVID-19 but high fire risks. The “Compound disasters” scenario already had decision makers’ attention. But “Normal interrupted” highlighted the possibility of complacency regarding COVID-19 risks. “Enlightenment” captured experts’ hopes that a silver lining might be found but would represent a fundamental change in the approach to fighting wildfire, allowing more acres to burn. Collaborators at the Rocky Mountain Research Station used the scenarios in guiding conversations with fire managers, using them in part to identify the current scenarios and track how the season was progressing.


Research Partners

External Partners

  • Jason Crabtree, University of Minnesota