One of the tough things about policy is that the identification of problems is easy while the improvements and solutions are extremely difficult to express and even more difficult to implement. Still, the problems cannot be ignored even if a certain proposal has little chance of implementation. With that in mind and also understanding I'm no scientist or lawyer, let's talk about federal incident management positions and wildland firefighters. To mix metaphors, just give me a second to mount the soapbox and start chasing rabbits.
Since 1970, the western US annual wildfire season has grown in duration by 78 days. (Globally, fire season has lengthened across 11.4 million square miles, roughly the size of Africa.) Since 1984, the area annually burned by wildfire in the US has doubled. The Forest Service estimates that area may double again by 2050. Some scientists now say 50% or more of western forests could burn in the next three decades. Fires greater than 1,000 acres have increased almost 600% since the 1970's and fires over 10,000 acres are up by over 700% for the same time period. In short, the changes we are seeing across the landscapes are not explainable without considering the major driver of climate change. Everything else, including lack of thinning, prescribed fire, and other management practices can't touch the influence of climate change.
Climate change is bringing wildfires to new areas and to a degree never before seen. Since the 1980s, the area burned annually in the Northern Rockies has increased 3,000 percent. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s a 5,000 percent increase over the same period. Between 1978 and 1982, the average burn time of a large fire was just six days. Between 2003 and 2012, it was 52 days. It's no accident we recently started talking about fire year instead of fire season.
April of 2018 was the 400th straight month of above normal global temperatures compared to the 20th century average. That means the last average 20th century month was in 1984. Back then, I was in college, Reagan was president, and going to the movies would set you back $2.00 per ticket. As we know, our changing environment can not only drive fires, but floods, hurricanes, and a host of unimaginable crises that will demand a response.
Now, I'm no expert on the bureaucratic parts by any means, but there are some things going on in the wildland fire agencies that jump out at me. To begin with, I don't think the agency leadership and the elected/appointed people in DC have ever realistically confronted the fact that we have land management agencies 12 months out of the year and emergency response agencies 9-12 months out of the year, depending on events. There are bits and pieces at the margins and the fire-funding travesty has moved the Forest Service further along in thinking about this than the other agencies, but no government-wide multi-agency approach to the challenges of doing both regular work and response work has appeared. When it gets really tough, we muddle through and pretend it won't happen again next year. (But it does.) In the meantime, employees are run ragged having to respond to months of incidents, deal with the aftermath of major fires on their home units, and carrying out the regular workload as well.
Related to that is the failure to recognize and adequately address the increasing complexity of incident response in a country where the population is rising, climate change is marching, budgets are lagging, and the agency workforces are decreasing. This is evident in the increasing reluctance by federal managers to let qualified responders go on assignment. They have good reason, as in the performance evaluations, the regular work is much more important than the regional or national response work. Plus, the regular mission stakeholders, including elected officials at all levels, don't care that you support incidents regionally and nationally. They want results where you live and they want them right now. Besides, if you let people go on assignment, who is left in the office these days? Not many.
If we get to the point (assuming we haven't already) where the majority of managers keep their employees under wraps but still expect IMTs and resources to arrive when their units have trouble, we will fail miserably. As it is now, a smaller and smaller group carries the burden during PL 1-3 and are then expected to also show up at "high" PL 4 and 5 when the rest are reluctantly allowed to respond. It's not fair to put that on the backs of those diminishing few who are both able and have a supportive supervisor. In the last several years, I have seen folks with six or more assignments, which might total 12 or more weeks. It is also no longer an anomaly for Hot Shot crews to have more than 100 days in the field. By the time the smoke dissipates, everyone is bone tired. Their home life is suffering, their regular work is down the tubes, and when the season is officially over it may take them months to fully recuperate. (Not to mention hurricanes and other all-risk incidents.) But they went because there wasn't another person to fill their niche and without all those positions filled, the ability to respond is diminished and civilization suffers--literally. There has to be another way--a more holistic approach--to provide support to the firefighter, the single resource, and the IMT member while meeting the needs back at the office. We have to figure out how to square regular work and response work, even if it means taking a hard look at both. Then we have to figure out how to get it through a Congress that has been just fine with a diminishing workforce and allowing the rising expectations of emergency response that place the wildland fire agencies in these predicaments.
Speaking of firefighters, our personnel system for hiring and using firefighters is still based on what fire and the seasons were like in the middle of the 20th century. It is no longer sustainable. We need a new way forward that hires early and keeps more folks on full time. Today, extensions for temporary firefighters have to wind their way through the bureaucracy just to continue to fight fire in late August and September--and October and November. Fuels reduction work that could be done during the shoulder seasons is not being done because there are no people. Training that should be done during the heart of winter is delayed until everyone is officially hired in the spring, when fuels work and a host of other actions should be taking place. Getting people on board has turned into a nightmare with onerous personnel practices and security requirements.
If we had a permanent workforce of say, a 10-person crew at each district, park, and field office it will allow the agencies a chance to get more field work done that addresses the challenges of climate change and protects communities and infrastructure. It also provides stability for employees and the rural communities where they live and work. Ten full-time employees plus the family members they will bring would make a huge difference for local economies. Finally, it provides a well-trained and consistent force to apply to shoulder season and off-season all-risk incidents. Oh, and it relieves the burden of hiring so many seasonals every year. While it would mean an increase in funding, you can easily argue the benefits far outweigh the costs and in the grand scheme of things, it's budget dust.
That said, possibly the biggest argument for permanently employing firefighters--and therefore creating a basic year-round national emergency management workforce--is the simple fact that the wildland fire agencies hemorrhage future leadership at an astonishing rate. Enormous amounts of training and experience walk out the door every year because people can't make a go of it with seasonal employment, uncertain locations, and unstable living conditions. Is it surprising that many go to local or state agencies after being trained or just drop out of incident response and pursue other careers? And by the way, the fact that our federal wildland firefighters are not firefighters in the eyes of their government until they die on an incident or retire is criminal and needs to be fixed.
Again, these are complicated issues and there is no easy answer. There's probably not an approach without unintended outcomes and some pissed off people. Not to mention the money issues. Yet climate change requires a massive change of attitudes and expectations. We cannot ignore it and we must call attention to it when we have the opportunity, even if a solution is some time away. It is plain to see that where we are now is not where we need to be.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.