Purpose of Review
Prescribed fire escapes continue to challenge most fire and land management agencies and many communities. This article considers the issue from knowledge management (KM) and organizational learning (OL) perspectives. We review organizational initiatives and the literature that have developed over the last 10 years to support learning from escaped prescribed fires, then use this to evaluate current learning practices and identify potential next frontiers for improving performance. Due to the difficulty obtaining statistics for non-federal entities, this review focuses primarily on developments in the US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, but also captures reviews from the US Department of Interior, and the State of Victoria, Australia.
The recurring issue of prescribed fire escapes may in part be explained by the increasing challenges and expectations fire and land management agencies and prescribed fire managers face. Agencies are being asked to burn more area and suitably contain prescribed fires with fewer resources. In many jurisdictions, this challenge is heightened by increasingly tough climate conditions, shifting demographics internal and external to their agencies, changing patterns of land use, and requirements to meet increasing fuel reduction targets. A range of interventions has been developed and implemented by state and federal land and fire management agencies to support improved performance through KM and OL. However, prescribed fires continue to escape, often for the same reasons they always have, leading us to ask: is there a next frontier or level for improving performance though learning?
This paper reviews recent developments in KM and OL to develop a model of organizational learning for prescribed fire. We then use this lens to review learning from prescribed burn escapes in Australia and the USA, highlighting the opportunities and challenges that agencies continue to face. Four areas of concentration to further strengthen OL are proposed, namely (i) strengthening the organizational learning culture, (ii) greater use of communities of practice to enhance lesson sharing, (iii) addressing the slow build time for prescribed burning expertise to replace pending retirements, and (iv) improving non-technical skills and human factors training.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
The term bushfire is a collective term used by Australians to describe fire in the rural countryside and includes grass, scrub, and forest . A bushfire is known as wildland fire in North America.
In the USA, when project resources are not able, or are projected to not be able, to contain any fire outside of the approved burn unit within 24 h, it must be declared an escape. Sometimes an escape is also called when additional funds are needed to pay for contingency resources.
In Victoria, the Forests Act of 1958 designates that DELWP is “responsible for the immediate prevention and suppression of fire and for planned prevention of fires in state forests, national parks and on public protected land” [32, p. 4]. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) is responsible for suppression and prevention of fire on private land in the more rural areas of the state.
The 2018 FLA Implementation Guide cautions against trying to make too much of a single data point (any single event), and falling into the trap of causality, which often leads to creation of “fixes” in the form of system-level changes via recommendations .
AFAC: Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (www.afac.com.au/).
“Residual risk” is 100% if none of the land has been burnt. It is not possible to reduce this risk to zero. A benchmark of 70% is seen as a practical figure.
In 2003, a prescribed fire escaped from the Cobaw State Forest, an incident that pre-dated the 2015 Lancefield-Cobaw fire escape. The 2003 escape formed the basis of a staff ride developed in 2012 .
Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance
Adams M. Bushfires, changing climates and water. 2009 Australian Environment Foundation annual conference: environmentalism: a climate of conflict, Canberra, 20 October 2009 October 20th; Rydges Capital Hill, Canberra: Australian Environment Foundation; 2009.
Gedalof Z. Climate and spatial patterns of wildfire in North America. In: McKenzie D, Miller C, Falk DA, editors. The landscape ecology of fire. Dordrecht: Springer; 2011. p. 89–115.
Pyne SJ. Burning bush - a fire history of Australia. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press; 1991.
Ryan KC, Knapp EE, Varner JM. Prescribed fire in North American forests and woodlands: history, current practice, and challenges. Front Ecol Environ. 2013;11:e15–24. https://doi.org/10.1890/120329.
AFAC. Overview of prescribed burning in Australia: report for the National Burning Project - subproject 1. Melbourne: Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council; 2015.
Bowman D. The impact of aboriginal landscape burning on the Australian biota. New Phytol. 1998;140:385–410. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8137.1998.00289.x.
Gammage B. The biggest estate on earth: how aborigines made Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin; 2012.
Pyne SJ. Fire in America: a cultural history of wildland and rural fire. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press; 1997.
DELWP. Reducing Victoria’s bushfire risk: fuel management report 2016–2017. Melbourne: Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP); 2017.
Luke RH, McArthur AG. Bushfires in Australia. Canberra: Department of Primary Industry; 1978.
