Midpoint Reflections

January 15th, 2020 report

This year has shown that there is not a terrestrial ecosystem in the world that can escape fire. Since beginning this ambiguous journey six months ago, wildfires have ravaged at all latitudes and without requisites for ecotypes. Biomes that have been starved of fire, such as Boreal forests of Siberia and Canada, were met with excessive waves of fire, and those that evolved without the presence of fire, in the tropical zones of Amazonia and Indonesia, experienced an overwhelming threat from flames.  Again my home landscape in the southern California chaparral underwent its annual cycle of self-combustion and pandemonium, only this time I had to observe it from across an ocean. At this moment, the world watches in disbelief as Australia, renowned for its wildfire knowledge and capacity, is exhausted and battered by its pre-season conflagration overload. The globe on fire in the past six months has solicited many sentiments and each new report of a country under wildfire distress further exacerbates my passion to understand. In the light of further trespasses against our landscapes and our planet, these volatile symptoms will only grow.

During this quarter, I discovered many lessons and experiences while traversing Europe’s Mediterranean region, primarily in Portugal, Catalonia, and briefly Greece. My travels in this world within a world yielded conversations and lessons rooted in loss, but with underlying strength of character to raise their own resiliency and exchange their knowledge with those entering unknown territory. Southern Europe has experienced significant losses of life and property in the past two years, with  rising trends apparent over the past several decades; a corresponding relationship with the depletion of economic value of Mediterranean forests and subsequent human migrations away from rural areas towards urban centers. The result is a loss of stewardship that had maintained a fragile balance of human, land, and fire for centuries. Evolved around the influence of intensive grazing, agriculture, and land-use, its sudden removal has driven the overgrowth of forests in which fire now reigns. The countries of southern Europe are engaged in a struggle that stems from their relationship to their land and are in the midst of developing new approaches and strategies to remediate their discrepancies.  From the ashes of the damage, innovative champions, conversations, and action are stepping forward to forge a new course of reconciliation with wildfire.

In contrast, nations in northern Europe have recently been exposed to a daunting glimpse into their future of fire. Climate change and other environmental factors have introduced countries such as Wales, Sweden, England, Germany, and the Netherlands to more aggressive fire behavior than previously prepared for. Out of instinctual fear, many are beginning to fall for the “firefighting trap” of investing in response capabilities instead of recognizing the deeper mechanisms at play. Those that are focused on procuring more airplanes and fire trucks, instead of recognition that our landscapes and atmosphere are need of holistic management and care. However, there are rational voices calling for reexaminations, to learn from one another and exchange experiences, to be proactive and practice ecological intelligence. During my travels in Europe this quarter, I was able to meet both the voices calling for answers, and those that are willing to share the lessons that have been learnt at great costs.

As a firefighter, the importance of experiences and compiling an internal database of “lessons learned” has been instilled with me since the beginning. There is a reason that when firefighters introduce themselves to one another, they typically follow their names up with the number of years that they have been “in fire”. The significance of experience is not lost on me, and while I may not be the strictest adherent to this ideology in regard to environmental management, it has been a goal of mine to extract as much knowledge and insights from my experiences. Whether it be good, bad, complex, or basic lessons; concepts ranging from recognizing a disruptive yearning to always be exploring the next opportunity before the current one is finished, or simply leaving time for digestion is a crucial part of living. In many ways, I am trying my best to embody a philosophy of “winning or learning, never losing”.  A crucial, but supportive mindset that allows me to fail constantly as I try to understand the intricacies of solo international travel, professional networking, and the global conversation on fire. Needless to say, I learn every day.

One of the most crucial learning curves brought on during this lengthy, learning exploration has been the sudden thrust into wildfire professionalism. In the year lead up to my first flight from LAX, I had envisioned that my primary obstacle would be the accessibility of international and acclaimed researchers, environmental leaders, and even firefighters. This expectation has not been realized as even a poor explanation of a TJW fellowship is enough to solicit interest from almost anyone, however this in turn raises the expectations of the solicited for the solicitor. Operating and performing at the professional level has been one of my chief challenges and sources of internal uncertainty. In reflection, it is true that there have been positive indicators along the way: a European TV interview, an invitation to present a keynote address, and referrals to particular PhD programs here or there. However, these metrics provide little lasting support to the perception that I am engaging at a level that far exceeds my capacity. My positionality of having a triple perspective of fire as a survivor, firefighter, and researcher is a compelling story and fuels my own passion, but offers little substance at a higher professional level. Fast tracking my knowledge of wildfire and environmental governance from its lowly level of dirtbag firefighter to a level acceptable for international professionals has proven to my greatest hurdle.

