Wildfire Evolution Forces US Forest Service into New Thinking
Jim Hubbard, Deputy Chief, US Forest Service, Retired. Photo: Tommy Martino
Jim Hubbard spent 11 years as Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation for the US Forest Service and 20 years as Colorado's State Forester. He's no stranger to the challenges facing land and fire management agencies. Speaking recently at the annual Mike and Mabelle Hardy Fire Management Lecture in Missoula, Montana, Hubbard discussed some of those challenges and the new thinking that is necessary now to address them. “We haven’t defined our performance-based outcomes yet,” Hubbard told the audience at the Lecture. That doesn’t mean picking a number of acres cleared of hazardous fuels or logged each year. It does mean setting out bigger goals for what risks are worth taking, whose interests are at stake, and what actions are even possible. That involves things as basic as having up-to-date maps showing where houses have been built, where old-growth tree stands remain and where forest activities are planned.
“We need to know what areas to protect, what places are less important,” Hubbard said. “If everything is wildland-urban interface, you can’t make suppression decisions. You need to hear from the community, the county commissioners, the sheriff. Because we don’t want to use unnecessary exposure (of firefighters) that won’t get the results we’re after.” Hubbard referenced “unplanned wildfire management.” That seemingly self-contradictory phrase is also known as "managed wildfire for resource benefit." If the conditions are right, district rangers can take advantage of the wildfire by deciding to monitor it, "herd" it around, and let it accomplish some resource goals. For example, if a low-intensity wildfire runs through an area slated for a hazardous-fuels reduction burn, that is one less project the district has to pay for.
Nobody wants to appear to gamble with public safety, even though Hubbard pointed out every time someone drives a car, they gamble on avoiding wrecks. Allowing more prescribed burns might mean days of smoke in a city’s airshed during the spring or fall. But it might also mean fewer months of smoke during the summer if those small burns lessen the risk of bigger wildfires.
“If we don’t manage unplanned wildfires, we can’t get ahead of land treatment,” Hubbard said. “You’re going to fight fire a little differently in the future. You have to have buy-in.”