Penman TD, Christie FJ, Anderson AN, Bradstock RA, Cary CJ, Henderson MK, et al. Prescribed burning: how can it work to conserve the things we value? Int J Wildland Fire. 2011;20:721–33. https://doi.org/10.1071/WF09131.
Duncan BD, Schmalzer PA, Breininger DR, Stolen ED. Comparing fuels reduction and patch mosaic fire regimes for reducing fire plead potential: a spatial modeling approach. Ecol Model. 2015;314:90–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2015.07.013.
Driscoll DA, Lindenmayer DB, Bennett AF, Bode M, Bradstock RA, Cary GJ, et al. Fire management for biodiversity conservation: key research questions and our capacity to answer them. Biol Conserv. 2010;143:1928–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2010.05.026.
U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service. Wildland fire: what is a prescribed fire? Web Series wildland fire – learning in depth. 2017.www.nps.gov/articles/what-is-a-prescribed-fire.htm#.
Western Australia, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, parks and wildlife service. Prescribed burning web page Accessed Dec 2019 www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/fire/prescribed-burning
• OBRM. Report of the circumstances that led to the escapes of planned burns in the South West and Great Southern refions of Western Australia on 24 and 25 May 2018. Perth: Office of Bushfire Risk Management; 2018. dfes.wa.gov.au/waemergencyandriskmanagement/obrm/Documents/Final-Report-Circumstances-Escape-of-Planned-Burns-SW-and-GS-Region-24-25-May-2018.pdf. In depth review of a cluster of prescribed fire escapes during 2018 in southern Western Australia.
Butsic V, Kelly M, Moritz MA. Land use and wildfire: a review of local interactions and teleconnections. Land. 2015;4:140–56. https://doi.org/10.3390/land4010140.
Fernandes PM, Davies GM, Ascoli D, Fernández C, Moreira F, Rigolot E, et al. Prescribed burning in southern Europe: developing fire management in a dynamic landscape. Front Ecol Environ. 2013;11:e4–e14. https://doi.org/10.1890/120298.
Hammer RB, Stewart SI, Radeloffe VC. Demographic trends, the wildland-urban-interface, and wildfire management (Working Paper RSP 08–01). Corvallis, OR: Rural Studies Program, Oregon State University; 2008.
Keelty MJ. Appreciating the risk: report of the special inquiry into the November 2011 Margaret River bushfire. Perth: Department of Premier and Cabinet, Western Austrlia; 2012.
Montiel C, Kraus D, editors. Best practices of fire use - prescribed burning and suppression fire programmes in selected case-study regions of Europe. Joensuu: European Forest Institute; 2010.
• Melvin MA. 2018 National prescribed fire use survey report (Technical Report 03-18). USA: National Association of State Foresters & Coalition of prescribed fire councils; 2018. Survey of prescribed burning use in the US highlights the main impediments for land managers.
Kobziar LN, Godwin D, Taylor L, Watts AC. Perspectives on trends, effectiveness, and impediments to prescribed burning in the southern US. Forests. 2015;6(3):561–80. https://doi.org/10.3390/f6030561.
Quinn-Davidson LN, Varner JM. Impediments to prescribed fire across agency, landscape and manager: an example from northern California. Int J Wildland Fire. 2012;21(3):210–8. https://doi.org/10.1071/WF11017.
Lepine F, Opio C, Ayers D. An analysis of escaped prescribed fires from broadcast burning in the Prince George region of British Columbia. BC J Eco Manag. 2003;3(2):1–9.
Keane RE, Ryan KC, Veblen TT, Allen CD, Logan J, Hawkes B. Cascading effects of fire exclusion in the Rocky Mountain ecosystems: a literature review (RMRS-GTR-91). Fort Collins: Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station; 2002.
Piñol J, Castellnou M, Beven KK. Conditioning uncertainty in ecological models: assessing the impact of fire management strategies. Ecol Model. 2007;207(1):34–44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2007.03.020.
Lucas C, Hennessy K, Mills G, Bathols J. Bushfire weather in Southeast Australia: recent trends and projected climate change impacts. Melbourne: Climate Change Institute of Australia; 2007.
Hamiliton BA. 2014 Quadrennial Fire Review. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service and Department of the Interior; 2015.
CSIRO. Bureau of Meteorology. State of the climate. 5th ed. Canberra: CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology; 2018.
