by Tony Schick
The West is in the midst of another intense fire season. Fires in California and Oregon have claimed lives and homes and burned up farmland.
As part of EarthFix’s ongoing series on wildfire, reporter Tony Schick spoke with interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen about what her agency is doing to reform fire management and reverse the fire problem.
Christiansen discussed her agency’s approach to wildfire management and what she’s doing to reduce the damage from wildfires in the future. Below are some of her responses on these issues, edited for length and clarity.
As EarthFix reported, the Forest Service still suppresses nearly all fires, decades after recognizing the danger in that practice. Wildland fire agencies currently spend millions fighting relatively low-risk fires that could actually help protect communities if allowed to burn a bigger footprint. Researchers within the Forest Service are trying to push wildland fire management toward more data-driven decisions that consider the long-term tradeoffs of fire suppression. Asked what she’s doing to implement that throughout the agency, Christiansen said she was trying to build more acumen for risk management and reset the agency’s thinking.
“We are successful at extinguishing 98 percent of all fires. But there’s 2 percent that, I call them hurricane fires. We don’t ask public safety officials to stop a hurricane. We ask them to get people out of harm’s way, to provide assistance to mitigate, create resilience, etc. Well that’s the situation we are in. But we are asking many of our responders to take aggressive action when there is zero probability of success.
“So our reset is about thinking about (the) probability of success, and just the first line — all fire is bad and we must stop it. Why are we exposing responders, not doing our work to get people out of harm’s way, spending all kinds of public funds, when the probability of success is zero to very low. That’s the first level of the reset.”