Why We Don’t Let Fires Burn: Paper Policy and Public Opinion (Part 1)

This week, environmental writer Andy Revkin published an article in the New York Times titled “Will California Ever Let Sierra Nevada Forests Burn?” This title showcases the main problem of fire management for the past 50 years: we’ve long known that what we’re doing isn’t working (fire suppression), we’ve long known what we need to do to mitigate that problem (get more fire on the ground), but we don’t do it, at least on the scale that would be needed for effective forest management.

Why not?


A Sierra Nevada forest burned during the Rim Fire.

There are two kinds of barriers: institutional and policy barriers (rules or customs that shape how agencies make management decisions) and public barriers (public opinion). These are not separate–policies are designed based on what agencies think people want, and public opinions are shaped by policy and policymakers. This interaction of institutional and public barriers can create a feedback loop where nothing ever changes.

Let’s look at the institutional and policy barriers first. I’ve separated my discussion of public barriers into a second post, since this one was getting too long.

The federal agencies that manage wildfires have had policies that include management alternatives to fire suppression for decades. The National Park Service and the Forest Service have had policies that allow for managed wildfire and prescribed burning on the books since 1968 and 1978, respectively. But both are relatively rare even today.

Researchers Scott Stephens and Malcolm North have been heading up a charge for real change in forest fire management, creating an ever more forceful argument that puts managed wildfire at the forefront. Last year, they wrote an article for Science with colleagues titled, concisely, “Reform forest fire management.” They highlight the environmental and monetary costs of fire suppression and argue that institutional obstacles are the major problem. They suggest that public support of reform will help, but the public is not presented as the major obstacle to change.

More recently, in a November 2016 article in Ecosphere, Stephens and colleagues kick the argument up a notch, suggesting specific policy changes that could upend those institutional barriers. Most radically, they suggest changing the “default rule.” Currently, managed wildfire needs justification, while suppression is the default rule. The paper proposes a flip: managed wildfire becomes the default, while continued suppression would require a disclosure of environmental costs.

Changing default rules is a great way to change behavior, because people tend to stick with the default option (see economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein’s thought-provoking book Nudge for more on this). Changing a default rule forces a change in the status quo, unlike sitting around waiting for people to choose differently. Choice is preserved, but default rules ‘nudge’ people and institutions toward particular choices that they might otherwise not choose. A common example is making organ donor status the default when people get a driver’s license, forcing them to opt-out rather than opt-in.

In the context of fire management, though, changing the default is a pretty big change in the status quo. If this change were to be implemented, it could be very effective. The problem is changing the default rule, which seems pretty unlikely at this point in time.

A related policy discussion that has come up is the role of the Clean Air Act as a barrier to prescribed fires. Because prescribed fires are intentional, human-caused events, smoke emissions are subject to pollution caps. Unplanned wildfires, which are often human-caused anyway and tend to create much greater amounts of smoke, are not subject to Clean Air Act regulations–so long as the agency is trying to suppress the fire (see a discussion by law professor Eric Biber here). While the Clean Air Act doesn’t disallow prescribed burning or condone wildfires, the result is a pretty big ‘nud


Wildfire smoke from the 2016 Sand Fire. Smoke from unplanned wildfires is not subject to Clean Air Act regulations so long as they are suppressed. 

ge’ to keep the status quo of suppressing fires quickly and doing prescribed burns only on rare occasions.

And then there’s the monetary disincentive. Alternative strategies cost money, and most of the available money is going to suppression. As Sara Jensen and Guy McPherson articulate in Living With Fire: Fire Ecology and Policy for the Twenty-First Century, most recent attempts at forming or amending federal fire policies have a contradiction at heart: a recognition of what should be done (more research, forest management, and fire on the ground) but resource allocations that support the status quo (most money going to fire suppression, leaving little for anything else).

In recent years, fire suppression costs have grown ever larger. These funds come from annual budget for agencies, namely the US Forest Service.  Each year, the Forest Service has an increasing portion of its budget going to suppression (now more than 50%), further reducing funds available for management alternatives and research. Other kinds of natural disasters are funded differently, and one strategy for providing more funds for projects like prescribed burns has been to change the way suppression is funded. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Bill is a proposed measure that would have allow fire suppression for catastrophic fires to be funded like other disasters, freeing up agency funds for other uses, like research and prescribed burns. Unfortunately, the bill stalled in Congress this week, when Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced that the talks that included this bill were unlikely to resume until next year. The bill has had bipartisan support, and it sounds like it’s still on the table, but the Missoulian described the news as “budget fix for fighting wildfires dies in Congress.”

So institutional incentives and policy design work together with monetary allocations that reinforce the status quo. Any fix will require a powerful change that rewires the incentive structure and funding availability to favor fire on the ground over total suppression.

Why are the incentive systems set up this way? Why are the defaults still set against prescribed fire and managed wildfire use even though research has long shown support for these strategies?

This is where institutional barriers meet public barriers. Stay tuned for Part 2.


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