Seidl R, Schelhaas M, Lexer MJ. Unraveling the drivers of intensifying forest disturbance regimes in Europe. Glob Chang Biol. 2011;17:2842–52. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2486.2011.02452.x.
Carter M, Howard T, Haylock K, Philpotts V, Richards J. Independent investigation of the Lancefield-Cobaw fire. Melbourne: Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning; 2015.
IGEM. Review of performance targets for bushfire fuel management on public land. Melbourne: Inspector-General for Emergency Management; 2015.
Thompson MP, Calkin DE. Uncertainty and risk in wildland fire management: a review. J Environ Manag. 2011;92:1895–909. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2011.03.015.
Office of Environment and Heritage. NPWS Future operational capability in fire management: 2016–2026. Sydney: Office of Environment and Heritage; 2016.
Burrows N. The great escapes. Fire Australia. 2017;3:35–7.
National Park Service. Cerro Grande prescribed fire: Board of inquiry final report. February 26 2001.
Maupin J. Thirteen prescribed fire situations that shout watch out! Fire Management Notes. 1981;42(4):10.
Maupin J. Thirteen prescribed fire situations that shout watch out! Fire Management Today. 2006;66(1):107.
Jin JZ, McRae, DJ. Prescribed fire excursion index: a comprehensive index for predicting prescribed fire excursions. in 13th Fire and Forest Meteorology Conference. Lorne, Australia. IAWF; 1998, pp. 509–515.
Weir JR, Coffey RS, Russell ML, Baldwin CE, Twidwell D, Cram D, et al. Prescribed burning: spotfires and escapes NREM-2903. Stillwater, OK: Division of Agricultural and Natural Sciences, Oklahoma State University; 2017.
Moriarty K, Cheng AS, Hoffman CM, Cottrell SP, Alexander ME. Firefighter observations of “surprising” fire behavior in mountain pine beetle-attacked lodgepole pine forests. Fire. 2019;2(2):34. https://doi.org/10.3390/fire2020034.
• Black AE, Saveland J, Thomas D, Ziegler JA. Using escaped prescribed fire reviews to improve organizational learning. Final Report to Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP project 10–2–05-1): USDA Forest Service 2012.
Antonacopoulou E, Chiva R. The social complexity of organizational learning: the dynamics of learning and organizing. Manag Learn. 2007;38(3):277–95. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350507607079029.
Ghili S, Nazarian S, Tavana M, Keyvanshokouhi S, Isaai MT. A complex systems paradox of organizational learning and knowledge management. International Journal Knowledge-Based Organizations. 2013;3(3):53–72. https://doi.org/10.4018/ijkbo.2013070104.
Castaneda DI, Manrique LF, Cuellar S. Is organizational learning being absorbed by knowledge management? A systematic review. J Knowl Manag. 2018;22(2):299–325. https://doi.org/10.1108/JKM-01-2017-0041.
Argote L. Organizational learning: creating, retaining and transferring knowledge. 2nd ed. New York: Springer; 2013.
Fiol CM, Lyles MA. Organizational learning. Acad Manag Rev. 1985;10(4):803–13.
• Argote L, Miron-Spektor E. Organizational leaning: from experience to knowledge. Organization Science. 2011;22(5):1123–37. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1100.0621Paper offers a framework for analysing organizational learning.
Hong J, Snell R, Rowley C. Organizational learning in Asia: issues and challenges. Amsterdam: Elsevier; 2017.
Dixon NM. The learning cycle: how we can collectively learn. 2nd ed. London: Gower; 1999.
Savolainen T. How organizations promote and avoid learning: development of positive and negative learning cycles. J Workplace Learn. 2000;12(5):195–204. https://doi.org/10.1108/13665620010336198.
Ziegler JA. The story behind an organizational list: a genealogy of wildland firefighters' 10 standard fire orders. Commun Monogr. 2007;74(4):415–42. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637750701716594.
Simon HA. Bounded rationality and organizational learning. Organ Sci. 1991;2(1):125–34.
Glynn MA, Lant TK, Milliken FJ. Mapping learning processes in organizations: a multi-level framework for linking learning and organizing. In: Stubbart C, Meindl JR, Porac JF, editors. Advances in managerial cognition and organizational information processing. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press; 1994. p. 43–83.
• Christianson M, Farkas M, Sutcliffe K, Weick KE. Learning through rare events: significant interruptions at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. Organization Science. 2009;20(5):846–60. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1080.0389Highlights the opportunities for learning from rare events.
