How Fire, Once a Friend of Forests, Became a Destroyer

The roots of today’s massive wildfires, says historian and former firefighter Stephen Pyne, lie in the old misconception that all fire is bad.

This summer, eye-watering smoke hung over much of the western United States, and flames threatened homes, towns, and even the giant sequoias of Kings Canyon National Park. By mid-November, wildfires had burned 9.8 million acres across the country, and 2015 was on track to become the biggest fire year in at least a decade. Rising temperatures, drought, and dense forests created by decades of fire suppression are contributing to larger, faster-moving wildfires. And as more people move into the woods, fires of all sizes are becoming more dangerous and destructive. (Check out an interactive map of this year’s fires.)

Historian Stephen Pyne has watched this crisis develop for almost half a century. In 1967, just a few days after graduating from high school, he joined the forest fire crew on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and spent the next fifteen summers fighting fires in northern Arizona. Now a professor at Arizona State University, he has spent his career studying the history of wildfire and wildland firefighting in the U.S. and around the world.

In his new book Between Two Fires, Pyne examines the roots of the U.S. wildfire crisis. He finds that while the Forest Service and other agencies have long recognized that frequent, relatively small fires can reduce the risk of large, catastrophic burns, they have been unable to restore a natural cycle of fire to the forest.

Speaking from his home office in Arizona, Pyne reflected on this impasse. “If we keep fighting a war with fire, three things are going to happen,” he says. “We’re going to spend a lot of money, we’re going to take a lot of casualties, and we’re going to lose.”

In first half of the 20th century, you write, the U.S. Forest Service suffered from “pyrophobia”—it tried to suppress all wildfires. Where did that policy come from?

The science of forestry grew up in temperate Europe—France and Germany particularly—and there, unlike most parts of the world, there’s no natural basis for fire. Fire was seen as a human problem, caused by people, and that attitude was exported to foresters in the United States.

In 1910, when the Forest Service was just a fledgling agency, a fire called the Big Blowup, or the Big Burn, blew over the Northern Rockies. It burned more than three million acres, and killed 78 firefighters in one afternoon. It traumatized the agency, scarring a whole generation of personnel. The Forest Service became convinced that if only it had the resources, it could control all fires. (See the faces of some wildland firefighters today.)

What have been the effects of that policy?

There’s a huge cost to removing all fires from landscapes that have grown up accustomed to them. Fuels—dry wood, leaves, other materials—build up in the forest, and the whole ecological integrity of the system unravels. Simply trying to eliminate fire helps to promote conditions in most places that make for more severe fires with larger consequences and damages, making them more uncontrollable. It costs more and more money to try to keep a lid on the situation, so there’s an economic cost.

There’s also a cost in lives—civilian lives, and firefighter lives. Sustainability is an overused and sloppy term, but this is not a sustainable project. We cannot continue to do this.

Even a century ago, though, some people recognized that fire had an important role in ecosystems. Who were they and what was their influence?

For half a century after the Big Blowup, the Forest Service was remarkably successful at excluding fire from the forest. But there were always pockets of people out there who didn’t accept that policy. People interested in prairie restoration realized if they didn’t burn, they didn’t have prairies; people in the coastal plains, particularly the old longleaf pine forests in Florida and elsewhere, realized that without fire these systems degraded to the point that they were unusable.

In August 1910, just as the Big Blowup was ripping through the Northern Rockies, a public debate that became known as the light-burning controversy flared up in California. Advocates of light burning said, Look, this whole suppression thing is misguided. We should be emulating the Native Americans, who burn these places lightly and routinely. If we don’t do that, we’re going to have diseased forests, we’re going to have insect outbreaks, and we’re going to have a buildup of fuels that will lead to catastrophic fires. They called it all.

The state engineer of California was in favor of it. A lot of timber owners were in favor of it. The Southern Pacific Railroad was in favor of it, for heaven’s sake.

But that made it very suspect to the Forest Service. It was seen as a challenge to public forestry, to public land, and to forestry as a science. And so the Native American approach was dismissed as “Paiute forestry,” and unacceptable to a new world power.

In the 1950s, another wave of dissent led to a revolution in forestry. What happened?

The protests finally found a megaphone in the Tall Timbers Research Station, a former hunting plantation north of Tallahassee, Florida. It was privately endowed and, in 1958, it was dedicated to the study of fire.

The annual Tall Timbers conference, which began in 1962, was a place where critics could argue for naturalness of fire and the value of fire in working landscapes.

And they won. By 1968, the National Park Service supported a program of fire restoration. By 1978, so did the Forest Service. It was like watching the Berlin Wall come down.

But it was a revolution at the top, and no one knew how to make it happen in the field. What does it really mean to put fire back in the forest? In many ways, it’s like restoring a lost species: If the habitat isn’t there, it’s not going to behave properly. So how do we restore it, and how do we pay for it? There were all these unanswered questions, and when it comes to fire, there’s not a lot of tolerance for errors.

So is the problem just that restoring fire to the forest is complicated? Why, even though we’ve had the policy for decades and in most cases even the funding, hasn’t it happened on any meaningful scale?

Politics is part of it. Nobody speaks for fire. There are people who speak for logging, people who speak for endangered species, and people who speak for action on climate change, but there’s no lobby for fire. Fire is only used to animate other messages, so it gets caught up in existing political stalemates.

Since the end of the 1980s, we’ve also been feeling the effects of global warming, and in the western U.S. we’ve been in a long drought cycle that has made everything more fire-prone. We have a legacy of fuels built up in the forest, we have issues with fire-prone invasive species, and we’ve recolonized what used to be rural America with urban out-migration. All of that has reduced our room to maneuver with fire. Almost every compass needle points in the wrong direction, and until we start getting some breaks, there’s not much that’s going to change.

The Nature Conservancy emerges as one of the heroes of your story. What was and is their influence on fire management?

The Nature Conservancy started managing fire on its large-scale prairie sites in the Midwest, and when it moved into Florida, where prescribed fire is a part of life and has been for decades, it became a much more serious fire agency. [Editor’s note: A “prescribed” fire is one deliberately set by land managers.] The Nature Conservancy now burns as much or more land as the National Park Service does each year—and it doesn’t just burn to reduce fuel, but also to enhance habitats and promote species. It shows that it’s possible to be nimble, to use small numbers and technology to get the burning done.

So what’s the path toward a safer, more ecologically sound relationship with fire?

There are places where prescribed fire is working, but it’s not going to work on a large scale, especially not in the West. It’s too filled with liability issues, it’s too costly, it’s too complicated. So on the national level, we’re seeing a strong push for what’s being called “managed wildfire.” Fire crews are putting their suppression efforts where they count most, around communities or municipal watersheds or sequoia groves, and otherwise backing off.

This is how we’re getting the burning we need done: We’re going back to the next ridge, or to the lake, or letting the fire burn up to a summit. These are actively managed fires. But they’re managed in a way that allows us to get a lot more acres burned. (Read a National Geographic photographer’s story from inside a firefighting operation.)

That approach seems to recognize the reality that we’re not putting out most of these very large fires—they’re being extinguished when the weather changes.

We’re not helpless. We can keep these fires from burning prized assets if we wish. But I think managed wildfire is an acknowledgement that despite our bold talk, we’re not going to get ahead of the problem, and that we have to manage it. The climate, the fuels, the invasive species, the insect outbreaks, and whatever else is coming at us—there’s no way we’re going to get ahead of most of this stuff. We’re only going to do that very selectively.

Follow Michelle Nijhuis on Twitter.

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