Jul 12, 2018
Co-Managing Wildfire: Conversations You Need to Have Right Now
By: Branda Nowell, Ph.D., Anne-Lise Velez, Ph.D., and Toddi Steelman, Ph.D.
Type: Research Synthesis
2017 saw numerous wildfires move cross across the American landscape, many traversing three or more jurisdictions. Co-management has been proposed as a guiding concept for operating effectively in what appears to be a new interjurisdictional wildfire-world order. Sounds great, right? But how do we get there?
While ill-defined in policy, co-management in scholarship refers to sharing decision-making power (Berkes, 2009). Scholars of change management have long recognized the challenges of retrofitting new concepts and ideas into existing systems (Todnem, 2005). This reality begs two questions in the wildfire world: Does our existing incident command system accommodate principles of co-management? And, what is being employed to retrofit the existing incident command practices to adapt to the demands of more complex multijurisdictional spaces?
Over the last year, we studied 10 of the most jurisdictionally complex fires of 2017, conducting interviews and surveys with over 80 incident commanders, land managers and agency administrators involved in those fires. While analysis is still underway, we can share some preliminary insights from our data with an eye toward the remainder of the 2018 fire year.
How Are We Doing with Co-Managing Multijurisdictional Fires?
Survey data indicate that lead agencies, as well as federal and local jurisdictions, tend to feel the best overall about co-management outcomes on an incident. State and private jurisdictions are — as a group — significantly less satisfied across incidents.
While the challenges are considerable, incident commanders and agency administrators are rising to meet these challenges in creative ways. Both the challenges and the solutions were markedly similar regardless of jurisdiction. When jurisdictions perceived that their interests and concerns were not given due consideration, both state and federal informants voiced frustration and concerns about risk transfer. At the same time, when co-management was perceived to have been effective, informants representing a variety of different jurisdictions tended to point to the same practices and dynamics at play.
Nature of the Beast: Jurisdictional Interdependency Meets Jurisdictional Autonomy
Interdependencies exist when the actions of one entity have consequences for another entity. Wildland fire response efforts are often jurisdictionally interdependent. This means that decisions and subsequent actions taken in one jurisdiction can have consequences for adjoining jurisdictions, both before, during and after the incident. However, different jurisdictions have different land and fire management objectives and currently, individual jurisdictions have the full authority to make unilateral decisions aimed at maximizing an individual agency’s objectives when engaged in fire suppression efforts on a given agency’s land.
We have seen this equation in many environmental policy domains before. Situations characterized by jurisdictional interdependence and unilateral decision making, coupled with differing objectives create a powerful “conflict cocktail.” Such conflict, if it occurs, frequently leads to on-going problems, making everyone less effective (Wondolleck and Yaffee, 2000).
Points of Leverage to Resolve Tensions in Multijurisdictional Settings
The theoretical solution is to lessen or eliminate one or more of the three elements on the left side of the above equation. Just like the fire triangle, remove any one of the elements and the conflict goes away. If you reduce jurisdictional interdependence by, for example, creating buffer zones between boundary properties so that it is difficult for a fire to transfer off one property to another, the conflict is resolved. Alternatively, if there are spaces where land and fire management objectives can be brought into closer alignment across jurisdictions, then the tension is resolved. Last, if management actions are co-negotiated such that other jurisdictions believe their interests are represented in the decision space, the tension is again resolved.
Unfortunately, really only one of these three points of leverage is available to agency administrators and incident commanders during a wildfire. Finding opportunities where land/fire management objectives might align or establishing interjurisdictional buffers are complex planning efforts. These are not generally feasible options to work through during an active fire. This leaves one immediate option — creating more space for consultation with and input from jurisdictions that will be directly impacted by the fire while it is happening.
The good news is that our interviews indicated that facilitating better co-management outcomes was possible when neighboring jurisdictions were 1) involved and felt they had a voice and/or 2) felt confident that the risk management process was appropriate and took their concerns into account. Under these conditions, they tended to be supportive of the actions of their counterparts — even if they suffered significant loss during the wildfire.
Barriers to Co-Management
Easy, right? Based on the stories we heard from the field, three major barriers work against co-management. First, it is sometimes hard to predict whether a fire will become multijurisdictional until it starts making big runs toward other jurisdictions. By then, you’re behind the curve. However, no jurisdiction wants to be sub-optimizing its own objectives out of consideration for another jurisdiction if there is no true interdependency present.
Second, jurisdictional authority is a critical element of our existing incident command system. In wildfire response, clear objectives and lines of authority are key components that enable decisive action. The more actors admitted to the decision space, the more difficult it is to communicate clear objectives.
Third, and related to the second, tools for multijurisdictional command (e.g., joint delegations of authority, unified command, area command) generally make sense when a given jurisdiction is under imminent threat. Up until that time, potentially threatened but not yet affected jurisdictions do not have a clear role in ICS. For example, individuals showing up to the incident command post from threatened, but not yet affected, jurisdictions were jokingly described as “spies” in one interview.
Last, negotiating priorities and strategies across jurisdictions can be difficult, particularly if the relational groundwork has not been done ahead of fire season. In total, we learned that there are understandable reasons why jurisdictions might act unilaterally on fires.
