Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 10, 2011

Wallow fire strategic lessons-observed

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on June 10, 2011

Twelve days after ignition the Wallow Fire continues to grow. According to Wallow fire updates on InciWeb, as of late Thursday 386,690 acres have been consumed, 24 structures destroyed, 3012 personnel are involved in response, and several communities have been required to evacuate, including Springerville (population 2000) and Eagar (population 4000).  The wildfire is roughly five percent contained.

Ponderosa Pines are adapted to wildfire. Over geologic time, lightning strikes started fires every two or three years. The fires would sweep through meadows and grassy understories.  The grass fires were seldom hot or high enough to threaten mature trees with fire-resistant bark, but would clear the understory of woody firs and other plants. The grasslands themselves quickly recovered from fire.  The interval between fires was sufficient for new generations of Ponderosa Pines to emerge.  With a lifespan of 300 to 600 years the Ponderosa tends to be patient (if prolific) regarding reproduction.

In historic time — roughly the last 150 years — wildfires have been less frequent.  Grazing by sheep, goats, and cattle reduced the grasses that carried cooler ground fires.  Beginning in the early 1900s a comparatively wet half-century or so further reduced the frequency of fire. Human fire suppression has also been a factor.  With less grass and fewer fires, dwarf mistletoe, sagebrush, Douglas fir and other woody flora have been able to establish dense thickets beneath the Ponderosa Pines.

The onset of persistent drought has resulted in what we see unfolding across the high plateau of Northeast Arizona.  According to the Arizona Republic the understory now holds as much as 50 tons per acre of dry fuel.

I perceive strategic analogies in this. (I have been accused of seeing strategic implications in whether a bologna sandwich is served with mustard or mayonnaise):

A complex adaptive system that we do not (cannot?) fully understand is under stress. The complex adaptive system in this case is the ecology of the mountainous plateaus of the American Southwest.  But it could be nearly any complex adaptive system: nationalism, federalism, capitalism, the supply chain, et cetera, et cetera.

The source of stress is multifaceted. Explicit human decisions certainly influence the system and can be sources of stress. But there are also larger, more implicit — even innate — influences and sources of stress: climate, demography, technology, prices, randomness, crowd behavior, et cetera, et cetera.

Whatever the sources of stress, the existing equilibrium of the complex adaptive system is threatened.   Perhaps Ponderosa Pines are no longer well-matched for the long-term climatic conditions of Arizona (are humans?).  Perhaps a new climax community is emerging.  Perhaps the Westphalian system of nation-states is disintegrating.  Perhaps the traditional frameworks of Christianity and Islam are fracturing.  Perhaps the “strange attractor of meaning” around which several core systems have long self-organized are shifting.

Into this precarious situation an “event”  is inserted. Perhaps it is natural, such as a lightning strike.  Or it may be accidental, as when a campfire’s embers are not fully extinguished (thought to be the cause of the Wallow fire).  It might also be intentional arson.  In any case, a fire is started and two weeks later we are trying to deal with an inferno.

In such precarious situations if we wait for the spark — regardless of source — it is already too late.   If we seek to preserve the current equilibrium we need to invest in deepening and widening the basin of attraction well in advance. There are also situations where the forces of change are far too compelling to resist and our best bet is to invest as we can in nudging the system toward a new attractor of meaning.  Knowing when to fold or call is not always clear.

If homeland security has any comparative advantage to offer the pre-existing disciplines and professions, it may be — should be — in brokering the bet.

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7 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 10, 2011 @ 6:05 am

Great Post! Adelgids have destroyed the Eastern Hemlocks! The American Chestnut destroyed by blight (a crossing with Chinese Chestnut gives new hope); Dutch Elm Disease destroys elms; The Ambrosia Beetle destroys ASH!

Well let’s just assume climate change and globalization of disease and pestilence.

