Writers on the Range: In search of a fearless fire policy
December 28, 2017
In his 2004 book "Scorched Earth," Idaho Statesman columnist Rocky Barker describes the desperate sprint he and a colleague made to escape a 1988 wildfire in Yellowstone National Park: "Coals were pelting his back and I could see fist-sized firebrands by my head. … The entire area turned black as night and the howling wind sounded like a jet engine. … The forest we had just left … ignited as if someone had lit a match to gasoline."
Wildfire can be as terrifying as any natural force on Earth, and if we needed a reminder of this, we got it with this year's dramatic season. But while 2017 may be remembered for its destructiveness, it may also be remembered as the year fear-based responses to fire began to lose some of their power.
Naturally, a few politicians reprised their old hits — castigating environmentalists for halting any and all logging projects. Mike Noel, a Republican lawmaker from Utah, blamed a major fire in his state on the surrender of U.S. Forest Service policy to "the bird and bunny lovers and the tree huggers and the rock lickers." Environmentalists countered that climate change-denying politicians, by propping up the fossil fuel industry, are helping to light the matches for future firestorms.
But neither side is doing much to create lasting solutions on the ground that could help overcome a century of fear-based management in the West. That culture of fear stems back to the summer of 1910, when drought, high winds and cinders from locomotive engines created wildfires that burned nearly 3 million acres in Montana and Idaho in a matter of days. The year after the Big Blowup, as it was called, Congress doubled the federal firefighting budget and passed legislation calling for federal cooperation with state and local agencies to snuff out wildfires.
The war on forest fire had begun. Despite understanding as far back as the 1920s that wildfire has an essential role in maintaining forest health, and despite the Forest Service's adoption of "let it burn" policies in the 1970s, we still snuff out 97 percent of all blazes under 300 acres, said Mark Finney, a Forest Service fire researcher based in Missoula, Montana. One hundred years of suppression has encouraged the growth of dense, even-aged forests that burn dangerously hot and fast, he said. Every time we put out small fires, we set up the next major fire. "What type of fire do you want, and when?" he asked. "If you only want the worst ones, then we are doing a pretty good job of it."
"Wildfire is the scariest thing in the world for a manager," said Lincoln Bramwell, who was a firefighter during the 1990s and is now the Forest Service's chief historian. "Your career can be on the line, even if the regional forester says, 'We've got your back.' So your answer is always, 'Go put it out.'"
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One manager who has resisted the pressure is Mike Elson, a district ranger in Flagstaff, Arizona, for the past nine years. In the summer of 2016, Elson let the lightning-sparked Mormon Fire burn for several weeks, slowly charring more than 8,000 acres of ponderosa pine on the edge of town. He finally ordered his team to put it out when people down valley in Sedona complained about the smoke. The residents of Flagstaff, however, were mostly fine with the blaze.
That's because, Elson said, education and experience have taught them that their forests need to be thinned and burned. A major fire in 2010 resulted in post-fire floods that hit hundreds of homes, battered roads and utilities and caused $155 million in damage. With that memory fresh in mind, Flagstaff voters overwhelmingly passed a $10 million bond measure in 2012 to thin forests around the city.
The Mormon Fire was a mellow fire. Located in Flagstaff's municipal watershed, it helped reduce the fuels that would have driven the next major fire. Flagstaff, in other words, had created a fearless fire policy. "They just get it," Elson said.
Can the West as a whole get it now? Across the region, serious conversations are taking place over everything from managing spiraling firefighting costs to coping with wildfire smoke. And dozens of national forests are currently collaborating with loggers and conservationists to thin and intentionally burn forests.
We need more of this kind of work, and more funding to back it. We need a more nuanced social contract with fire; we have to, at long last, embrace the West's natural "pyrodiversity."
The 2017 fire season made one thing abundantly clear: Fire management is ultimately a social issue driven by humans and their emotions. Reactive moves by Congress to suspend environmental regulations and retreat to the good old days of logging are not the answer. Neither is just sitting back and letting the forests burn. We may never get over our fear of fire, but we can manage both our fears and the forests entrusted to us.
Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the executive director/publisher of the magazine in Paonia.