Managing Risk

For this week’s blog post I listened to Remembering the Yellowstone Fires, a radio segment produced by NPR in 2008; and watched 2 videos – Cohesive Strategy Stakeholder’s Perspectives, produced by the US Forest Service and the WFSTAR training video that recounted the South Canyon Fire Tragedy of 1994.  After listening to and viewing all of these programs, I thought a statement made by a Forest Service partner in the Cohesive Strategy segment touched on a central theme apparent in all of them.  He said that we as a society must manage the short-term risks to the safety of our communities and firefighters, while we manage the long-term risks presented by wildland fire.  The long-term risks, of course, being the damage and death caused by catastrophic “mega-fires” if forests are left untreated.

The story of the Yellowstone Fires represented the short term risks associated with a new fire use policy adopted by the National Park Service in 1972.  In 1988, Federal land managers allowed small lightning fires to burn – thus managing them for resource benefit.  This allowed fire back into the ecosystem after nearly 100 years of exclusion.  They knew that a resilient forest adapted to frequent, low intensity fires would present a lower risk of large, destructive wildfires in the future.  Unfortunately, due poor public understanding and slanted media coverage, the risk they took resulted in public outrage and negative impacts to fire management policy for years to come.

The Cohesive Strategy video discussed the FLAME Act of 2009 and the “Cohesive Strategy” policy that focused on short term risks of engaging firefighters and other community members to reduce fuel loading in order to reduce the long term risk of catastrophic wildland fire.  As described by a Forest Service partner in the video, the Cohesive Strategy represents a paradigm shift in the way that agencies engage with partners in order to tackle the forest health problems.  It allows for transparency and teamwork in land management decision-making in the hopes of preventing public mistrust of forest managers, as seen during the Yellowstone Fires. 

The WFSTAR video recounted the tragedy of the South Canyon Fire where 14 firefighters died.   The video was a stark reminder of the long-term risk of a continued aggressive fire suppression policy.  If land managers are able to develop and implement a fire policy that can bring our forests and wildlands back into a healthy condition, perhaps less lives will be lost while engaging in firefighting activities.  

Forest Service. (2018, January 23). Cohesive Strategy Stakeholders Perspectives.[Video file] Retrieved April 10, 2020, from

NPR.  Remembering the 1988 Yellowstone Fires.  [Audio File] Retrieved April 10, 2020, from

National Interagency Fire Center. (April 23, 2014).  2014 WFSTAR: Pt 1, 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain. Retrieved April 10, 2020 from , from


A Shift in Fire Policy

Forest Service Chief Greeley wrote “Paiute Forestry” or the Fallacy of Light Burning from the perspective that wildland fire should be entirely excluded from American forests to protect timber values and to prevent large fires.  This perspective was widely held by foresters and fire managers of that time period because of, in part, several extremely large fires, including the “Big Blowup” which had recently occurred at a great cost of lives and property.  After the fire season of 1910, when 85 people lost their lives and 5 million acres of forest land was burned, fire managers began formulation of a new, economically driven fire policy called “least-cost plus-loss.”  This placed the protection of valuable timber at the center of American fire policy.

Over time, experienced fire managers and foresters, through implementation of the “least-cost plus-loss model,” believed that the most cost-effective way to protect timber was to extinguish all fires as soon as possible after ignition, thereby lowering the chances that they would grow to uncontrollable conflagrations.  This very narrow view of the objective of fire management justified the increased expenditure of resources for “initial attack” of wildland fire.  With an incredible amount of resources available to fight the fires (Civilian Conservation Corps during and after the Great Depression), the Forest Service soon became extremely effective at extinguishing them.  This effective wildfire response led to overstocked and unhealthy forests and wildlands that were more susceptible to drought, disease, and devastatingly large wildfires in the decades that followed.    

Chief Greeley represented the viewpoint that the forests were a resource that required active management in the tradition of European forestry.  He believed that forests contained resources that benefitted the citizens of the country by driving economic growth – They needed to be protected.  He criticized those who practiced “Paiute Forestry,” including railroad owners, homesteaders, and other landowners, as lazy forest managers who were destroying “Pineries” by killing the forest understory and seedlings, and initiating a conversion to “brush fields.”  He viewed them as a threat to the economic prosperity of the country.   

The “least-cost plus-loss” was called into question as fire managers and foresters began to measure the effects of fire exclusion on the landscape.  In the 1960’s, costs for wildland fire were still increasing and expensive resource damage was not being reduced.  Federal agencies and the public were now questioning whether this policy was economically viable.  Concurrently, agencies began to understand that wildland fire was a vital part of the ecosystem and began to reintroduce fire by prescribed burning in some National Parks and Wilderness Areas. 

The economic failure of “least-cost plus-loss” allowed new management philosophies to enter the debate surrounding fire policy.  This gave rise to and economic incentive to understand the role of natural fire in the forest ecosystem.  And the understanding that high frequency, low intensity fires in many of our forests were actually vital to protect them from the scourge of disease.  Photos presented in the TEDx Video Living (Dangerously) in an Era of Megafires, show the results of fire exclusion – extreme overstocking and forests that are just waiting to be consumed by enormous fires. 

Scientists and fire managers are now shifting from a policy of total fire exclusion to a policy of managing fire as a tool to bring our forests into equilibrium.  Instead of excluding and stopping fire completely for the short term goal of saving individual timber stands, managers are learning to introduce fire back onto the landscape to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire – which will make our communities safer, and eventually save us billions of dollars in wildfire suppression costs and property losses.

Donovan, Geoffrey H., and Thomas C. Brown. “Wildfire management in the US Forest Service: a brief history.” Natural Hazards Observer. July (2005). 3 p (2005).

Greeley, William B. “Piute Forestry’or the fallacy of light burning.” The Timberman 21 (1920): 38-39.


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