The Misplaced War Against Western Wildfires

watching smoke

Here’s an op-ed by Stephen Pyne in today’s Denver Post. It’s beautifully written.

What to do about it depends on how we characterize the problem. The paradox of fire stems from its role as the great shape-shifter of natural processes. The reason is simple: Fire is not a creature or a substance or a geophysical event like a hurricane or an earthquake. It is a biochemical reaction. It synthesizes its surroundings. It takes its character from its context.

Fire integrates everything around it — sun, wind, rain, plants, terrain, roofing, fields, and everything people do, and don’t do. In this way, it indexes the state of an ecosystem. It is also our signature act as a species, the one thing we do that no other creature does. While we did not invent fire (it has been integral to Earth for more than 400 million years), we exercise a monopoly over its controlled use.

All of this makes fire universal, difficult to grasp, and tricky to wrestle into manageable shape. There is no solution to fire, because there are many kinds of fires, and they change with their context. Some fire problems do have technical fixes. We can build machines that reduce combustion to its essence and contain it.

We cannot survive without fire; we just need it in the right ways. It is certainly a problem when it burns freely through cities. But it is also a problem when it is removed from wildlands that have adapted to it, because its absence can be as ecologically significant as its presence. The point is, urban fire is not a model for wildland fire.

Our prevailing templates for describing fire are similarly misdirected. They portray the burn as a disaster and the fight against it as a war story. The battlefield allusion leads observers to reason that there must be more sophisticated technologies than shovels and rakes with which to suppress the flames. We must meet force with greater force. Such metaphors matter, because they mis-define the problem.

Here are a couple of my thoughts:

1. I don’t think the “war” is the prevailing template (let alone “our” prevailing template). I think the last 30 years or so “we’ve” (the fire/ecology/natural resource community) been fairly successful at promoting the concept that fire can have good effects and fire can have bad effects. So who is “we” in this case (the unspecific use of “we” is one of my pet peeves, as regular readers know)?.

2. I agree with Pyne’s point that “urban fire is not a model for wildland fire.” But I think we need to look more closely at his statement:

But it is also a problem when it is removed from wildlands that have adapted to it, because its absence can be as ecologically significant as its presence.

The adaptation of “ecosystems” has always been an interesting concept. For one thing, it depends on “ecosystems” being a real thing instead of a human construct. There have been two schools of thought about this.. one that mixes of plants and animals develop and change through time.. the other that there is something called an “ecosystem”, with a greater or lesser subtext of “balance” or focus on what is currently there (or there in the past) rather than the fact that individual components are always changing.

Species evolve.. that’s what you learn in courses, through the traditional forms of genetic adaptation. What is an “ecosystem” and how does it “evolve”? Through what mechanism? Now backing off from the reification to the reality, if cones open only in fire or hot weather, it does seem that the species might do better with fire (or hot weather), or certain species regenerate better with fire, that is a reality. Without intervention, you won’t get those plants back without fire.

So I think it’s important to look at each impact or lack thereof separately. Say, much do you get? What organisms is it good for? Which is it bad for, etc.?

So this reminded me of this story in the Atlantic, “SW Forests May Never Recover From Megafires.”

Much of the Los Alamos burn resembles today a lunar landscapes — vast slopes of denuded gray soil where little vegetation has come back. Hillsides, once covered with ponderosa pine and squat, drought tolerant pinon and juniper trees, now grow only clumps of cheatgrass, an invasive species, and occasional bush-like shrub oaks. Biologist Craig Allen of the U.S. Geological Survey, who has has spent years studying the Southwest forest ecosystem, says that areas like these won’t be forested again in our lifetime, and possibly they never will be. The reason that Allen and others are pessimistic is that climate change is hitting the Southwest harder and faster than most other areas in the U.S. The region has warmed on average between 2 and 5 degrees during the past century, and this trend is expected to accelerate in the years ahead.

Add to this the danger from what scientists call a possible “mega-drought.” The Southwest has always been prone to extended dry periods, like the one which archeologists believe drove the Anasazi people of Chaco Canyon in the Four Corner’s area to the wetter Rio Grande Valley in the late 13th century. But a study published last year in the journal Nature Climate says that, by 2050, the region will be even drier than in previous mega-droughts. Moreover, hot summer temperatures in the southwest will literally suck the water our of leaves and needles killing trees in unprecedented numbers. “The majority of forests in the Southwest probably cannot survive in the temperatures that are projected,” one of the study’s co-authors, Park Williams, a bio-climatologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory told Environment 360.

As a person who spent the early part of her career helping figure out how to reforest dry areas, I think it’s worthy of experimentation to try planting some species in these areas. I think we have gone way past “natural” and now simply have to consider what we want and what we can afford.

11 thoughts on “The Misplaced War Against Western Wildfires”

  1. Steve Pyne just spent a week here in southern New Jersey looking over The Pinelands National Reserve and has written an important essay on this situation. His one powerful statement ” Sooner or later ,southern New Jersey will know the fire equivalent of Hurricane sandy or worse” needs to be taken seriously. Fire is a national crisis , not just a western problem yet there is no discussion to bring all of the regions of this country together to help find solutions as to how we are going to live with fire on our landscapes. To that end ,i have written two op-eds that will be published this week in major eastern papers. Will anyone read them or care – not likely. I suggest our Govenor Christie and President Obama lock arms again and address this impending disaster. This time, before the significant loss of lives and property! The Pinelands National Reserve is the only region in this country that has adopted a regional landuse planning guide that can be successfull in keeping development out of harms way, if it is implemented in concert with ecological forest management approaches!
    Come on folks – bring the east into the conversation!
    Bob Williams CF
    Bob Williams CF

    • Bob, I used to work in the Pine Barrens clearing scrub oak from pitch pine provenance tests. Ray Guries, Tom Ledig and I used to take the school canoe and canoe the rivers on our off days..beautiful country.. with many large deerflies or horseflies as I recall…anyway..

