Wild land fires have burned all summer in the state of Texas, and throughout the western United States. Arizona and New Mexico saw their share of epic blazes. Smaller fires erupted across California from its northern tip to the Mexican border.
If our fire fighting technology constantly improves, why do we seem to be engaging more and more wildfires? And why are they still able to burn out of control despite our most valiant efforts to contain them?
It is not, by an means, a failure on the part of our technology or our firefighters. Nor is it necessarily the fault of the current managers of wilderness areas now and soon be blackened by fire. It’s deeper than that. It’s older than that.
We’ve been going in the wrong direction with regard to managing fire for nearly a century, and it’s catching up with us now. We are paying the price for policy decisions made in the early 1900s, in response to horrific fire events; and we are, in a sense, victims to our own victories in earlier battles with fire.
A Value Lost
The advance of modern civilization as we have historically known it depends on “conquering’ the landscape, “taming” the wild, to the inclusion of the inhabitants of that landscapes, human, plant and animal. This is not a pattern unique to the Americas; the world over, human history is marked by successive layers of conquest and conquerers. One of the things that was lost when the Americas were discovered by the Europeans was the indigenous land management practices, which included the regular use of fire to maintain landscapes in a highly productive state.
Fire was used in the plains and on prairies to promote the growth of new grass and improve conditions for game as well as for human travel. Fire was similarly utilized in forested areas, where it would burn away excess deadfall and open the forest floor, improving visibility as well as navigation.
Another often overlooked element of land management was the function of using deadfall for fuel. Cooking and heating fires consumed much of the deadfall that chokes forest floors today. All of the small deadfall on a forest floor makes excellent kindling for the larger pieces of deadfall. Using the oldest and most dry woods first, native people kept much of the fuel load under control by burning it in small, controlled fires.
One Hundred Per Cent Suppression
The first newcomers to the Americas often spent considerable time in the presence of native people, and they observed and understood the beneficial use of fire. But they also built permanent dwellings from wood, and the more populated the Americas became, the greater became the need to keep fire away from whole towns and cities.
In the early 1900s the United States adopted a policy of 100% wildfire suppression. If a fire started, it was put out immediately. The U.S. Geological Survey concluded after a three year field study that fire had absolutely no beneficial effects, and after catastrophic fires across the country took thousands of lives and consumed whole towns and lanscapes, we, as citizens and government agencies, were galvanized against fire.
Records on forest fires in the United States start being kept around 1870. In 1871, a fire originating in Peshtigo, Wisconsin takes the lives of over 1,500 people and burns 3.8 million acres. The next major forest fire widely recognized is in 1889 in which 64 acres of the city of Seattle, Washington were destroyed.
A trend of having six to twelve years between major forest fire events continues until about 1988, the year of the Yellowstone Fire, one most of us still remember. After 1988, major fires occur roughly every two years, or every year, or there are multiple major fires in the same year, for several years in a row.
As we grow in experience and skill and devoted more resources to fighting fire, the number of fatalities is reduced and those numbers shift; more firefighters die, more citizens do not. Structures still fall in large numbers. In heavily populated areas such as southern California, where homes occupy the urban interface, the stretch of land that once buffered civilization from the wilderness (and vice versa), fires take homes by the hundreds. In 1991, over three thousand souther California residences burn in a single fire.
If the last few years are any indication, it’s a trend that isn’t going to be reversed any time soon, and it won’t be reversed by further efforts at suppression. We’ve gotten really good at fighting fire…and that is part of the problem.
Deadfall that once burned regularly, perhaps every eight or ten years, now lines forest floors across the country, unburned in forty, fifty, sixty or a hundred years. Some of that material decomposes, but in arid climates, the rate of decomposition is outstripped by the seasonal fall of fuels. Fire is the only effective means of clearing thousands of acres of deadfall at a time.
When an abundance of fuel meets a forest fire, the result is usually a fire that becomes uncontrollable. Instead of staying close to the ground, burning away dead leaves, needles, brush and overcrowded saplings, it begins to exhibit extreme fire behavior. It crowns, reaching the tops of tall trees and spreading from tree to tree above the ground, often killing trees that would easily survive a mild to moderate burn. Intense heat builds and the fire creates its own weather patterns, drawing in cool air at its base, reaching ever higher into the tree canopy, moving rapidly, defying control. Add low humidity and a wind event to this scenario, and a firestorm can be born in moments.
Fire in the forest is not an “if”, but a “when”. The longer that “when” is held back, the more time that lapses between fire events, the hotter a fire can burn, and the more potential it has for becoming destructive. That is the scenario we face now, across the country, and indeed, across the globe, as Australia, the Russian plateau and Israel join us with catastrophic fire events in the last several years.
We need to change our perspective on what fire is. It is not an enemy to fight at all costs. We cannot wage a war on wild fire indefinitely. The longer we win most of the battles, the higher the cards are stacked against us for the time when all of our efforts at prevention create the perfect fire storm and we are powerless to control it.
We are there now, in many places in the United States. The first time a fire burns in one of these areas that has been so carefully guarded against fire, the results will likely include some severe, destructive burning. There is probably no way around that. But then what? Will we do the same thing again? Or will we create a new awareness in the wake of that fire event, and allow it to be the starting point of a new management scenario that incorporates fire into the long term plans and goals for a region?
We need to make that paradigm shift…to return, in a sense, to an aboriginal understanding of fire. It won’t be an easy change to make, but it’s one whose time has arrived.