The desire to remediate the human relationship with its environment allows me to continue placing myself in uncomfortable situations despite the unexpected challenges. It is becoming increasingly clear that the escalation of devastating wildfires is a symptom of the human inability to envision themselves as integrated members of ecology. The human perception of being a species removed from nature, but deeply involved in its management, is a flawed form of self-deception that is prohibiting the holistic vision of human and nature interconnectedness. The trend of wildfire complexities is occurring because the disruption of two relationships at differing orders of magnitude, the landscape and global scales, but stems from one troublesome pattern of thinking. In the wake of significant this year’s wildfire events, political and social debates occurred about the role of climate change versus improper land management practices. Brazil, Indonesia, California, and currently, Australia have all engaged in these heated political debates. The reality is that both sides are correct; human engagements with the landscape combined with the manipulation of the climate drive natural hazard, and it is erroneous to differentiate these impacts of our modern world.  The nature of the TJW often incites questions about my future, and while I am unaware of the profession  I seek even exists at this time, it is my belief that the development of humanity’s ecological intelligence is at its core.

The Recovery Process

Standing on a charred hill in the Catalonian countryside, the color of our t-shirts contrasted strongly with the blackened landscape that we were there to discuss and come to understand. Crowded around a cork board held by rotating members of the group, diagrams of fire behavior were shown to help us visualize the spread of the fire that consumed and chewed through the Portuguese oaks and Aleppo pines that were now almost unidentifiable. Maps and tactics were presented for us to conceptualize where the firefighters had attempted to conduct burn outs on the run, some successful and others not so. At the bottom of the valley was the only color visible beside the blue of the sky and our clothing, where a green olive grove stood alone. Once the valley had been filled with them, only to be abandoned and replaced by the oaks and pines, and which had now transformed into dark skeletons. Those in the group spoke of how the ecosystem around us may be shifting to an unknown equilibrium.

The disaster management process can essentially be broken down into 4 (or 5) key principles. The Sendai Framework, created by the U.N in 2015, is intended to provide governance systems the overarching process to prepare, handle, and recovery after significant disaster events. It includes four primary “Priorities for Action” for disaster risk reduction: 1) Understanding disaster risk, 2) Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk, 3) Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience, and 4) Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. The realization of these priorities are based upon the proper and diligent collection and distribution of information, integration and exchange of multiple types of local, or indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge, the maintenance of cross-disciplinary relationships and communication, and then the application and constant re-evaluation of plan-to-practice. The Sendai Framework is the U.N’s 10,000 foot view of how governments should orient themselves to address natural hazard and it offers generalizations for best practices and functions.

In application to wildfire disaster risk management, the Sendai Framework has been converted into the 5 R’s of Integrated Fire Management. These include: Review, Risk Reduction, Readiness, Response, and Recovery. These R’s include every single tool that can be utilized to reduce the risk of significant social and ecological damage from wildfire. Review refers to the collection of information that may be pertinent to understanding wildfire risk, such as an area’s fire history, agricultural practices, cultural histories, ecology, topography, etc, etc. Risk reduction encompasses all things related to wildfire prevention and mitigation, so things such as prescribed burning, community education, wildfire management plans, fuels management, and so on. Readiness and Response entail the recruitment, training, and subsequent deployment of firefighting resources to deal with an incident. Recovery pertains to the ecological and social remediation procedures that follow high severity wildfires to reduce the lasting negative impacts and improve the governance system for the future. Currently, Readiness and Response dominant the entire process and consume almost all of the funding allocated as firefighting operations are the primary form of handling wildfires; there are little steps taken before and after an incident. During a conference I attended in Madrid, Peter Moore from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) described the 5 R’s and how prioritization of the R’s must shift so that governments are less reliant on Readiness and Response and increase financial and human resources to planning and remediation steps.

