This week, Missoula is hosting hundreds of fire scientists, forest managers and wildland firefighting experts for the Fire Continuum Conference, a biannual meeting jointly hosted by the Association for Fire Ecology and the International Association of Wildland Fire. Last year, the Missoulian reported that a large group of Forest Service scientists based in Missoula were not able to attend last November’s AFE International Fire Congress in Orlando due to either budget constraints or a crackdown on scientists whose work involves climate change, depending on whom was asked.

Delivering Monday’s keynote speech is Dave Calkin, supervisory research forester in the Human Dimensions Program of the Rocky Mountain Research Station. Calkin also leads the Fire Management Science Group of the National Fire Decision Support Center. His work focuses on the economics of wildland fire management, including decision-making processes and wildland fire risk assessment. The Indy spoke with Calkin on Thursday of last week at his office in the U.S. Forestry Sciences Lab on the UM campus.

What are you going to talk about in your keynote?

What we’re really focusing on is the fire management problem itself. And mainly on the suppression aspect, not just the fuel treatment. So how do we organize ourselves as a nation and as an agency to respond to wildland fires?

We’re looking at how do we plan for our large fire responses, how do we look at opportunities to use fire for ecological benefits, and how does our approach to fire influence the landscape conditions we should expect to see in the future?

In what ways was this most recent fire season instructive?

This fire season, particularly around here, was obviously very challenging. One of the key things we learned is that a lot of this work has to happen beforehand, because we have to be able to understand what we’re doing, and bringing new, unfamiliar research into a situation like we saw last year is really hard to do because there’s uncertainty with it, there’s an unfamiliarity with it. We’re learning what’s good about these models and what needs to be improved.

When you went to get a PhD in economics, were you planning to focus on the human behavior part of this?

We’re starting to get a little more into some of the behavioral economics, and looking at the fire management problem from a behavioral economics standpoint, and recognizing that we as humans make errors when confronted with uncertainty. When confronted with a problem, you may choose to do something that in retrospect, or if you had planned, you would liked to have done something differently.

I was very interested in public policy and the inherent tradeoffs we make when we manage for public land and public good versus private land management and market values, and how those tradeoffs occur and how we can look at becoming more effective and efficient as public-land managers. Missoula’s a great place to live because of the public land. There’s a lot of places in this country you can make more money. But the public land is a very, very critical component of the quality of life here in Missoula, so that always fascinated me, and I use my academic background to study this problem.

Market value versus the public good — what would be some of the main ways that would play out in wildfire management?

dave calkin

One of the challenges we have is that fire is perceived as a negative, as causing damage, burning up things we care about, if you look at the media and what the public sees about wildfire — the public at large, I mean. Missoula has a different relationship with fire, although that relationship was sure challenged last summer with the smoke that we experienced.

But people in general see the wine country fires where 41 people died. The Portugal fires a few months before that, where 60 people died. You see the major disaster fires and you get this view of wildland fire as this emergency, this natural disaster where we need to respond in an emergency management approach.

But what’s really interesting about fire is that … we do have some ability to control wildfire, under most conditions. So we then see these conditions where we have absolutely no control, but we still think we should be fighting it. So we have this concept of “fire fighting.” There’s no such thing as hurricane fighting, right? Because there isn’t control. And yet, when we think about the biggest natural disasters, and when we think about the fires that kind of get in the public’s mind, they are more similar to a hurricane than they are to this natural disturbance process.

But the ways that you really mitigate those disasters, one of the most important components, is fire itself. Which poses a certain amount of risk by putting fire onto the landscape, either prescribed fire or allowing, having fires in certain parts of the landscape burning without aggressive suppression. Those create risks themselves. And so it becomes very challenging to manage that balance of a natural disturbance that occasionally turns into this natural disaster. And the way that you deal with a natural disaster is by tolerating more risk.

It’s important that we not just look at the cost of wildfire. What we need to look at is the benefits we receive from living in these fire-adapted ecosystems, and what’s the most effective and efficient way of reducing those losses.

Is there something you’d want to convey to the general public about this last fire season, or the season to come? What are some perspective shifts that would be helpful?

This is a fire world we live in in western Montana and the western U.S., and we just need to be realistic about those expectations and planning for what we want out of these landscapes, and how our communities are developed within these landscapes is critically important. If we take an emergency response and are surprised by every big large fire, we’re going to get bad outcomes. If we really look holistically about what these landscapes look like … how fire is a critical component of them, and how we want fire in certain places and want to keep fire out of other places, and how we most effectively can do that, that’s what we really need to move forward on. And thinking up-front about how we’re going to deal with fire and live with fire in this area.

Is it a big deal for this conference to be happening in Missoula?

Missoula really is the fire research center of the world. There are other places where fire research happens around the world. There’s a lot of great Australian researchers who are coming here, there’s a lot of European researchers, Asian, African. There’s a lot of important research that happens around the world, but the center of it all is in Missoula. The Fire Lab has been around for 60 years, and that cemented it as an area of specialty for fire research. Our little team here is in a different program as part of the same station. We work on only wildfire issues, but we’re approaching it from a different discipline, decision science, management science, and therefore we’re in the human dimensions program. But we’re part of the same larger organization. So it is really cool that it’s here in Missoula, and we’re excited to have folks coming in and seeing what we have here.

Staff Reporter

Susan Elizabeth Shepard lived in Missoula from 2008 to 2011 before returning in 2017 to work at the Independent. She is also a two-time resident of Austin, TX, and Portland, OR, with an interest in labor, music and sports. @susanelizabeth on Twitter.

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