Imagine it is the year 2034.
What might the world look like when it comes to climate change?
This week, we didn’t have to imagine what that looks like — the East Coast has been wading through terrible air quality due to a wildland fire that happened in Canada, that burned uncontrollably because of the dry conditions that existed. But what’s scary is that it’s only 10 years into that timeframe. Seriously, the pictures from NYC are frightening and apocalyptic.
Have you ever thought or reflected on how we got to that future? What were the series of events that could have led to that moment? What could we have done to change the course of events? How could we best prepare for that future?
Nearly a decade ago I worked on a project called the “Quadrennial Fire Review” with the US Forest Service and the US Department of the Interior (DOI). This agency and department does a study every four years (hence the name “quadrennial”) of what the future of wildland fire management might look like in 20 years.
We used two tools: crowdsourcing and Strategic Foresight/futures thinking to imagine what the future might be, with non-traditional participants — those who were directly affected by wildfires. Crowdsourcing is a way to source ideas from the “crowd,” which was quite in vogue and I specialized in 10 years ago and led my firm’s practice around that area so it can contribute to innovation and more collaboration using technology.
To imagine what the future might look like, our team created four quadrants. On the X axis the ability to respond to fires got more robust, and on the Y axis was the severity of wildland fires. Then, we created a narrative around the four quadrants and had participants to imagine how we would have gotten to that future. It’s a very helpful way to imagine what to envision what our future might be.
We asked participants to reflect on how we may have gotten to the four futures below, asking ourselves these questions:
- What trends, events, or shocks (i.e. unexpected occurrences with major implications) could drive us to this future?
- What changes to strategy, organizational structure, capabilities, and infrastructure would be necessary to address the future we are facing?
- What information could help mitigate the risks presented by this future?
- What information could help capitalize on opportunities presented by this future?
We also had wild card entries as well, that was above and beyond what we created. This was a fascinating yet scary project. All of the ideas and details are still found in the IdeaScale website.
While I’m over here in DC wearing a mask trying to not breathe in the smoke that wafted here, I’m reminded of this project and thought I’d share — -would love to hear what you think. Which of these futures are coming to fruition? What will the next 10 years bring?
An interesting thought experiment back then, and still 10 years later. This week I’m reflecting on how we got to that future and what could we have done to change the course of events? And, since we aren’t changing fast enough, how could we best prepare for that future?
The futures are below….
Future #1: Hot, Dry, and Out of Control
The United States is experiencing significantly more wildfire, a longer wildfire season, and fires in regions where they were not prevalent in 2014. High fuel loads result in frequent, large and damaging fires, raising the risk to both the public and firefighters. The public is alarmed and losing faith in wildland fire management. Congress determines that more funding is not the answer and fire budgets decrease due to higher priority events (e.g., overseas conflict, national debt crisis). State and local fire teams are in the lead and the Federal government has shifted to a support role. Public health impacts have risen significantly due to smoke from fires, resulting in more fatalities.
Future #2 — Super Fire Administration
The United States is experiencing significantly more wildfire, a longer wildfire season, and fires in regions where they were not prevalent in 2014. High fuel loads result in frequent, large, and damaging fires, raising the risk to both the public and firefighters. As a result, the public expects aggressive fire suppression. With a declining focus on land management by the Federal government, ecosystems and resources are increasingly at risk and the rate of wildland fire fuels accumulation continues to increase. Political pressure has resulted in the creation of a ‘super fire administration’ that removes wildland fire management from the Forest Service and DOI purview and separates it from other types of land management.
Future #3 — Resilient Landscapes
The public is increasingly confident in the abilities of the Federal wildland fire management community to protect lives, homes, and resources, and supports proactive wildland fire management. Prescribed burns are a readily accepted practice and have resulted in more resilient landscapes and lesser fuel loads. Public health and smoke issues are lower due to a selective approach to prescribed burns (e.g., in the winter season) that reduces ozone impacts and particulate matter in the air.
Future #4 — Radical Change
Radical new technologies and markets have created dramatic opportunities for the wildland fire management community. Despite a lower budget, the community has been able to prioritize the funds that it does have to achieve a sustainable landscape and significantly decreased public health impacts.
Case Study: Department of Interior and US Forest Service: Strategic Foresight
Quadrennial Fire Review
The Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR) was an effort that I led in 2013/14 with Interior and US Forest Service and was designed to be forward looking and to challenge fixed assumptions in the wildland fire management community. We used a combination of strategic foresight exercises, crowdsourcing, and stakeholder engagement to review the current and expected future state of fire management. This work helped refine focus areas for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (CS) and examined the basic assumptions used in the development of the CS and extrapolate trends over a multi-decade period to test the outcomes.
The key areas of concern for the QFR were:
- Changing Climactic Conditions Effects on Landscapes
- Evolving Risk in Public and Firefighter Safety
- Water Quality and Quantity
- Technology and Program Infrastructure
The input we gathered through this process enable senior leadership, wildland fire managers, and firefighters to be better prepared to mitigate future risks and capitalize on strategic opportunities. It allowed them to anticipate and effectively plan for the future of wildland fire management