Photo from Madrid conference (Resilient Landscapes to face Catastrophic Wildfires). Pictured are the former PM’s of Spain (Felipe Gonzalez) and Finland (Esko Aho) discussing the importance of strong rural economies to manage forests and wildfires.

During the last few days of my time in Europe, I made a pitstop in Wales for the England and Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF) as well as a one-day workshop put on by the European Forestry Institute (EFI). The Sustaining and Enhancing Resilience of European Forests (SURE) workshop was devoted to Integrated Fire Management (IFM) and the steps devoted to prevention, readiness, response, and recovery (the review portion did not receive its own designation). Four big bulletin boards were set up to represent each step, and within each board there were three sections devoted to actions at three levels: Forest/Stand, Enterprise, and Society/Policy. These levels were meant to establish the increasing realms that ideas and actions occur within. The workshop centred on identifying various challenges, existing tools, and novel concepts that can be used at the various IFM stages and at the different realms. Take an idea such a simple idea like FireWise (creation of defensible spaces around homes and structures) and it would get written on a post card and slapped on the “prevention” bulletin board within the “society” section. Within the workshop there were representatives from all over Europe, U.S, and South Africa, so we filled the boards rather rapidly. Here is a photo:

Wildfires leave lasting memories that may persist far longer than their impressions on the landscapes. Their effects on communal and individual psyches can remain for a lifetime of anyone that has experienced serious loss or traumatic stress. These communities and individuals are often left with little outlets for their numerous questions. Sometimes they can turn into anger and accusations that further erode relationships and undermine trust. Largely blame will be directed towards public institutions; the very organizations that are tasked with preventing and addressing the risk when it inevitably returns. In Catalonia, maintaining accountability and transparency were priorities for the fire management organization – GRAF – and in the aftermath of the Ribera D’Ebre fire, firefighters, civic leaders, and researchers came together to explain to the public what had happened, why it occurred, and various approaches to remediate the threat’s return.

An event that included lectures and field visits was held to systematically walk through the events leading up to the fire, the firefighting operations and decisions that were made, and the societal mechanisms that are driving wildfire trends. It began with a technical explanation of the specific weather and fuel conditions that occurred on July 26th, 2019 and the influences that would drive the fire for five days to a final size of 4000 ha. A fire behaviour analyst would describe in great detail the topographic and weather features that pertain to fire in the area, and express the expectation that these conditions will occur in years to come. Next, the incident commander (also the fire behaviour analyst) outlined the initial tactics and decisions that were made to curtail the fire in a specific direction, and subsequently limit the fire’s final size and impact. The attending public were shown fire modelling maps that reflected previous fires, the fires actual size and the potential spread models that could have occurred with different decisions, and the prospective fuel break the now burned area offered the region. The new perimeter disrupted fuel continuity and offers potential relief for the next 15-20 years. Lastly, the town’s mayor spoke to describe the impact the incident had had on the community and called for support to continue efforts to boost resiliency for both the forest and rural area.

Photo of an abandoned home in the Catalonian countryside, less than 10km from my apartment. Rural areas are filled with these dilapidated structures, and the unmanaged land becomes overgrown. There are little efforts to track down the individuals or families that still hold the deeds.

Next, we went to the field to survey the burned area and give the necessary context. Everyone, approximately 70 people in total, loaded up in vehicles and we caravanned out to the site of the fire. We drove to several locations where the IC described where various tactics had been made and why. It offered an on-the-ground perspective for people to conceive different decisions, and the prospective fuel break the now burned area offered the region. The new perimeter disrupted fuel continuity and offers potential relief for of the operational and logistical challenges of directing the fire. In addition to hearing about the firefighting strategy, researchers from forestry research institutions described ongoing studies to understand various social and ecological mechanisms that are making the landscape more susceptible to future fire.

The big topic, as in all of southern Europe, is the impacts of rural depopulation and human migration to urban settings. In a brief summary, the Mediterranean region is experiencing greater fire severities and shorter frequencies due to the fact that there is less human activity, interaction, and management with the landscape. No longer is the countryside full of farmers, ranchers, and their practices, as many have moved to metropolitan centres due to depleted economic viability in rural areas. The result is significant, continuous fuel accumulation that has no one to manage it. This allows fires to grow bigger and stronger, with eventual detrimental impacts. The loss of a land-use mosaic leads in an unmanaged landscape in which fire roams unbounded.

