Letting Fires Burn: Paper Policy and Public Opinion (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed institutional barriers and incentive structures that make it difficult to get fire on the ground in the form of managed wildfire or prescribed burning. I argued that these disincentives can work in a feedback loop with public opinions to keep the suppression-dominated status quo in place. Now it’s time to discuss public opinions: in a 2015 paper in Nature, North and colleagues argued that public support for fire management reform could help propel change. The argument is that public opinion will drive policy, and the implication is that good science and education can help shape public opinion.

Where do public opinions about fire come from, anyway? There’s a sense in much writing about fire that the natural state of things is for people to fear fire, and the idea of fire can be a positive natural process or a tool for ecosystem management is some kind of novelty.

But for the United States, this isn’t really true. Indigenous groups here and abroad have had long histories of using fire as a tool to shape the landscape, and many settlers picked up these techniques and supported what was then called ‘light burning’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fire wasn’t eliminated from many North American forests based on ‘public opinion’–it was eliminated by policies that made indigenous burning and ‘light burning’ illegal, and by the implementation of widespread fire suppression by the early Forest Service, a then-new organization looking for purpose (see Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn or the PBS documentary of the same name for a good history). The ‘public opinion’ that ‘fire is bad’ came top-down.

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Gifford Pinchot and the early Forest Service found their purpose in fire suppression. (Photo credit: USDA)

So the ‘fire is bad’ narrative wasn’t originally the default position. But when the fire community talks about changing public opinion today, it’s usually based on an assumption that people today think fire is bad and scary, and policy will change if only people learn that fire can be natural and good. The strategy is to continue to persuade people that prescribed burning and managed fire are good and total fire suppression is a mistake.

In order to make their case, fire researchers and educators like to point to scientific evidence that demonstrates the benefits of fire. For example, a recent article reported new results in wildfire research: a study in Yosemite found that forests that had had neither fire suppression nor prescribed fire over the past 40 years–just managed wildfire–were more resilient to fire. This was interesting, but not really a surprise. Researchers in the fire science community have been researching the effects of different fire regimes and fuel treatments for decades. What did surprise me was a quote from one of our author heroes of fire management reform, Scott Stephens, who said, “I think [the paper] has the potential to change the conversation about wildfire management.”

Does a single paper really have the potential to change the conversation? We’ve been making the same arguments since the 60s, yet so little has changed in terms of fire policy.

Talking about the benefits of fire might be a good strategy to get public support for forest fire reform. But does public support for reform in general matter, or does this just result in the same old paper policies of the kind that have been on the books for decades?

I’m starting to think that this isn’t the right strategy to make change happen, for two reasons. First of all, I’m no longer convinced that the general public desperately needs a lesson on the benefits of wildfire. Second, I’m skeptical that more evidence or education focused on the benefits of fire will lead to any kind of radical policy change.

In my (ongoing) research, I have asked hikers to describe their perceptions of wildfire in the United States. By far, the most frequent words that they use are “natural” and “necessary.” Many people think that public attitudes are a primary barrier to implementing prescribed fire; recent research suggests that this isn’t really true.

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Prescribed fire in Oregon. (Photo credit: BLM)

This lines up with what I have observed in casual conversations and on social media. Nearly every article on wildfire I read mentions the downsides of fire suppression and touts the benefits of planned or managed fire, whether or not it applies to the particular wildfires in question. There are even children’s picture books about fire ecology. 

I’m sure that there are still many people who associate wildland fire with destruction only. Most people don’t read the New York Times, attend ranger talks at National Parks, or have the advantage of attending a fire ecology field trip. My hikers might be a skewed sample–many live in a university town, and all have made the choice to spend a day out on the trail. But for many audiences–including policymakers and many residents of fire-prone landscapes–the message has stuck.

Here are some things that a large portion of the public will agree with:

  1. The United States has a wildfire problem that needs addressing.
  2. Wildfire can be a natural part of ecosystems, and fire suppression has contributed to (1), at least in some areas.
  3. Prescribed burning is a good tool for hazard reduction and ecosystem management.

Here are some things that most of the public (at least in the United States) will not agree with or acknowledge:

  1. Our default should be to stop suppressing wildfires, especially in beautiful natural areas such as National Parks.
  2. Smoke is to be expected in fire-prone areas, and I am willing to have smoky skies if it means mitigation of catastrophic fires in the future.
  3. It is primarily my responsibility to protect myself and my home during a fire.

Too much of changing public opinion is focused on things that the public already agrees with. We should keep doing research and keep talking to people about the costs and benefits of putting more fire on the ground, but this is not enough to drive major policy changes. If it were, we’d see more fire on the ground today, given the many papers and knowledgeable citizens already out there. Instead, I see endless Twitter posts from CalFIRE reporting that another 50 acre fire is already 90% contained (these fires are far, far more common than fires like the Soberanes Fire, which burned for months before reaching this level of containment). We’d hear more about fire managers than the hundreds of firefighters ‘battling’ fires.

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Typical report from CalFire: every fire is a battle.

Environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne has argued that the fire-friendly policies of the 60s and 70s became rare in practice due to a combination of the national politics of the 1980s and the 1988 Yellowstone Fires. Pro-fire rhetoric couldn’t stand up to the scale of the destruction of beloved vistas in Yellowstone. In addition, as time has passed, populations have grown in fire-prone regions, concerns about air quality have grown, and climate change has thrown a wrench into everything, simultaneously increasing urgency and uncertainty in fire management.

We accept the idea that something needs to change in fire management. We accept the idea of more fire on the ground, at least in theory. But when it comes time to put these ideas into action, in the places where we live and work and play, Americans don’t really want fire on the ground. It sounds great if it’s happening somewhere else. But if there’s a real chance that people and homes and places we love could be at risk, we still want firefighters to come put fires out as soon as possible. We believe in prescribed fire where it’s appropriate, but not when the smoke is going to keep us inside or block our views. Personal and political reasoning often trump science, and short term interests usually outweigh long term goals.

There’s a comparison to be made here to efforts to reach the public on climate change and evolution. Now, there aren’t really any ‘wildfire deniers’ that I know of, but in other respects they are similar situations. Many researchers in these fields assume that more research and more explaining the facts will lead to change, but there is evidence that this simply doesn’t translate into action. In all three cases–climate change, evolution, and wildfire–most people know the scientific argument perfectly well. Even climate or evolution skeptics can tell you what the scientists believe. But individual action or broad based policy change are shaped by more than science. 

What can we do to effect real change in wildfire policy? There’s no simple answer here, but I doubt that a single journal article will be a turning point. Neither will another news article about “fighting fire with fire.” If years of doing the same old thing has resulted in little change, we need to rethink our strategy. Instead of telling people that not all fires are scary, we should actually help people learn to live with fire on the ground, even when it scares us.

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