First Symposium on Policy Research


Keepers of the flame: The role and use of climate in national and regional fire policy

Timothy J. Brown, DRI, Reno, NV; and R. S. Pulwarty

Since 1910, the US Forest Service has developed and transformed policy for wildland fire suppression and management of federal lands utilizing prescribed fire and fire use. The fire management issues of today have evolved from 100 years of influence from three shaping factors - fire management practices, land use activities,and climate. All three have been on parallel but related paths. Some specific fire events have initiated or changed policy and hence management practices. Expectations have evolved from forests once being primarily an agricultural economic benefit, to now largely one of aesthetics and recreation, in the process creating the “wildland-urban interface”. New management strategies have evolved in attempts to address not only tradeoffs between social and biological benefits but competing ecological values. Wet and dry climate periods have changed fuel characteristics, but are also related to both management practices (e.g., response strategies during drought) and the West's dramatic population growth.

Despite climate's role as a management shaping factor, the utilization of climate information directly in decision-making or policy formulation has been virtually non-existent. In this presentation we argue that the benefits of climate information can be realized in both operational and constitutive or policy formulation settings. The role and use of fire has 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. 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.


Session 1, Policy Research in the Earth System Sciences
Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 8:30 AM-5:30 PM, A307

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