Forest Service fire management and the elusiveness of change

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Background: There is broad recognition that fire management in the United States must fundamentally change and depart from practices that have led to an over-emphasis on suppression and limited the presence of fire in forested ecosystems. In this paper, we look at competing problem definitions in US Forest Service policy for fire management, the presence of goal ambiguity, and how these factors can explain why changes in fire management have been elusive, despite policy change. We consider US Forest Service fire policies, performance incentives, and decision-making processes for two sides of the agency: the National Forest System, which is responsible for land management on the national forests, and Fire and Aviation Management, which oversees response to wildland fire. Findings and conclusions: We find that both sides of the agency acknowledge a complex problem definition for fire—one that recognizes fire as a natural ecological process, and also as a threat to personnel, communities, and natural resources. However, we raise the question of whether the agency is adequately addressing competing problem definitions in fire policy, particularly given its largely separated structure between land and fire management. We suggest that, in the face of goal ambiguity, factors such as performance measurement, a preference for minimizing short-term risk, and professional expertise drive decisions that perpetuate the status quo. Opportunities exist to bridge more effectively across land and fire management and reduce incentives to focus on short-term risks during fire events. These include creating a meta-frame for fire management, improving performance measurement, supporting greater integration of fire and land management planning, increasing transparency and collaboration, and arming agency personnel with the core competencies needed to effectively tackle the complex problem of fire management.




Schultz, C. A., Thompson, M. P., & McCaffrey, S. M. (2019). Forest Service fire management and the elusiveness of change. Fire Ecology, 15(1).

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