The Big Question: Can the U.S. Restrain Worsening Wildfires?

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve pressing policy challenges. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Romesh Ratnesar:  The American West is suffering through a devastating fire season. Wild fires have burned at least 6.7 million acres, displaced tens of thousands and claimed the lives of more than 30 people. As a 46-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service and former National Fire Chief, you’ve spent your career trying to address the growing threat of wildfires. Why has this fire season been so severe? And do you expect it’s going to get worse?

Tom Harbour, chief fire officer, Cornea, and former National Director of Fire and Aviation Management, U.S. Forest Service: I do expect it’s going to get worse. If we look back over the last 30 to 35 years, what we’re seeing is progressively worse fire seasons. The women and men in my profession have been saying to one another, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” The problem is, we’ve been saying that to ourselves now for over three decades. That’s likely an indicator both of a failure of imagination on our part and perhaps a failure to communicate the scope and the depth of the problems that we face.

RR: What’s causing these catastrophic wildfires? Should we blame climate change — or poor forest management, as President Donald Trump suggests?

TH: I’d say neither. It’s our failure to step back and think about the complexity of the problem and the lack of focus on some of the more available solutions. The questions we need to ask are, what really is our intent as a society? What’s the intent of not only our vegetation management policy, but some of the more fundamental societal issues about where we build and how we build? What should we do with this primeval force — fire — which is always going to be here? I think we tend to think that there is a solution, when in fact, we need a variety of solutions across these landscapes and in our society.

RR: Let’s focus on forest management. The federal government owns and manages 30% of the country’s forest lands. Why don’t we have a more effective national strategy to deal with the risks in these areas?

The Big Question: Can the U.S. Restrain Worsening Wildfires?

TH: Ecosytems are complex things. And these ecosystems are fragmented, by virtue of the various jurisdictions that landscapes obviously don’t recognize. So you have private lands, state lands, federal lands, all focused on specific kinds of objectives. We have a hard time with these ecosystems, where the cycle of life is measured in hundreds of years. It’s difficult for us to begin to understand, when we pull this lever or take this action, what will be the outcome of that action. Our attempts to characterize fire as a nuisance, as a bad thing, is just not what Mother Nature does. Fire is just fire. Federal policy has been modified, but most states still characterize fire as a bad thing. And that’s obviously because if you’re a small private landowner, you don’t want fire to adversely impact your investments. We need to think more about how to develop more resilient landscapes and what we do with fire, both in terms of prescribed fire and fire suppression.

RR: What can be done to make communities more resilient and limit the damage that these fires cause?

TH: We have codes that help buildings be fire resistant. We also know that very simple things, such as reducing the flammability of an individual property, near that property — taking particular care to try to make a home as safe as possible, within the first 50 feet, perhaps out to 200 feet — that’s something each individual property owner and homeowner can do immediately to impact the survivability of the structure. There are some things that are very simple, like doing a better job of managing and reducing vegetation around structures, and some things which are very complex. We want to continue to encourage local governments to have vibrancy, with something like 80% of private land in the West yet to be developed — but not blind ourselves to the fact that there certainly are places where firefighters take their lives in hand when they try to defend. 

RR: How did you get into the field of wild land firefighting?

TH: As an 18-year-old, being attracted to the outdoors, I was lucky enough to get into firefighting on the ground. I found that the people I worked with and the places I got to see were pretty fantastic. And the work had a great deal of satisfaction. It was physically challenging. It was emotionally alerting. I got hooked as an 18-year-old and spent 46 years in the U.S. Forest Service. 

I will tell you that in the time I served as a leader in the service, I attended far too many funerals. Somewhere around 10 to 20 wild land firefighters continue to die each year in the United States. Considering the small number of folks who do this work, the frequency at which they die is elevated from that of the typical firefighter, which in and of itself is a hazardous occupation. So I’ve become particularly focused on what we can try to do to help these women and men who as a public service decide that they’re going to deal with these wildfires.

RR: How have the risks that firefighters face grown over the last 50 years? Are there differences in the kinds of dangers that firefighters face today?

TH: It’s interesting, because the number of wildfires actually has not increased in total. What has increased is just the extraordinary fire behavior. As an example, in the early 1970s, I worked in northern Arizona. A large fire in northern Arizona back then was 200 or 300 acres. In 2011, when I was the National Fire Chief for the U.S. Forest Service, I went back to the same area and a big fire was now defined as a half a million acres. These fires also now move at rates that we didn’t used to see: seven or eight miles an hour in the timber, 15 miles an hour in the grass and lighter fuels. They move for longer periods of time. They are ferocious for a much longer time than what we saw in the past. And it’s not just the flora and fauna that we have to deal with anymore — these aren’t the kinds of back country fires that nobody takes notice of. When I first started, nobody knew about what we do. Now, the expectations are even higher on firefighters to be able to stop these events.

But they’re unstoppable. Firefighters face a whole variety of physical dangers, but they’re also dealing with their own expectations and the public’s expectations. We not only have firefighters dying in the line of duty in significant numbers, but we have firefighters who are taking their own lives in even greater numbers, because of the challenges associated with this worsening complexity.

RR: What can be done to ease or at least address some of those challenges for the firefighters themselves?

TH:  When we as a nation decide we want to “do something,” we tend to believe that we can simply bolster firefighting forces and work our way out of this problem. That’s simply not true. We’ve got to help these firefighters on the ground. Given this worsening complexity, we’ve got to improve decision-making skills faster than the chaos that’s enveloping these firefighters. In my work in the private sector, I see a glimpse of our ability to do this as we work with information and make it more usable and simpler to digest. We can better determine which of the huge number of data sets are important to help firefighters take a broader view of the work that they’re doing. Our profession should reach out to some of the folks who have this ability to take large amounts of data to allow us to prepare firefighters to be more cognizant of their environment, of the particular courses of action that they may take and of the risks associated with those courses of actions. I think there are solutions to help firefighters by allowing them time to face situations in simulation that they’ve never faced before. After 35 years of saying, “We’ve never seen that kind of thing before” we’re at a point where we know we have to think about scenarios where we can say, “Maybe that’s never happened before, but when it does happen, let’s be prepared.”   

RR: Are there other technologies that can help?

TH: Yes. We’re seeing advances in unmanned aerial systems, for instance. We’ve seen the importance of individual data sets that give firefighters a better sense of where the snags are, or where there’s really tough ground to build fire lines. I’m confident that in the years ahead, we’ll make much more use of aircraft at night. I’m very hopeful for significant progress, [but] it’s going to continue to be a very difficult next few years with the wildfire situation in the U.S. and around the world. Wherever you’ve got flammable vegetation and people, you’ve got a problem.

RR: So what’s the bottom line? How can policy makers and citizens manage the growing dangers that wildfires pose to people, property and the environment? 

TH: Our approach needs to be anchored in three tenets: resilient landscapes, fire-adapted communities that recognize the need to live with fire, and a focus on safe and effective response for firefighters. In that last context, we need to encourage greater imagination and greater use of technologies that will allow us to prepare for the disasters that will be coming. It’s not if  they will happen. It’s when they’ll happen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Romesh Ratnesar writes editorials on education, economic opportunity and work for Bloomberg Opinion. He was deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and an editor and foreign correspondent for Time. He has served in the State Department, and is author of “Tear Down This Wall.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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