At about this time a year ago, when I first started this Student of Fire blog, I attended our forests’ IC Refresher. Today, attending this years IC Refresher, was sort of like a Student of Fire anniversary for me. My perspective has changed during that time. I’ve committed many hours to reading, site visits, researching, and, well, actively performing my job as a Forestry Technician. Today I expected your run-of-the-mill delegation of authority, same old thing I’ve heard for the last couple years as an IC5 trainee. What I didn’t expect was to be sitting in my chair having the feeling that I was part of something, something on the verge of some serious change. I’m talking about not suppressing every fire. I’m talking about a fundamental shift that has been talked about and forgotten, talked about but never acted on.
Any wildland firefighter who’s spent time in the woods is either lying, lackluster about their job, or heavily dogmatized for suppression by their previous mentors if they tell you they’ve never questioned or wondered why certain fires are fought. Most of us involved with fire have some sense that it’s a natural, ecological process, oftentimes contributing to a more healthy ecosystem. We do controlled burns in wildlife plots. Why? Yeah, it must be good. So we have these contradictory ideas regarding our mission, us boots on the ground. We know in some circumstances it’s good, but then are directed to suppress all fires. This has persisted since the 70’s. Remember the definition for insanity? Fire management has exhibited some of that illogical rational for decades.
Recently I read Stephen Pyne’s Between Two Fires as a leadership pursuit. What I found in that book was a history of the changing perceptions surrounding fire: how we went from fire control to fire management, how most of the fire research that’s existed has been monopolized by the institutions receiving the majority of their money from suppressing fires, and how the re-introduction of natural fire has been tried, particularly by the national park service, with some failures and successes (both “failure” and “success” are left for interpretation).
This natural fire idea isn’t a new concept, but seeing it finally appear in front of me, from an agency who has historically been the final word on the wildfire business, was hair-raising. It made me think of that scene in Wayne’s World where Garth is playing with a robotic arm and the sleezebag is trying to sell him some lies. Garth, in his unique brand of Dana Carvey weirdness, says “We fear change” and smashes his little robotic creation to pieces. This is what we’ve been doing for a hundred years and we like doing it – why would we change that? Etc.
After the highly-vetted ex-hotshot Supt/National Parks Wildland Fire Use Director (who will remain nameless) gave his presentation, I just couldn’t help but feel like everyone in the room should consider themselves lucky to be given the latitude to seriously approach this change with open minds and support from upper management. It’s rare in big agencies (as far as I can tell) to be presented with options previously locked away. Not only to be given those options, but be supported in their development and implementation.
The big joke for the afternoon was Jonny Farmer, Mr. IC5 Trainee (me?) who shows up on his snag fire and calls dispatch to tell them about the great opportunity he’s found for a natural use fire. He begins drawing ideas on the back of an MRE container with his Crayola crayon, when Mr. Jonny Farmer is politely informed by his immediate supervisor to turn in his gear, take a year of unpaid absence, and apply somewhere else next season on USA Jobs. Funny, because it rings true. And it gets at the larger issue of why this idea hasn’t been implemented throughout the country. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to the status quo, to the way things have always been, and say “I think we can do better, I think we should demand more from ourselves.” I got to see that today, in person. A room full of people voicing their opinions, thoughts, and doubts about a vision for the future, about their role in it, and how it would all play out. Today I witnessed some serious leadership at work and it was awesome.