Questions for the Century to Come

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Workshop: A Century of Wildland Fire Research
Washington, DC
— March 27, 2017

Good morning! It’s a pleasure and a real honor for me to be here with such a distinguished group of experts and researchers on wildland fire.

As you know, our knowledge about wildland fire has come a long way in the last century. So has our capacity at the Forest Service to manage wildland fire safely and successfully, for the benefit of the lands we manage and the people we serve. Our techniques and technologies for wildland fire suppression alone are lightyears ahead of where they were a century ago. As a result, the Forest Service rapidly suppresses 97 to 98 percent of the fires we fight at very small sizes.

But the 2 to 3 percent of the fires that escape initial attack tend to get much bigger much faster than ever before. Wildland fire managers are seeing fire behavior more extreme than they have in an entire 30-year career. And we are still failing to reach our goal of zero job-related firefighter fatalities. In fact, wildland firefighters are several times more likely to die on a fire than their counterparts in structure firefighting.

I think that has to do with a culture of wildland firefighting that goes back to the beginnings of the Forest Service more than a century ago. In some ways, our agency was born in the crucible of the Big Blowup in the Northern Rockies in 1910. At the time, there was a tension in wildland fire management between the European model of putting out all fires … and the traditional American model of using fire for resource benefits. Forest Service Chief William B. Greeley called the latter “Paiute forestry” because American Indians pioneered the technique.

You saw that tension in Gifford Pinchot himself, the first Forest Service Chief. In 1899, Pinchot published a research article on the role that fire plays in certain forest types. But as Chief, Pinchot published a Use Book for managing the national forests. In it, he said that land managers have no duty more important than protecting forests from wildfires.

That same tension infused the light burning controversy in the early 1900s … the controversy over fire use in the pineries of the southern Coastal Plain … the controversy over fire use in western long-needle pine types, like ponderosa pine. In all of these controversies, fire researchers played a central role in recognizing the ecological role of fire on the landscape. They included some of our researchers in the Forest Service, but particularly researchers at Tall Timbers … and researchers like Harold Biswell and Harold Weaver on the West Coast.

These researchers were fighting an uphill battle against the legacy of fire exclusion … the legacy of Gifford Pinchot and the Use Book … the legacy of the Big Blowup of 1910 … the legacy of scorn for “Paiute forestry” … the legacy that all fires are bad.

In 1978, we made a huge breakthrough by replacing the old policy of fire exclusion with a policy of “appropriate suppression action.” The new policy let local line officers and fire managers decide on the most appropriate response to a wildland fire. It might be to suppress the fire to protect homes and communities. Or it might be to return fire to the landscape to restore healthy, resilient fire-adapted ecosystems. Since 2009, it might even be to suppress the fire over here and use the same fire over there for resource benefits.

Beginning in 2009, we worked with the entire wildland fire community to adopt a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Our strategy has three principles: First, to restore fire to the landscape using both prescribed fire and wildland fire for healthy, resilient fire-adapted ecosystems. Second, to help communities live with fire by adopting Firewise practices. And third, to make the most appropriate risk-based decisions in managing every wildland fire.

Last year, we had a Chief’s Review of the Forest Service’s Northern Region, and we saw some of this in action. We saw evidence that fire is being successfully returned to broad landscapes through our wilderness fire programs. We heard from fire researchers about new insights into fire behavior and fire ecology at the Missoula Fire Lab.

We also heard about the advances in Firewise techniques and technologies made by Jack Cohen and others at the Fire Lab. These are far and away the most effective ways of defending homes and protecting communities from wildland fire.

And we heard about fire managers committing to our policy of Life First. During the 2016 fire season on the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests, the Forest Service in the region put Life First into practice by eliminating needless firefighter exposure to risk.

Too often, though, “appropriate suppression action” still means suppressing almost every fire, which means putting firefighters at needless risk. When NIFC tracked wildland fire use from 1998 to 2008, the ratio of wildland fires suppressed to wildland fires used was 249 to 1. For all practical purposes, we were still excluding fire from the landscape.

And if we are still excluding fire, then we are undermining our own Cohesive Strategy. First, we are not restoring fire-adapted natural communities. Second, we are discouraging human communities from adopting Firewise practices—why should they if we suppress nearly every fire nearly every time? Third, we are making a mockery of appropriate suppression action if all it really amounts to is the same tired old policy of fire exclusion.

So I would leave you here at this workshop with this question: How do we get out of this rut? How do we get more fire back on the landscape—and not just in wilderness areas or by default on megafires? How do we learn to live with smoke? How do we get out of the business of structure protection? How do we get more homeowners to take responsibility for protecting their own properties and communities? Maybe most importantly, how do we put Life First on every wildland fire, so that every firefighter goes home safely at the end of the day?