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The Right Question  Changing Our Relationship with Wildland Fire

 

Wildfire has become a subject of great interest out west over recent years and a subject of much complexity. There are many voices advocating many directions but often most of them are anchored around a single question:

How do we become, and remain, safe from wildfire?

I think that question is a problem. Regardless of the possible variations in understanding and intention, it positions wildfire as simply a threat, a marauding force coming for us and against which we need to mount a defense. It sets a baseline for hostility to wildfire and it enables an ongoing climate of fear with regard to wildfire and our likely responses to it.

A better question might be this:

How do we normalize our relationship with wildland fire?

This question still allows for sensible safety measures but also suggests that fire is a fact. We want to ‘normalize’ relations with it because it’s a legitimate fact, a fact that has standing among the other facts of the landscape and environments and life in general.

Because that is truly the case with wildland fire*.

We have a wildfire problem right now primarily because we have treated wildfire as an enemy, as a bad thing in nature that we thought we could beat.  We spent a hundred years trying to put all fires out and it just hasn’t worked out. Many want to believe that our wildfire problem is a climate problem, that’s why it’s in our face all of a sudden. But it’s nowhere near that simple. Wildfire is, primarily, a problem of landscape health and the climate factors pertinent to landscape health are minor compared to the larger problem of a simple glut of un-burned, untreated fuel that coats nearly every acre of wild ground in the West.

And my point is not that we can’t beat fire (though we can’t).  The more important point is that our attempts to beat it have revealed just how valuable fire is to us.  We shouldn’t “beat” it.

It’s well understood by many that fire does a job that is both necessary and highly effective. Fire cleans our landscape, at least out west. It is the most important tool in keeping the landscape tidy and it is precisely why early explorers in the west we’re so struck by the unique open character of western forests and landscapes.  No other mechanism does the major housekeeping out here.

When we fired the housekeeper (by adopting a full fire suppression policy back in 1910 or so) the house started getting messy. So messy that now when it finally burns, it burns hot. So messy that the cleanup task is difficult. Not unlike a teenager’s room. Let it go too long and it just gets uglier.

So how do we normalize our relationship with fire?

First, the house is, in fact, very messy. The forests are thick and the grasslands are filling with brush and much of what we have been taught to think of as pretty is actually a weed problem. It needs to get cleaned up. It needs a lot of attention and it needs it fast.

Nature, however, is not gone. It’s here and it’s doing that job right now regardless of our concerns. It’s delivering massive fires each year because there is so much fuel. It can’t help but burn. It absurd to expect otherwise. Nature is an obsessive housekeeper.

Surprisingly, if you stand back and look clearly, that clean up job is working for much of the landscape. Yes… I’m suggesting that some portions of our catastrophic fires are resulting in healthier forests.  If you step away from the screen and get out and tour burn sites, especially a year or three later, it starts to become clear.  Fire is doing good work in many places. Not all, but many. Once you can see it for yourself without the help of the TV cameras, you notice that many of the fires that burn, and portions of every fire that burns, do valuable cleanup work without affecting human values. Some of those fires need to burn.

 

Nature is catching up.

But portions of many fires are also damaging a lot of human values and some natural ones in the process. Those fires are burning too hot for some landscapes and fully transforming them in less desirable ways.

Which means there is a lot of work required to protect key values while fire is catching up.  That doesn’t mean just preventing fires until we clean house ourselves. Preventing fires is the shank of the problem.

So why can’t we clean the whole house ourselves? Cut nature out of the job? Do it neatly without collateral damage?

Because it’s a hard job and long and we simply can’t do all of it.  We don’t have the time.  The cost exceeds our capabilities, especially when fire can do the same job in weeks that it might take us years and billions of dollars to do. Nature is by far the cheaper, faster contractor. And Nature is already under contract.

We can, however, work on some very important parts of the job, the parts near town, the parts around our houses, ranches and farms.  We can fiddle with the forest in such a way that the fires, when they do come, will be modified, slowed, routed and otherwise corralled. We can build shaded fuel breaks and restore oak woodlands and create natural interruptions to fire that are functional and beautiful. We can treat key sections of the landscape so that we can manage fire, shape it, herd it and allow it do do good work.

The means and methods by which we do that is a long story with much nuance. But I am certain that approach is the proper direction.

Rather than spend our treasure trying to stop fire, or spend it trying to do fire’s job, we should focus what we have strategically, tactically to affect fire in exactly the right place at exactly the right time and in exactly the right proportion.  Robust planning and analysis, a comprehensive set of strategic actions and a willingness to work together as neighbors and community are key elements.

