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Fires are now wicked problems
Fires are now wicked problems

Welcome to the wicked problems

This article first appeared in the March/April 2016 edition of Wildfire. By Ron Steffens.

Somewhere in the 1980s “wicked” became an adverb, thus letting us now twist a phase like “wicked funny” or “wicked hot” (which in Boston means a day above 85 and humid, according to one entry in the Urban Dictionary). But the word is far older — dating back to the 13th century and likely tied to “wicca” — witch, wizard, sorcerer. It may refer to evil but its roots refer more simply to the ones who make magic.

And in the meaning we use in this issue of Wildfire, “wicked problems” fully require the making of magic. The strategic and analytical concept of “wicked problems” offers a range of definitions for what a wicked problem is. But ask any fire manager or firefighter and you’ll simply hear, “Our fires are getting wicked hot.”

The fires we’ve experienced — burning hotter, faster, with more complexity and at higher costs, and bringing more risk to landscapes and communities — are rationale enough to consider a “wicked problem” analysis of our wicked fire problems. Add the challenge of managing these wicked hot fires in these wicked hot days of climate change and you’ll find more than enough material for a conference theme hosted across two continents (Australia and North America) and touching most every land mass with a flammable fuel.

This issue of Wildfire doesn’t attempt to offer the definitive version of “Wicked Fire Problems” but rather an introduction, a sampling of the many discussions and expert presentation that will occur in the joint Fire Behaviour and Fuels conferences being held this April in Melbourne, Victoria (AU) and Portland, OR (USA).

The joint conferences will spawn articles and opinions for years to come. For now, though, we feature writers, articles, commentary and imagery looking at fireline safety, the uncertainty of modeling, and our first-person responses to wicked fire problems, in Tasmania with Michael Hill’s report on a challenging fire bust, and in an After Action reflection on a single remote wildfire — all of these being fires that ask, as do all of our wildland and bush fires, what should we do with the flames and the fuels and the landscapes and communities so affected by fire?

One compelling aspect of this problem definition: Wicked problems are difficult to define and thus offer no definitive solutions — yet we are obligated to seek the most work-able solutions among better or worse, good enough and not good enough. In this essay we witness the story of a typical fire problem, framed as a wickedly difficult problem to solve.

Another key aspect, as phrased by Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in 1973: “The planner has no right to be wrong. Problem solvers dealing with a wicked issue are held liable for the consequences of any actions they take, because those actions will have such a large impact and are hard to justify.”

This is a challenge to comprehend — but to phrase it at its most wickedly blunt — we are charged to act (we can’t ignore the wicked problem) yet we are also held liable for our actions on problems with no definition or easy solution. Welcome to wildfire and bushfire management, circa 2016.

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