Fear & Fire

by Tom Harbour

The pandemic is upon us. COVID-19 has arrived. We are afraid. Remaining immobile with fear is the antithesis of who we are and what we represent as responders, incident commanders, and agency administrators. What are we to do?

We have already changed the way we socialize. By changing how we interact with other humans, we are changing the way we interact with wildland fire. It is obvious; a virus is impacting the very core of our work and fire ecology.

There are significant actions we can take NOW. NOW is the time for a thoughtful discussion about how to reduce risk – total risk – for the wildland fire world. This is the time for fervent debate, armed with data, simulations, alternatives, deferments, and maps. The segments which comprise risk, the components of ground, air, ecology, public health (smoke), and viral risk can be examined now, ahead of any and all anticipated ignitions.

Waiting and hoping makes no sense. Looking into threatening active flames with their attendant tension and anxiety does not often yield insight, clarity or confidence about viable strategic options.

We can use fear, and the time we have, to our benefit. We should use fear to bring focus on cumulative risk in the wildland.

We know we are in the midst of a public health crisis. The resultant economic and societal impacts of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) are unique to most of us. The illness has brought forth comparisons to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917-1920. The economic impacts have resulted in comparisons to the Great Depression of 1929. Tens of millions of our neighbors, friends, and family have been negatively impacted. Most of us know someone who has died from COVID-19. These are fearful times. The wildfire events of calendar year 2020 will either contribute to additional fear or provide a measure of relief from it.

Fear is no stranger to those in wildland fire. We come to work every day and bring fear with us. We deal with it in our workplace response. We fear failing. We will not disappoint ourselves, fellow responders, friends, family, nor our communities. We understand our honorable profession is built on a foundation of having us, as responders, face the fear of fire on behalf of our citizens. We do it so our friends and neighbors do not. In practice, we relish the challenge, even as we rarely ponder, discuss, or understand fear. We want our daily behavior to confirm we are actively engaging fear and not waiting, hoping, and ignoring fear’s inevitable knock at our doors.

In the article, “The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors” (2002) by Thierry Steimer, PhD. The doctor says, “Anxiety (fear) is a psychological, physiological, and behavioral state induced in … humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential. It is characterized by increased arousal, expectancy, autonomic and neuroendocrine activation, and specific behavior patterns. The function of these changes is to facilitate coping with an adverse or unexpected situation.”

We certainly did not expect the impact of SARS-CoV-2 to so significantly impact our lives. We need to use our fear of the resulting illness (COVID-19) to find better ways to cope, this year and into the future. We’ll all be different, we have no choice but to adjust. The compelling questions are, “How do we cope? How do we adjust? How will we carry what we learn about today’s fears into the future to guarantee improved performance?”

We can use fear to think more rationally about the current system, past behaviors, and the traditions we have established to deal with wildland fire in America. The most fundamental question now and for the future is, “how do we reduce risk in total?”

Answers to that question take thoughtful consideration and measured action. Those who have responsibility for a few souls, the twenty on the crew or the ten on the module or the five in the engine see a very different world of “total reduced risk” than those who supervise hundreds, or thousands. Small unit leaders must make decisions about different procedures now, even while organizational leaders struggle with the complexity of the large wildland fire system. Small unit leaders will make decisions because they must. Agency leaders face different constraints. But in either case, stasis, no change, is simply not an option. COVID-19 says so.

The temporal aspects of our adjustments will be more difficult to assess. For example, we may not yet understand key elements of how wildland fire smoke and COVID-19 interact. The significance of wildland fire smoke in increasing COVID-19 morbidity is unknown, but we know enough to know that smoke does not help. What do we do to lower exposure to smoke? The public health impact of smoke is but one component of the new complexity of our world.

While the time is ripe for change, it currently appears that adaptations are more likely to be made at the lower levels (like crews, modules, individuals, engines) where small size makes agility possible. Larger scale change takes more investment and energy. Whether or not “big” changes will happen as a result of mindful planning or whether they happen “just because” is yet to be determined.

We certainly must ask ourselves, “Are we looking to struggle through these few months and then “get back to normal” as soon as possible or are we going to use this opportunity to make substantive, needed, change”? Societally, we may want a virus vaccine to get “back to normal”, but in fire, there is no “vaccine”. We can define a new and better normal. This opportunity may not come again for years.

There should be a flurry of activity with Agency Administrators and Incident Commanders and others fervently discussing ideas, objectives, and intent aimed at reducing risk.

While this pandemic is new, past significant events have resulted in difficult situations before. We’ve lost air tankers, we’ve had dramatically dry fuels, nationally controversial policy debates and other times which give us lessons to be learned about these times. In fact, in many ways, we have been here so many times that we should be telling ourselves, “let’s think this through”. It does appear some are doing just that.

But various declarations about “strong initial attack” are no panacea, nor a long term strategy for reducing risk. “Strong” initial attack is, and always has been, a key tenet of any wildland fire management policy; however, it is an insufficient doctrinal exposition for the current situation. Assertive initial attack has been the policy of most local, private, state, and some federal agencies for decades. Additionally, there is no one agency, nor organizational level of government (federal, state or local) who bears responsibility for “solving the problem”. We are in this together and solutions, even at the local level, need an interagency perspective to make a difference.

On Saturday, March 4, 1933, incoming President Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking from the East Portico of the Capitol and in the midst of the Great Depression, said, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

His words should be remembered. There is no question fear changes us, but in our world of wildland fire the type of change we want and the benefit we derive from the current pandemic are ours to define. Fear, as we know from our personal experiences, can be harnessed and be used to breed resilience. It is that resilience which is the measure of our profession and which we must use to deal with this crisis. Our fear will be overcome and we will use our wisdom and understanding to define our true, long term, passion for the profession we have purposefully chosen.