Fire as Complex Adaptive System

I have studied systems theory and complexity since the 1990s. I did not expect to find those things so prominent in a seminar on wildfire but I should have. Very few things we “manage” are as complex as wildfire. A lot of it depends on weather conditions, which are themselves notoriously difficult to predict in detail. Fuels are unknowable in detail. Behaviors of smoke are known in theory, but not in practice. Layer onto all of this the social dimensions. Complex.

Mark Finney, the day’s keynote speaker, talked about the need for models to simplify reality, but the models do not equal experience. He contended that techniques have run ahead of science. Burn bosses have learned from trial and experience in ways that are not codified.

Fire science divided into two divergent streams. One stream is structural fires. This is a true science in that it takes place in human made structures and there can be standardization. You can do actual experiments that can be replicated concerning materials and conditions. Engineers can build whole structures just to burn them down and then specify what works in building codes. Wildfires do not offer this. Conditions are always dynamic.

This does not mean that we cannot learn from wildfires and develop better strategies. Mr. Finney said that we need to continue to work to improve. We can get better, even if we cannot get perfect.