In the middle of the charred landscape, members of the community were asking deep, probing questions and exchanging rapidly digressing debates about how to best curb future wildfire potentials. The conversation orbited the premise of increasing resiliency – both socially and ecologically – to increasing fire. For about two hours, in the Spanish sun, we discussed various forest management practices and objectives that should be utilized to reduce fuel loads and fire intensities, and how to increase the economic value of Mediterranean forests so that there are greater incentives to manage the risk. Ideas like increasing the amount of land dedicated to vineyards and olive groves, and market preferences for local timber and fuel-grazing livestock. Selectively buying local products was a proposed solution to restore a semblance of rural land-use economic activity. Community members also hotly debated the topics around public forests, private utilities, who pays for prevention and who benefits – concepts reminiscent of the debates being held in California.

Ultimately the recovery process following a disaster, such as a wildfire, offers a crucial and often overlooked step in resolving our human connection with the environment that surrounds us. What happened? Why did it happen? What can do we do in the future to change the course of these events? “Never waste a good disaster”, a quote from the Madrid conference, may be a coarse ideology but the reality of our world is that natural hazard is rising and it is imperative that we apply the lessons from every tragedy to change our course. Action must be quick, windows for action are short. In the case of wildfires, action must entail the sponsorship of research to understand lasting ecological, hydrological, and atmospheric impacts of mega-fires, and we must construct new platforms to channel emotional experiences into meaningful policies. At the end of the SURE workshop, I proposed a new tool, an Impacted Communities Support Network, intended to compile survivor experiences, aid those navigating the exhausting recovery process, and to create a political voice for wildfire governance growth.

Teaching primary school children about land management, the firefighting “trap”, and the future of wildfires with Pau Costa Foundation

European Approach

Wildfires spawn fear in humans. The impetus for massive amounts of funding devoted to wildfire aircraft, fire engines, and other technologies is the deep internal sentiment that we are helpless in the face of such force. In the last few decades, society has made its feelings known about wildfire and did its best to do away with it. How vengeful the outcome has been! As wildfire paradigms continue to shift, more and more countries are exposed to the environmental-inferno phenomena and their fear is palpable. This is the case in northern European nations – Norway, Sweden, Finland, UK, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, France, and others, who out of concern for increasing wildfire exposures are tittering towards the “firefighter trap”. The “trap” entails a perception that more firefighting technology and resources will solve the long-term wildfire issue, when in reality it is a short term solution that increases further risks and costs. Does this not fly in the face of everything we have learned about fires? Since our elementary days we have been institutionalized to think that fires belong solely to fire departments, and in the event of kitchen fires, this fact remains. But as the human relationship with the planet continues to challenge our environments resistance to change, landscape level fires escape the capacity of the red trucks and the men and women in yellow turnouts. The northern European countries fear the eventual “megafires” and their response mirrors the erroneous decisions made by other before

Resource expenditures for wildland fire near Cardiff, Wales

The story is quite different in southern Europe, whom has been dealing with fire challenges for decades (in reality much longer, but in the modern sense pertaining to rural depopulation of the 20th century) and has compiled abundant research, culture, structure, and lessons learned. One Incident Commander from Catalonia identified the “lack of knowledge in the north leads to fear, which leads to resource expenditures, and everyone falls in the trap”. She went on to point out that no one in the south of Europe is prepared for the speed and intensity that wildfires will continue to gain, but they have deduced that further reliance on firefighting will only exacerbate the cost.

