Intro -- Jim Saveland LO2831

Fri, 15 Sep 1995 15:34:22 +0000


I've been lurking here in the shadows for the past couple of months and
have enjoyed listening. I suppose it's time to introduce myself.

I'm a fire ecologist with the US Forest Service in the Department of
Agriculture. I work in the headquarters office here in Washington D.C. on
the Forest Fire & Atmospheric Sciences Research staff. I've also been a
project leader at one of our forest fire laboratories (Macon, GA), a fire
management officer on a wilderness ranger district with a very active fire
program (central Idaho), and a smokejumper (the people who parachute out
of airplanes to fight fires). If you've seen the July issue of American
Forests, Sierra, Sunset, or New Scientist, or the September issue of
Outside, you'll have an idea of the kind of work I'm involved in. It is a
classic case of "Shifting the Burden," where the problem/symptom is damage
from forest fires, the symptomatic solution has been fire suppression, the
side effect is a build-up of fuels and loss of biological diversity, and
the fundamental solution is the application of controlled burning. I
believe our organization is in the traumatic process of changing from a
culture of fire fighters (literally and figuratively) to a culture of fire
starters. The change has started, but its a long and difficult road
ahead. It sounds like David Hurst's book "Crisis & Renewal" (LO2666)
where he talks about the cycle of complex ecosystems that need to be
burned in order to be renewed is on target. For more on this subject, see
a paper I worked on called, "Disturbance Processes and Ecosystem
Management" (

I guess I was first introduced to systems thinking in a graduate course at
Georgia Tech in 1977. Our textbook was Systems Principles by Jay
Forrester. My later study and work in fire ecology has been a continuing
appreciation and work with systems.

I've enjoyed many of the discussion threads here. The discussion about
guerrilla actions to get the learning concepts into organizations applies
to my situation. The discussion about commanders, managers, and leaders
in the military reminded me of my early leadership training at the US Air
Force Academy. I went to the Academy for a couple of years where I
experienced my first high performance team - the USAF Academy parachute
team. Those of us who made the team went from knowing nothing about
jumping out of an airplane to becoming part of a team that dominated
intercollegiate championship competition year after year. Some of the more
important secrets of success included visioning exercises and accurate,
timely feedback to develop a clear picture of current reality. We didn't
call it creative tension back then, but it sure worked.

The discussion on anonymity in meetings made me think about the peer
review process for scientific journals. I'm an associate editor for the
journal Wildfire, and the journal Artificial Intelligence Applications in
Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Science. The most
common procedure is for blind peer review, i.e. the reviewers are
anonymous and the authors of the paper are revealed, though many journals
use double-blind where the authors names are removed too. This is all
done in the name of getting honest, critical comments about the scientific
worth of the paper. It has been my experience that the best reviews were
obtained when the authors of the paper were anonymous and the reviewers
names were disclosed. If fact, the best reviewers I know have a personal
policy of signing their reviews and revealing themselves to the authors,
no matter what the journal's policy is.

The discussion of signal and noise has been particularly interesting to
me. First off, it's included some talk about grass fires and someone made
the statement, "since cavemen learned to light fires." Well according to
latest evidence, that was about 1.4 million years ago. The primordial use
of fire was not for heat or light, but for religious ceremony. And it
wasn't until about 7000 BC that neolithic people acquired reliable
fire-making techniques. Around the world, native people tell remarkably
similar stories of how humans came to possess and use fire. The stories
usually involve the theft of fire from mountain gods with the aid of a
trickster/hero and a relay to pass fire from one to another. The
trickster/hero has taken a variety of forms in different parts of the
world. See Joesph Campbell's "The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology" for
more info. I also talk about it some in a paper I wrote called, "Fire in
the Forest" which I can e-mail to anyone interested. The gist of the paper
is that at a fundamental level, disturbance in ecosystems and learning in
organizations are closely linked by the concepts of death, rebirth, and

Second, my Ph.D. dissertation, "Knowledge-Based Systems Approach to
Wilderness Fire Management," dealt with applying signal detection theory
to the decisions made with the Yellowstone fires. I am currently working
on developing causal loop diagrams from a signal detection perspective
that help to illustrate some of the mental models involved in
environmental policy, such as "jobs vs. the environment."

Well I've rambled on long enough here. One last item that may be of
interest. There has been some discussion about safety here too. Following
the OSHA investigation and report on the South Canyon Fire fatalities
(where 14 firefighters died fighting a fire in Colorado last year), I
wrote a piece called "Creating a Passion for Safety vs. Management
Oversight and Inspection." The paper addresses Fritz's concept of the
difference between creating and problem solving and the "shifting the
burden" archetype. I can e-mail it to anyone that's interested.

Jim Saveland
USDA Forest Service