Edmondson A, Harvey JF. Extreme teaming: lessons in complex, cross-sector leadership. Bingley: Emerald Publishing; 2017.
Argyris C, Schon D. Theory in practice: increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass; 1974.
• Owen C. How emergency services organisations can - and do - utilise research. Australian Journal of Emergency Management. 2018;33(2):28–33 Outlines some of the impediments for organizations to adopting research.
Edmondson A. Teaming: how organizations learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2012.
Jahn JLS, Black AE. A model of communicative and hierarchical foundations of high reliability organizing in wildland firefighting teams. Manag Commun Q. 2017;31(3):356–79. https://doi.org/10.1177/0893318917691358.
Weick KE, Sutcliffe KM. Managing the unexpected: sustained performance in a complex world. Mahwah, NJ: Wiley; 2015.
• Edmondson A. The fearless organization: creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley; 2019. Furthers the case for psychological safety in enabling organizational learning.
Goldman S. February 2017 Webinar. Common denominators for escaped prescribed fires in the lake states – overview of escaped prescribed fires in the eastern region of the U.S. Forest Service and methods for situational searning. Fuels Program, Eastern Regional Office, USDA Forest Service. senr.osu.edu/events/common-denominators-escaped-prescribed-fires-lake-states.
OBRM. Summary of 2016–17 fuel reduction activities in Western Australia. Perth: Office of Bushfire Risk Management; 2017.
USDA Forest Service. The facilitated learning analysis implementation guide 2018.
Klein G. The power of intuition: how to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work. New York: Currency/Double Day; 2003.
Black AE, Sutcliffe KM, Barton M. After-action reviews - who conducts them? Fire Management Today. 2009;69(3):15–7.
National Wildfire Coordinating Group. PMS 484: interagency prescribed fire planning and implementation procedures guide. 2017; www.nwcg.gov/publications/484.
Barton M, Sutcliffe KM. Overcoming dysfunctional momentum: organizational safety as a social achievement. Hum Relat. 2009;62(9):1327–56. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726709334491.
USDA Forest Service. Pole creek prescribed fire facilitated learning analysis. Bridger-Teton National Forest. 9/9/2014.
The Nature Conservancy. Prescribed fire training exchanges. The Nature Conservancy. 2017. www.conservationgateway.org/CONSERVATIONPRACTICES/FIRELANDSCAPES/HABITATPROTECTIONANDRESTORATION/TRAINING/TRAININGEXCHANGES/Pages/fire-training-exchanges.aspx. Accessed March 10 2019.
Weick KE, Sutcliffe KM. Managing the unexpected: resilient performance in and age of uncertainty. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2007.
Klein G, Snowden D, Lock Pin C. Anticipatory thinking. In: Mosier K, Fischer U. Editors. Proceedings of the eighth international NDM conference. Eds. K. Pacific Grove, CA, 2007. p 1–8.
McLennan J, Elliott G, Holgate AM. Anticipatory thinking and managing complex tasks: wildfire fighting safety and effectiveness. In Proceedings of the APS I-O Conference, Sydney, Australia; 2009. p. 90–95.
Constantinides P. The failure of foresight in crises management: a secondary analysis of the Mari disaster. Tech Forecast Soc Chang. 2012;80(2013):1657–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2012.10.017.
Turner BA. The organizational and interorganizational development of disasters. Adm Sci Q. 1976;21(3):378–97.
Teague B, McLeod R, Pascoe S. 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission: final report. Melbourne: Parliament of Victoria; 2010.
Sparkes D. National Burning Project: summary of achievements. Melbourne: AFAC; 2018.
Esnouf GA. National burning project: towards a more holistic and consistent approach to prescribed burning. June 27th 2017; Northern Australia Fire Managers Forum: AFAC & BNHCRC; 2017.
AFAC. National position on prescribed burning. Melbourne: Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council; 2016.
AFAC. Best practice principles for prescribed burning. Melbourne: Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council; 2017.
AFAC. Risk management framework for prescribed burning. Melbourne: Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council; 2017.
AFAC. Prescribed burning national capability optimisation. Melbourne: Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council; 2018.
AFAC. Prescribed burning training competencies and delivery review. Melbourne: Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council; 2018.
Sparkes D, Black P, Richards R, Douglas J. Tasmania shares prescribed burning approach. Fire Australia. 2018;3:16–7.
