85th AMS Annual Meeting

Monday, 10 January 2005: 11:00 AM
Policy processes as users of science: The role and use of climate information in national and regional fire policy
Timothy J. Brown, Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada; and R. S. Pulwarty
During the 1900s as U.S. fire policy formally came into existence and evolved, climate drove large fires, and the large fires drove policy deeper and deeper into suppression as the most important strategy. There is little question that climate helped formulate this national policy, but it is unlikely that few, if any, were consciously aware of its role. The result has been that within United States (U.S.) fire management agencies, for example, weather (the day-to-day atmospheric conditions) is more frequently asked about than climate. Many opportunities to meet management objectives are missed because of seasonal climate anomalies, and none of the U.S. prescribed fire checklists explicitly include climate as a burn factor (it may be implied in fire danger). Some potential applications for climate information have been documented in operational settings. Specific examples occur within prescribed fire, fire use and other fuels treatments. In this presentation we argue that the benefits of climate information can be realized in both operational and constitutive or policy formulation settings. The reintroduction of fire to ecosystems and landscapes encompasses a variety of management objectives – hazardous fuels reduction, exotic species removal and overall ecosystem health. Increasingly the relationship between wildfire occurrences is recognized as mediated by development. The wildland-urban interface is more complex and extensive than usually acknowledged in many plans. The role and use of fire has also evolved into one of recognition of the value of fire in ecosystem processes and not simply one of “fire as hazard”. We review national and regional fire policy plans and identify the potential and practical role for climate information in improving the outcomes identified within these strategies. More precisely we document (1) Policy changes: What was learned between 1994-2000 about prevention, suppression and the role of climate (and do the budgets reflect these lessons?); (2) Climate-sensitive factors which drive up firefighting (suppression and mitigation) costs; (3) Federal/state policies and programs that might experience increased fire risks and severity if climate is not taken into account especially within present fire preparedness plans; (4) Reforms that have been proposed. Do these tackle critical factors? Lessons are drawn from recent major fires and fire hotspots in the western United States. We show that a risk assessment approach, which incorporates cross-scale climatic information including forecasts, can improve policy formulation and implementation in several areas. These include processes for identifying and developing:

1) Methodologies for measuring, evaluating and reporting fire management efficiency (includes, commodity and non-commodity and cultural values, costs and benefits). 2) Alternatives at the national, regional, and local needs (e.g. a single federal fire organization, contracts). 3) Long-range interagency wildland fire management objectives based on values to be protected across geographic and agency boundaries. 4) Input into interagency preparedness planning based on established wildland fire objectives including multiple scale interagency land management plans to facilitate adaptive management.

For many fire management programs, in the U.S. around the world, incorporating climate into the decision-making process may help to facilitate a shift in problem framing from emergency response to pro-active risk assessment and management.

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