We need to approach fire the way we have approached other landscape-scale projects in history, not in isolated “wack-a-mole” fashion, but holistically, with a clear understanding of what we can do and what we can quite properly let nature do. We need to see wildland fire not as a threat, but simply as a project, a large program of projects. One in which we build a functional relationship with various facts of the landscape, the same way we deal with most of the projects of civilization.

How will such a project unfold? That’s the bigger story, one we address in detail in subsequent papers.

But there’s an initial ingredient that is very important, a counterintuitive stance that will surprise many. Because first we’ll have to learn to appreciate fire, to see its beauty as well as its power. We’ll need to learn that the most beautiful places in the west are not simply adapted to fire, they are dependent on it, they were invented by fire. That’s a tough puzzle to assemble.  But we’ve had fire in the landscape almost as long as we’ve had plants, nearly half a billion years.

The present model that still focuses on making fire go away has resulted in, sometimes, as much destruction as might have been delivered by fire. Massive tree removal, “hardened” landscapes, hardened infrastructure, hardened houses. The language of fire prevention is not unlike the language used in prison design. That language gives us a hint that it might be the wrong approach and the results on the ground are not satisfying at all. Once beautiful landscapes are being chopped up and adjusted and denatured to the extent that some former burn sites often look more attractive than protected sites. There’s no point living and working in the country when you have to pave the landscape just to be safe…

The other approach, the one we call Fire-Normal, offers a different outcome. Rather than preventing all fire, it seeks to manage fire, permit fire, and accommodate fire while protecting things very close to us. It seeks balance between human values and the necessary functions of nature. It still includes putting out some fires. But it also includes letting both natural and man-made fire do a valuable job. It also means a different approach to land stewardship, one that has us out there much more actively thinking about the landscape from a shared interest perspective and doing far more than just hiking in it and looking at it.

The all-fire-is-bad approach creates an impasse that can’t be breached. We will spend valuable resources but fires will continue to get worse.  We will remain precisely as frustrated as we are today and the news will continue to scare us.

The Fire-Normal approach offers relief and a path that can be understood, navigated and one which we can actually afford. It’s a simpler approach that let’s nature do most of the heavy lifting.  It means we let more fires burn so that they can do valuable work but we work very hard to keep them either out of certain places or cause them to be calm and friendly when they pass through those places.

 

Which suggests the real nature of the revolution that is necessary to solve our fire problem.

We have to change our viewpoint of fire in general. We have to eliminate our fear of fire so that we can think clearly. We have to shift from fear of fire to “beware of fire.” Know it, understand it, live with it and enjoy it for the good it does.

 

We’ve done that with snow.  We enjoy snow. We take pictures of it, write songs about it, travel thousands of miles to play in it.  A famous artist has made millions painting it.  Of course it’s still dangerous, it can kill us, especially if we’re stupid.  But we have never seriously considered demanding that the government make it go away.  Because we also understand it’s benefits.

That’s how the future of wildland fire will look. We’ll figure out just how we have to live with it. We’ll figure out how to build for it, or whether we should even build in fire country at all.  We’ll learn how to design our landscape so that a moving wildfire goes around our house instead of through it. We learn how to fiddle with the forest so that we can calm a fire, interrupt it if necessary, settle it back down to the ground, but let it do its job.

There will be a point where we anticipate fire season, where we get a bunch of neighbors together to burn a hillside or a bunch of piles, where smoke on the horizon is not a sign of doom but a symbol of landscape health. And yes, there will be a point, when the landscape is truly healthy, that the summer skies in California will be normally smoky. We will have to come to judge that as a kind of beauty as well.

There are lots of things we need to do to build a proper relationship with fire. We don’t have one right now.  The first step is to place it in a proper perspective. Accomplish that and fire will no longer be feared. Instead it will be respected and , ultimately, enjoyed as simply another voice in the vast symphony of natural music that is the source of all life.

 

*There is an important distinction between the term wildfire and wildland fire. Wildfire generally refers to an individual event that is both out of control by humans and somehow beyond natural, either in scope, location or just intensity.

Wildland Fire is a term used to capture all aspects of natural fire and is meant to set many descriptions and considerations of fire apart from the simple notion of disaster.

 

Martin Dreiling

DTA Wildland Fire Planning and Management

Originally published: 2020