Wildfire Management: An Analysis of Incident Response to the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire

The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near in California began on Aug. 17, 2013 and is under investigation. The fire has consumed approximately 149, 780 acres and is 15% contained. U.S. Forest Service photo.As another fire season begins, Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE) examines the conflicting wildfire protection strategies that resulted in extensive destruction and casualties during the Mendocino Complex Fire in northern California in July and August of 2018.

Futility and Fatality in Fighting the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire is an interactive story map article describing the chronology of the Mendocino Fire Complex and the decision-making process that was involved in the “largest fire in recorded modern California history” during the “deadliest and most destructive fire season in California history.”

FUSEE suggests that patient control of wildfires, especially in fire-adapted ecosystems, is often a more effective practice than aggressive suppression of fires. Full suppression strategies are engaged when property protection is the predominant incident objective, which is also a necessary condition for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) to provide firefighting resources. This objective, however, directly contrasts with ecological fire management practices that recognize the natural role of wildfires.

Protecting property as a primary goal directly conflicted with and superseded federal policy on wildfire management as the Ranch Fire in the Mendocino Complex moved into open wilderness. This caused interagency conflict and inefficient decision-making despite warnings that full suppression methods would have a “low likelihood of success” due to extreme fire weather conditions. As a result, one firefighter was killed and several more were injured. The Mendocino National Forest is also now fragmented by several catlines that run through previously intact wilderness.

The article highlights the need for interagency communication and ecosystem focused approaches to wildfire management, especially when the risk to life and property is low:

Tree growing from wildfire ashes. Between the two extremes of aggressively “fighting” fires and passively “letting them burn,” there is a whole range of alternative actions for safe, ethical, ecological fire management. Agencies have a multitude of advanced technology and tools that enable them to wisely manage rather than blindly fight all fires – if managers choose to use them. Science-based risk assessments are one of these powerful high-tech tools. The RMAT [Risk Management Assistance Team] reports should have tempered fire managers’ compulsion to do something by providing rationale to do something different than a conventional firefighting strategy and tactics.

As changes in the climate increasingly impact wildfire incidence and extent, FUSEE calls for the use of more proactive strategies for wildfire management to improve overall goals of protecting not only life and property but also natural ecosystems.


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