If you follow the discourse of the last decade over Plum Island and the Kansas Bio Center of DHS you will discover that NO ONE IN CHARGE and in reality stupidity on the hill looking only at the jobs available as physical infrastructure owned by feds is driver on most locational and mission decisions (the Johnson Space Center was scheduled originally for Langley VA) you understand that no one really looks at the implications of locating any particular federal,state, or local infrastructure. So redundancy, duplication, and often ineffectiveness. Another actual real world job that could be given to the VP!
And the wildland/urban fire interface problem grows year by year.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

June 11, 2011 @ 3:08 am

Who’s in charge? I think quite disheartening and scary for the attributes of frtitude, informed decision-makers, a government whether local, state or federal coordinated by experienced bi-partisan and “patriotic” Americans has been lost and with it, our positin of strength hodwinked by the geed and arrogant bankers and the special interest groups raping our beloved Republic and allowed to do so by those We have “entrusted” to stand forthwith and serve and protect our nation and We the most charitable people….

God Bless us all!

Christopher Tingus

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 11, 2011 @ 3:53 am

Mr. Tingus:

I think you and I are in charge… at least as much as anyone is in charge.

In my judgment, the most important issues, especially in homeland security, are beyond the command or control of any one person no matter his or her position, role, or authority.

It is precisely an issue’s tendency to resist command and control that confirms its importance.

Effectively dealing with such issues is dependent on the wisdom and character of a whole people. Our nominal leaders may help or hurt, but their strengths can not overcome our weaknesses. The happier news is that the weakness of our leaders — especially in a democracy — need not long encumber our shared strength.

After watching almost any cable news program I worry the American people are preoccupied with finding someone to blame or follow. But in almost all my daily interactions with neighbors (near and far) I find courageous and creative people who are cooperating and collaborating to build a better reality, here and now.

I cannot discount the filtered reality of cable news. But I certainly do not want to reject or diminish the more hopeful signals of this directly experienced reality.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 11, 2011 @ 11:00 am

Yes Phil the illusion of control is a problem. But so is the illusion that “thinking man” cannot improve on ad hoc performance. The best example of course is the doctrines and theory behind the use of nuclear weapons that when involving nation-states even then ultimately demonstrate those weapons are unusable for relations between nations. Still apparently over 5,000 on status and pre-targeted which makes no sense anyone outside the nuclear priesthood. And no thinking yet on the fact that existence of nuclear without adequate safeguards and surety may lead to the use by totally irrational non-state actors. One reason DHS was created was to deal with possible domestic use of WMD and that assignment will be documented in the very near future by GAO as a total failure by DHS so far.

As others have already documented that failure. We now know of course that President Clinton could well have been impeached for his sloppiness in caring for the authentication system for nuclear war.

When will serious men or women be in that office instead of clowns. Let US give Presidential Campaign debates back to the League of Women Voters! Perhaps a starting point question for the Republican candidates is what is your belief in the efficacy of nuclear war between nation-states?

And now that we know Saleh will probably never return to YEMEN how about that postscript? Since you continue to post on foreign affairs as HOMELAND SECURITY what is your current scoreboard on the Arab Spring?

I rank Tunisia first and the only Arab state on the way to democratic but wondering at your take?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 12, 2011 @ 4:42 am

Bill, You and I agree on the potential of human thought — decision and action — to improve our conditions. I perceive this is especially possible when we avoid blaming others, are self-critical, self-correcting, reasonably humble regarding our strengths and limitations, enthusiastic in our creativity, courageous in confronting troubles, and generous in our collaborations… and as much as possible systematize these pre-conditions to engaging problems.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 12, 2011 @ 6:07 am

WOW! Your sentence that follows:

“I perceive this is especially possible when we avoid blaming others, are self-critical, self-correcting, reasonably humble regarding our strengths and limitations, enthusiastic in our creativity, courageous in confronting troubles, and generous in our collaborations… and as much as possible systematize these pre-conditions to engaging problems.”

A very high standard but not impossible for individuals or nation-states IMO!

WOW AGAIN! Phil for President!

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 12, 2011 @ 6:12 am

Since he once was a blogger here about a take on Paul Stockton’s efforts as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and/or even analysis of DOD roles its fire suppression domestically?

Perhaps Dr. Stockton’s office could put out a DOD Directive or at least a news release with respect to the latter. And by the way DOD has about 55,000 civilian firefighters with special civil service status–specifically 20 year and out retirements and immediate pension.

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