The south of Europe has a long history with fire, and recently the relationship has been a painful one. In 2017, the world observed some of the fastest and most intense wildfires sweep across Portugal in two separate incidents, as they claimed over 100 lives and decimated local economies and ecosystems. In one day, aligned with unstable atmospheric conditions and the end of agriculture burn bans, over 500 separate fires began and completely overwhelmed Portuguese firefighting capacities. The following year, Greece experienced its horrible tragedy in Mati, when in less than two hours, a fire began and levelled an entire village taking with it a significant portion of the population. The wounds of loss are real, burns on the landscape may become overgrown but the memories are seared. This was clear during my visits to both of these towns. In some areas of the region, nothing has been done and the tragedies will continue as the fuel returns with great fervour and homes are rebuilt as they were before. In others, innovative and advanced approaches are being made

The remnants of a church at a burned out summer camp in Mati, Greece

In Portugal, the creation of the Agency for Integrated Management of Rural Fire (AGIF) provides one of the most innovative attempts to streamline wildfire proficiencies in an expedited manner.  AGIF was formed following the fatal wildfire season of 2017 after the inability of local firefighting organizations to coordinate and respond in a unified approach, as well as the lack of awareness of the public to their risk exposure to fire. The Integrated Management aspect of the agency is a cutting edge approach as it seeks to engage the wildfire issue in multiple fronts, throughout all levels of governance. It is an organization dedicated to operations coordination, public engagement, policy implementation, prescribed burn advancement, and wildfire research development. Under the direct control of the President, the agency is set up for bureaucratic expediency and aims to efficiently coordinate all efforts pertaining to wildfire throughout the country. This is a unique concept that may prove to be a model, or at least model qualities, for other nations to look to as an alternative to increasing firefighting resource expenditures.

Meeting with Carlos from Mafra Civil Protection and Antonio from AGIF

The story in Catalonia is a similar one, through trial-and-error and experiential learning, innovative ideologies and approaches to wildfires are starting to grow. Both heavily influenced by the mind of Marc Castellnou, the Pau Costa Foundation and the GRAF teams of the Catalonian Bombers (state-level firefighting organization). Pau Costa Foundation is an organization formed out of tragedy and is named after one of several GRAF firefighters lost in a burnover incident in 2009. The PCF serves as a knowledge exchange hub for topics pertaining to wildfire and crisis management, and fire ecology. In a sector that often gripes about the widening gap between researchers and practitioners, PCF has erected bridges throughout Europe and even globally. Driven by many energetic, young researchers and professionals, PCF is essentially the start-up of the wildfire world and are helping to strategically advance and distribute wildfire knowledge. On the operations arm, GRAF teams encompass a specialized wildland fire section of the civil fire protection services. By making the job of fighting forest fires a responsibility of the civil protection unit, budgets for land management are free from the exhaustive burden that is crippling the US Forest Service

GRAF members speaking with shepherds and other members of the public

As climate change alters the course of humanity and the dynamics of our landscapes, more countries will become susceptible to the societal damages of wildfires. The writing is on the wall, and there are many that have seen it and the fear is palpable. The E.U., influenced largely by northern European nations, has increased resource allocations for wildfire operations and reinforced rhetoric surrounding the “firefighter trap”. However, there are those in the north that are calling for introspection and to evade the pitfalls experienced by other countries before them. On a quick week trip to Cardiff for a conference and workshop, I was fortunate to meet the knowledge, philosophies, and methods to advance proactive and integrated approaches.

During the English and Welsh Wildfire Forum (EWWF) and EFI SURE Workshop on IFM, my understanding of European fire management grew by leaps and bounds. The week included many conversations and presentations that seek to build out and forwards, from participants from England, Wales, France, Serbia, Poland, Germany, South Africa, Spain, the U.S, and Australia. The topics ranged from a diverse spectrum of topics including: Marc Castellnou’s philosophical call for a redefinition of how we view wildfires (one based upon total energy released and with our future landscapes in mind; potentially an entire blog post on its own), new decision-support tools for improving evacuations (PERIL) and WUI risk assessment, lessons on understanding the relationship of plants and fire, research results of post fire water quality, community-based initiatives to improve post-fire ecosystems, insights from wildfire insurance and recovery experiences, and others. Every night, I went to sleep with a heavy brain (possibly influenced by conference-social beers). It was as if I spent the entire week studying for an intense exam, and I guess this could be called, “learning”.

Possibly one of my favorite photos from the year - it shows Marc Castellnou of Catalonia’s GRAF teaching Fire Rescue personnel from Norway about fire behavior and tactics. Amazing opportunity to witness north - south knowledge exchange in action.

Using Format