AFAC. Prescribed burning performance measurement framework. Melbourne: Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council; 2018.
Penman TD. There is no single solution to the tragedy of escaped fires. The Conversation. 2015 October 9th 2015.
Gray D. Victorian bushfires 2015: Lancefield fire report finds ‘significant shortcomings’ in handling of burn-offs. The Age. 2015 November 19th 2015.
Edwards J. Lancefield bushfire: Controlled burn that destroyed homes ‘poorly planned, under-staffed’. ABC News. 2015 November 19th 2015.
AAP. Residents flee to beach as bushfire destroys homes. Sydney Morning Herald. 2011 November 24th 2011.
Anon. Toll from Margaret River fire continues to rise. ABC News. 2011 November 26th 2011.
NSW RFS. Escaped fires prompt warning from NSW RFS. Sydney: NSW Rural Fire Service; 2013.
DELWP. Lancefield-Cobaw: implementation of Lancefield recommendations and commitments is complete. Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Melbourne. 2017. www.ffm.vic.gov.au/history-and-incidents/lancefield-cobaw. Accessed December 31 2018.
DELWP. Safer together: a new appraoch to reducing the risk of bushfire in Victoria. Melbourne: Depatment of Environment, Land, Water and Planning; 2015.
English A. Prescribed burning on public land in Victoria: redesigning team structures and tactical planning. Aust J Emerg Manag. 2018;33(4):69–74.
IGEM. Summary of investigations into Department of Environment, land, water and planning breaches of controlled burn lines 2016–2017. Melbourne: Inspector-General for Emergency Management; 2018.
DELWP. Are we learning from our mistakes? Melbourne: Department of Environment. Land: Water and Planning; 2015.
Slijepcevic A, Haynes J, Buckley A, Salter L, Frye LM, McHugh P. Improving learning and development for joint agency incident management teams in Victoria. In: Thornton R, editor. Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority Council (AFAC) Conference; 29–30 August; Perth, WA: AFAC; 2012. https://doi.org/10.13140/2.1.4191.3928.
Hayes P. Coaching and mentoring - research insights into good practice. Melbourne: AFAC; 2018.
Stack S, Owen C. Evaluation report: Cobaw staff ride program. Melbourne: Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre; 2012.
IGEM. Summary of investigations into Department of Environment, land, water and planning breaches of controlled burn lines 1 January to 30 June 2016. Melbourne: Inspector-General for Emergency Management; 2016.
• English A. Knowing fire: exploring the scope and management of the tacit fire knowledge of agency staff. Aust J Emerg Manag. 2016;31(2):7–12 Highlights the central role that tacit knowledge plays in complex endeavours such as prescribed burning.
McDonald G, Mohan S, Jackson D, Vickers MH, Wilkes L. Continuing connections: the experiences of retired and senior working nurse mentors. J Clin Nurs. 2010;19:3547–54. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2702.2010.03365.x.
Megginson D, Clutterbuck D. Mentoring in action. London: Kogan Page; 1995.
Gregory D, Shanahan P. Being human in safety-critical organisations. Norwich: TSO; 2017.
Flin R, O'Connor P, Crichton M. Safety at the sharp end: a guide to non-technical skills. Aldershot: Ashgate; 2008.
AFAC. Human factors research evidence enhances AIIMS incident management capability - AFAC case study. Melbourne: Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council; 2016.
AFAC. The Australasian inter-service incident management system (AIIMS2017). Melbourne: Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council; 2017.
Stack S. Creating cultures of reflective learning in the emergency services: two case studies. In: Owen C, editor. Human factors challenges in emergency management. Farnham: Ashgate; 2014. p. 195–218.
Johnson C. Expert decision making and the use of worst case scenario thinking. In: Owen C, editor. Human factors challenges in emergency management. Farnham: Ashgate; 2014. p. 35–55.
We would like to thank Dr. Marty Alexander for his encouragement to conduct this review and his guidance throughout. We also whole-heartedly thank two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments and suggestions.
Conflict of Interest
All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent
This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
This article is part of the Topical Collection on Fire Science and Management
Electronic supplementary material
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Black, A.E., Hayes, P. & Strickland, R. Organizational Learning from Prescribed Fire Escapes: a Review of Developments Over the Last 10 Years in the USA and Australia. Curr Forestry Rep 6, 41–59 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40725-019-00108-0
- Prescribed fire
- Organizational learning
- Knowledge management
- Escaped fire