Guiding Principles for “More Fire on the Landscape”

As wildfires have gained prominent media attention through significant celebrity fires, there has become increasing awareness that other steps to remediation may be necessary. The historic practices of wildfire management have created a multitude of complications that have exacerbated incident complexities, which are now being compounded by climate change. The dominant narrative in wildfire agencies, and in some sectors of the public, is to get “more fire on the landscape”. This term is dominant within the U.S and Canada, but its application is tangled and confusing. Who is responsible for putting fire on the landscape? How is it be put there? Who accepts the risks? After speaking with numerous specialists on the matter, I certainly don’t have an coherent answer, but here are some of the principles that have been made clear:

1. Prescribed burning is a tool, not an objective. Active ignition is a practice that can help achieve goals such as risk reduction and ecological gain, and these are the paramount goals that must be achieved with or without burning. If prescribed burning doesn’t contribute towards these goals, other tools should be considered.

2. To reduce risk, some degree of risk must be initially accepted. Whether prescribed burning or modified response are selected, agencies as well as the public must accept that fire will exist in their landscape at some point and its presence always carries unpredictable outcomes. By accepting risk posed by a prescribed or managed fire, there may be significant reductions in the possibility of an uncontrolled, unpredictable event. By tolerating risk, we may gain greater control over the volatility of our environment. 

3. Right time, right place, right fire. When engaging in a prescribed burn, it is imperative to understand the ecological processes that are supported by different burns. History must be accounted for, as well as recognition that landscapes and climates have shifted. Decisions should be data-based to ensure proper application of fire.

4. Burn to learn, learn to burn better. Knowledge surrounding burning has dissipated due to fire exlusion narratives. Those that possessed expertise on designing and burning cutblocks, broadcast landscape burns, and fire effects have been unable to pass their information on. As a result, the knowledge that does exist is highly concentrated. Taking steps forward may require an acceptance that application will enhance and spread with practice.

5. Identify more areas where fire is accepted. This connects back to risk acceptance as larger areas for where fire may exist are an essential component to matching historical fire regimes. Updating wildfire management plans may be a crucial aspect of this as quick identification and assessment allows for decisions to be made with a long-term vision. Additionally, years of reduced resource expenditure and favorable climate (such as 2019) allow for opportunities to allow fire to exist while maintaining higher degree of control. We must take advantage of these years and have the plans in place to accommodate them.

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