Yet, there are even better reasons to change how we manage multijurisdictional fires. When co-management of multijurisdictional fires goes awry and jurisdictions feel they have been needlessly exposed to additional risk by their neighbor, the long-term fallout regarding relationships can be substantial. Jurisdictions are structurally conjoined by their boundaries and the physical characteristics of the fireshed. This means the same set of actors will be brought together, again and again, year after year, as fires and other natural hazards move through the area. No single agency has the resources, expertise, networks or legitimacy to create more resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities or effective fire response in isolation.
Our data highlighted several immediate actions that could significantly improve co-management outcomes. We learned that preseason conversations are missed opportunities to build the foundation for effective co-management.
Conversations to Have Right Now:
- “Hi, my name is…”
In some cases, agency administrators had never met one or more of their counterparts prior to the fire. These individuals often expressed regret at not having made personal contact before they had to co-manage a fire together. Effective co-management often requires tough conversations and a willingness to give one another the benefit of the doubt. Numerous informants reflected on the value personal relationships offered when having to navigate tough conversations with their counterparts.
- “How and when are we going to communicate with each other about potential threats?”
Themes related to mutual respect were also prominent in the interviews. Jurisdictions that receive fire from another jurisdiction look for signals suggesting that their concerns and interests were being taken into account by the lead agency. One of the first places where this was repeatedly described as “getting off on the wrong foot” was when a receiving jurisdiction found out about a potential threat from a source other than the lead agency and had to go hunting for information. Conversely, both public and private landowners who ended up receiving a fire from another jurisdiction were appreciative when they were contacted early on by the lead agency. Knowing your jurisdictional counterparts and setting mutual expectations for when contact will be made about potential threats is a low cost/high return strategy that promotes a climate of mutual respect. Sometimes this outreach was not as timely as it could have been because the lead agency did not anticipate what the fire ending up doing. In light of the increasingly unprecedented nature of fire behavior, erring on the side of overcommunication may be wise — particularly late in the fire season when resources are scarce.
- “How do we communicate concerns and offer assistance when we perceive a significant threat from a fire that is on your jurisdiction?”
This one is tough. It is the gray area of the incident command system where a potentially threatened — but not yet impacted — jurisdiction has no formal standing within the lead fire organization. Offers to “help” were sometimes described as a cultural taboo within the fire community, communicating a lack of confidence in counterparts regarding their ability to handle things on their own.
A “don’t worry, we got this” culture was also described as continuing to pervade the incident command world across multiple jurisdictions — likely an artifact from a previous era when fires were smaller and less active, and management objectives were less complex. Stories of jurisdictional hand-wringing from the sidelines, “black-ops” outside of command and control of the lead organization, sending “spies” into fire camps, and fireline negotiations with division supervisors were part of this broader narrative — all signals that there was lack of confidence in the command structure.
At the same time, our interviews were also filled with stories from individuals who innovated ways to break through these bureaucratic, institutional and cultural barriers toward more of a co-management approach (stay tuned for more on this). One of the most well-reviewed co-management tools we heard about was a regularly scheduled agency administrator meeting. This was a private meeting where current and/or prospective agency administrators met together with the incident commander to share concerns, vet strategies, offer suggestions and assistance, and be heard. These meetings were described by incident commanders as useful because it forced agency administrators to work together to provide a shared set of objectives and priorities for the incident (not just for their jurisdictions). Agency administrators liked these meetings because it gave them a small decision forum to make sure their concerns were heard and considered in the strategy.
Multijurisdictional incidents will continue to be a key challenge within the wildfire community. The volatile combination of interdependencies, competing objectives, and unilateral decision processes helps us understand the challenges, but it also helps identify points of leverage. In this blog, we’ve focused on some basic actions that can be taken right now to aid co-management during wildfires. However, improving capacity for co-management among jurisdictions during an incident is only one point of leverage. More powerful opportunities may exist in the preseason work aimed at reducing interdependency and/or increasing alignments of management objectives. More on this to come as our research evolves.
This research was made possible by funding from the Joint Fire Science Program. Please support it!
All views are expressly our own.
Berkes, F. (2009). Evolution of Co-Management: Role of Knowledge Generation, Bridging Organizations and Social Learning. Journal of Environmental Management, 90(5), 1692–1702.
Todnem By, R. (2005). Organisational Change Management: A Critical Review. Journal of Change Management, 5(4), 369–380.
Wondolleck, J. M., and Yaffee, S. L. (2000). Making Collaboration Work: Lessons from Innovation in Natural Resource Management. Island Press.
About the Authors
Dr. Branda Nowell is a professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University. In 2008, she co-founded the Fire Chasers Research Program aimed at advancing both the science and practice of adaptive capacity and network governance (regarding wildfires) in order to foster disaster resilient communities. Dr. Nowell is an organizational-community psychologist specializing in disaster response, network governance, interorganizational relationships, social networks and multiorganizational systems design within complex problem domains.
Dr. Anne-Lise K. Velez researches topics at the intersection of public and nonprofit sectors, particularly related to the formation and implementation of environmental policy, and to sustainability and community well-being. Much of her research focuses on fire-response governance. She is currently a researcher and teacher at Virginia Tech and has been part of the Fire Chasers Research Program since 2010.
Dr. Toddi Steelman is the dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. She also serves as the vice president of the International Association of Wildland Fire. She has a nearly 20-year history of working in the human dimensions of wildfire.
Want to repost this story? Please contact our communications manager.