Friday, February 08, 2008

FUSEE Airs Out AMR Policy Debate at AFE Fire Conference

The Association for Fire Ecology’s annual regional conference just concluded. It’s conference on “Fire in the Southwest: Integrating Fire into Management of Changing Ecosystems” brought together over 350 fire scientists, managers, and other interested persons to share the latest research findings and scientific knowledge of wildland fire. Over 125 oral presentations and 60 poster displays were offered, and Leon Neueschwander, emeritus professor from the University of Idaho’s excellent fire science program, was presented with AFE’s lifetime achievement award.

FUSEE members were out in force at the conference. We had our poster display and literature table strategically placed next to the bar where we recruited several new members and made lots of great new contacts. FUSEE’s executive director, Dr. Timothy Ingalsbee, gave an oral presentation on the concept of Appropriate Management Response. His talk was titled, “Begging the Question: Appropriate Management Response as a Toolbox vs. Tautology: Integrating Safety, Ethical, and Ecological Sideboards into AMR.”

Here is the abstract for his talk:

The Appropriate Management Response (AMR) to wildland fires is a core concept integral to implementing the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy. AMR expands the strategic and tactical options for fire managers so they can choose from a full spectrum of potential actions--everything from aerial monitoring to aggressive suppression can be used to manage wildland fires. Moreover, all of these tactics can be combined on the same incident, and can change according to the time, place, and conditions of a fire. In short, any action taken on a wildland fire could be AMR.

The AMR concept provides managers with maximum flexibility and discretion, offering new opportunities to improve firefighter safety, control costs, and reduce the environmental impacts of traditional wildfire suppression responses. However, AMR as currently articulated suffers from a kind of circular reasoning: the AMR is any response that managers deem appropriate. As such, AMR could make tactical decision-making more complex for managers, and their actions less accountable to the public.

Much confusion about AMR currently exists within the fire management community: Is it an alternative, “kinder, gentler” form of fire suppression? Does it include or will it eliminate Wildland Fire Use? Does it require revising Forest Plans and Fire Management Plans? Is there no such a thing as an inappropriate management response? This paper will wade through some of the conceptual confusion over AMR, and advocate the need for rigorous pre-planning and predetermined “sideboards” to help ensure appropriately safe, ethical, ecological responses to wildland fire.

Immediately following his formal presentation a gap in the speaker schedule allowed a free-flowing 20 minute discussion among members of the audience. From this fascinating discussion, it seems clear that AMR policy is partly being driven from the “top-down” by progressive policymakers working primarily at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), and partly from the “bottom-up” by progressive managers working in regions like the Northern Rockies who have been applying innovative tactics in the field to manage the recent “megafires.” In the huge void between the progressive policymakers at the top and the managers in the field, there is plenty of confusion over the concept of AMR—not helped by contradictory and occasionally incorrect language about AMR coming from the Washington Office of the U.S. Forest Service.

Among many fascinating discussions we had with folks in the hallways at the AFE conference, we learned from informed sources that the AMR policy is going to be finalized and approved in a matter of weeks so that it is in place for the coming wildfire season in the West. We had originally believed that the policy would not come on-line until next year, after the next Administration has taken office, and after the integrated Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) was in place.

Follow-up discussions with members of the AMR Task Group (a small group of folks working on the AMR policy—more on that later!) confirmed that the policy will be put in place very soon. Then, everything from the documentation forms (e.g. the ICS-209s) to agency Handbooks and Manuals to firefighter training curriculum will undergo changes to reflect the new policy. Some policies will be approved within the next few months (e.g. all wildland fires will receive the Appropriate Management Response), while other policies will be rolled out over the next three years (e.g. managing human-caused fires for resource benefits).

It seems clear that the new AMR policy will certainly be approved, although until the last day that the Bush Administration is in office one can never be clear or certain about much. The new AMR policy has the potential to revolutionize the way we think about and manage wildland fire—just as the letter and spirit of the Federal Wildland Fire Policy envisioned. The Bush Administration’s Orwellian “Implementation Strategy” in 2003 functioned as another Presidential “signing statement” that negated implementation of the Federal Wildland Fire Policy, and neutered the Fire Policy’s concept of AMR. This raises the question, why the sudden turnaround in the Administration’s attitude toward AMR?

From our best guess, it seems that the Bush Administration is supportive of the AMR concept because it conforms to their notion of the “Unitary Executive” whereby top officials can do just about any damn thing they want without any legal constraint, public disclosure, or public accountability. Indeed, managers in the field will have immense discretionary power, courtesy of the new AMR policy, to do great good or great harm to the land in the operational strategies and tactics they choose to make. Once the AMR policy is finalized on paper, the struggle will just begin over how it will be applied on-the-ground, and that is going to require a massive cultural change not only within the fire management community, but in society at large.

After much debate and ongoing discussion within FUSEE, we have decided to weigh in and support the emerging AMR policy based on our hopes rather than fears. We are confident that, at least among our members working in the field, they will be able to do great things managing fire to protect communities and restore ecosystems, and reduce the risks, costs, and impacts of traditional suppression actions. But the coming changes with AMR policy must be discussed and debated among the whole fire management community—as soon as possible. In order to foster this wider discussion and debate, FUSEE is creating a new category in the “Current Issues” section of our website where we will post documents and essays on AMR. Feel free to send us responses, documents, information, and your own personal stories to info@fusee.org

Our biggest impression from talking with folks at the AFE conference is that the “Change” mandate that is driving all the Presidential campaigns from both parties is also inspiring federal fire management workers. After seven long years of the Bush Administration’s regressive policies, suppression of scientists, and utter contempt for the federal workforce, you could feel a new hope rippling through the folks at the AFE conference. We're going to need some hope dealing with all the immense challenges facing fire managers as climate change, urban sprawl, invasive weeds, shrinking budgets and workforce combine to set conditions for the "perfect firestorm" in the years ahead.