Sometimes, politics gets in the way of science.We were involved in producing a video for the federal government that offered a science-based solution to helping communities live safely with wildfire. Some of the science was not consistent with the beliefs of those in charge of public policy. As a consequence, the official version of the video was edited to make it more consistent with the politics at the time. We have compiled the deleted scenes in the video below. If you would like to see the full, unedited version, it is available here.
Politics play a major role in fire policy and how people view fire.
For example, sometimes it is difficult to determine who is communicating knowledge based on science and who is merely expressing a carefully crafted opinion that promotes or protects particular vested interests.
Although we haven't heard much from him lately, with the financial support of the Forest Foundation, Dr. Bonnicksen has been a frequent speaker during land management conferences and hearings, has been quoted in newspapers, and has written numerous editorials concerning wildfires and what he calls "forest restoration."
Although Dr. Bonnicksen claims to be an expert on chaparral, citing his doctoral thesis and associated publications as evidence of such expertise, we and many others have questioned this perspective. The title of his 1978 "chaparral" thesis was "A biosocial analysis of fire management decision-making for brushland watersheds in southern California." Using a discussion based "verbal-simulation method" to examine opinions collected from personal interviews and data from public documents, he made various conclusions about wildfire policy.
"Use of this biosocial systems model has established the plausibility of the hypothesis that persistence of the fire exclusion policy is due to the structural and functional characteristics of a cybernetic system locked in a positive feedback loop. Increasing losses stimulate increasing public expenditure for fire exclusion. (Bonnicksen, T.M, and R.G. Lee. 1979. Persistence of a fire exclusion policy in southern California: a biosocial interpretation. Journal of Environmental Management 8: 277-293).
A demonstration of expertise in chaparral ecosystems? Although policy analysis and discussion models may help us develop an understanding of social issues, they are not very productive in developing an expertise in chaparral ecology, biological field methods, or wildfire behavior. Dr. Bonnicksen's career has focused on social policy, not conducting scientific field research projects designed to understand natural ecosystems or the dynamic nature of wildland fire.
Without understanding chaparral crown-fire ecosystems, ignoring data indicating that fire exclusion has not occurred in Southern California chaparral (see Myth #2 on our MYTHS page), and failing to consider all the relevant variables, Dr. Bonnicksen came to conclusions that reflect subjective opinion more than scientific truth. Such bias, usually unconscious, is what scientists endeavor to eliminate from their scientific design.
Although AM radio talk show hosts are not usually known for their objective analysis of data, Roger Hedgecock, the host of his own show on the San Diego AM radio station KOGO, has been particularly biased when fire and firefighters are the subject of his commentary. A former mayor of San Diego, who left office in 1985 after being indicted for perjury and conspiracy, Hedgecock has verbally abused the fire service, and San Diego firefighters in particular, as being a corrupt institution. During and after the 2003 Cedar Fire, Hedgecock continually questioned the region's firefighter's abilities, honesty, and competence. He also has fabricated events that never occurred in order to support his opinions.