Volume 11, Issue 3 - May/June 2017
Message from the Director
Where there’s smoke, there’s … conflict.
Earlier in June, I was privileged to participate in a national workshop on smoke from wildland fires. A group of air quality specialists, fire managers, and scientists convened in Boise, Idaho, to talk about data gaps and other information needs regarding smoke and how we might collectively address them. I’m no smoke expert, but my experience working on the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy) and other similar efforts has sharpened my appreciation for the importance and complexity of smoke management.
Smoke is one transboundary issue that clearly demonstrates how what happens on our forests and grasslands can affect us all. For example, the deleterious health effects from breathing smoke aren’t limited to just firefighters or local residents—though those effects alone are serious enough to warrant concern. Anyone downwind of a forest fire is potentially exposed, and depending on the magnitude and duration of the fire and where smoke blows, the overall impacts to the public can outweigh the direct effects of the flames themselves. Unfortunately, many of the risk management tools available to assess wildfires do a poor job of incorporating the effects of smoke because of its complexity and lack of high quality data.
The smoke issue exemplifies a question that I struggle with a lot in many different contexts. That is, when is the information available good enough to make good decisions? This is a common question across all sectors of environmental threat assessment and management. As scientists, we can easily identify unknown or unquantified processes worthy of greater scrutiny. The knock that “scientists always want more data” is literally quite true. In contrast, some managers might be criticized for making decisions sometimes using faulty information or without a full consideration of possible consequences. The pressures of needing to make decisions quickly and the justified concern to avoid “analysis paralysis” can contribute to poor decision processes. The challenge for us within the Eastern Threat Center is to try to find that middle ground where we can provide reliable, timely information to aid managers without overwhelming the decision process or building decision support tools that are unnecessarily data intensive. Generally, I think we do that well, but there certainly are occasions where constructive feedback from and collaboration with managers would serve both well.
Pictured: In early November 2016, surrounding mountains are barely visible due to thick smoke as seen from Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Communities throughout the Southeast were exposed to smoke hazards from fires near and far during the epic 2016 fall fire season. Photo by Steve Norman, U.S. Forest Service.
Our newsletter this month highlights several examples where our expertise at synthesizing data and information to try to better inform management is on full display. I hope you’ll read over these and help me decide whether we meet that standard of useful, but not overly complicated. If not, how can make them better?
- Danny C. Lee