USA/INDIA – The northern Panhandle is no stranger to catastrophic wildfires with the most recent being the Region 23 Complex fires in 2012. An ever-growing understanding of fire ecology has shaped firefighting in the United States, and the U.S. Forest Service is sharing that knowledge globally.
“The U.S. is a leader of the free world. (The Forest Service) looks at it as an opportunity to help other countries,” said Scott Bovey, the fire management officer for the Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands in Chadron.
Bovey spent two weeks in India during December 2017 helping train leaders in the National Disaster Response Force on the U.S.’s incident command system. The National Disaster Response Force is comprised of 15 battalions of 1,500 people each, responsible for responding to every major disaster in India. Though the agency doesn’t actually respond to fires, the Forest Service selected it for the incident command training because it is well-respected in the country and its practices will likely filter out to other smaller organizations.
This is Bovey’s second trip to the country; his first focused on teaching land management practices and fire ecology to the Ministry of Forestry Ecology and Fire.
“India is currently very similar to where we were at in the early 1900s,” Bovey said.
For years, the country has treated all fires as bad, rushing to suppress each one as quickly as possible and never making use of planned burning programs. That has led to an overload of fuels, causing high intensity, catastrophic fires. A few seasons of drought in areas of the Himalyan foothills has further complicated the fire situation.
The first question Forest Service trainers encounter is “how do you suppress large, catastrophic fires?”
The answer is, of course, they don’t. Instead they try to find ways to work safely within the fire zone to control the spread. The Earth’s ecosystem has developed in such a way that fire was a regular occurrence. Humans’ instinct to eliminate all fire on the landscape has impacts that can be unpredictable, Bovey said, and that includes higher intensity fires.
“We have to change the way we respond,” Bovey said.
It’s especially important in India, which serves as a cornerstone nation on the Asian continent. Due to its geographic location, ash from large fires in India can impact glacial melting, creating a cascading affect in other nations – from causing arid conditions in Nepal to bringing heavy runoff to Bangladesh.
“It affects world climate,” said Bovey, who has worked with the U.S. Forest Service for eight years. Prior to that he worked for the states of Utah and Idaho.
The U.S.F.S. has been laying the groundwork in India for nine years to get to where they are with training today. Bovey’s most recent trip focused on the incident command system, or the incident response system, as it is referred to in India. The system helps large organizations effectively manage large-scale responses and has been used in the U.S. for 50 years.
“We’ve honed it to where we are the world-wide experts,” Bovey said.
The work in India has inspired inquiries from other countries in the region, which means more effective handling of large disasters such as tsunamis or earthquakes that require a multi-country response. Having everyone operating on the same system can only be a positive impact in those situations, Bovey said.
The Forest Service is also working with India to help them establish proscribed burn programs, and the international program’s recommendation is to also implement practicum training, perhaps through an exchange program here in the U.S.