      At the risk of sounding defensive, we need contributors from the East, South and Lake States to send news reports and other pieces in, you are invited :).

    • Bob- just to clarify this blog’s “business model”.. we are all volunteers.. when it comes time to buy something (like web hosting) I pay for it. We have no 501c3 but contributions are gratefully accepted. So I am serious that we could use volunteers to help present information and perspectives from other parts of the country.

  2. Dr. Stephen Pyne is the foremost fire scientist around but, his greatest skill is writing about wildfires. His elegant writing style is far from dry and technical, putting complex issues into words that most regular people can understand and digest. Unfortunately, politics from both sides drive the debate into places it should never go. It’s a short read, and very worthy of your 8 minutes to read it, if you want to “see the big picture”, uncolored by extremism and partisan politics.

    People often say that “forests cannot reproduce without wildfires”. However, do we REALLY want an expansion of “fire-loving” forests, like lodgepole stands, which turn long-lived mixed conifer stands, which support endangered species, into “natural monocultures”, that die, rot and burn catastrophically, every 100 years, or so??

    Certainly, wildfires will continue to burn out of control, since it is impossible to “manage it away”, in today’s realities. However, we need to be MUCH smarter about how we react and deal with them. As we have seen in the West Fork Complex, bad decisions have far-reaching impacts and skyrocketing costs. One of the fires was allowed to burn for 9 days, burning only 150 acres, before it exploded into a firestorm, unsafe to suppress. Yes, it could have been safely extinguished, instead of allowing it to burn, at the beginning of summer, in steep terrain, during a heat wave and in extremely heavy fuels. We should be demanding accountability for this stupid decision.

    Yes, there ARE other options for dealing with such situations that we need to explore. Those options are surely cheaper and better for humans, while still accomplishing those fabled claims of “natural and beneficial”. The Forest Service seems to care more about liability, rather than risk, in considering these options, like expanded programs of prescribed fires..

    • well, we could still get forests without wildfires, just with a different composition. But with climate change we may get different ones anyway.. so…

    • I think forests on the westside of the cascades have survived in spite of fire, not because of fire.
      Wildfires here are castosophic, they kill trees, old growth and young growth. I thought the whole idea was to save our forests and keep them green. I have never been in a forests that looked better after a fire than before. Maybe I am missing something, dead trees and rock just doesn’t seem so healthy to me, when before the fire you had a ancient forest? (thanks Sharon for this blog)

      • Of course, the Biscuit is a perfect example, stump. Even some areas that didn’t have all that much fuels burned pretty hot. The Flat Top area was mostly rock but, the mortality was quite extensive. I did post a picture of that area, a while back.

        I was merely saying that there ARE other options to the Let-Burn program. Better options. Cheaper options.

  3. Somehow, commenters to the op-ed have politicized it without even addressing the main points. Is bringing food stamps and disabled persons into it indicative of the Denver Post’s reader’s intelligence? Or, is this a “misdirection play”, designed to confuse and confound people, for whatever reason?

  4. No disrespect to Mr. Pyne…but I tire easily at philisophical musings, that offer no details. I tire easily at ponitificating with no suggested solutions. With the fire hazard in the west, there has been too much philosphizing…with too little action. Ask the 4FRI about that.
    I certainly have no problem with fire in wilderness…unless it escapes and burn over proposed timber sales as Larry has pointed out with the West Fork fire. The public should see how fire would burn…and historically did burn…and then decide for themselves if they want that type of fire “overlayed” on their roaded playgrounds closer to home.

    Global warming is a “explain all” cop out…considering fires burned widely 150 years ago…and I mean in forests that had long fire return high severity intervals. Our problems today stem directly from reaching the critical biomass levels because of fire suppresion.

    Where fires are to be allowed to be considered “good fires” IS the details. I don’t think the people of the Apache Sitgreaves consider the Wallow fire to be a “good fire.” Especially on a forest that once had the infrastructure to do the commercial thinning the 4FRI wants to do today. Indeed, a forest that could have thinned hundreds of thousands of acres in the last 20 years if not litigated to death.

    I’d still like to know what “percent” of USFS acreage is within the WUI, and what percentage of that WUI acreage is treated every year? In this era of ESRI and ARC-GIS they can’t even tell us that.

    Zoning laws should be changed, so that any “proposed” subdivision within the WUI should be thinned prior to subdividing. I’ve seen developers do beautifull thinnings, to a density that reduces fire hazard, before a single lot is sold. In this era of pine beetle and wildfire awareness, I would think such thinnings would attract buyers rather than repel them.

    It’s been my experience that once the houses are built, it’s like pulling teeth to get the homeowners to thin their forest. Most home were built before the spectre of wildfires became en vogue. The olny cure for that is the insurance industry…which as we’ve read on this blog, seems to be happening in Colorado now. I’ve never understood why a homeowner wouldn’t want to spend $5,000 to thin his five acres…to protect a half million dollar home.

    People say “Why should the USFS spend the effort to thin around private property to save these forest interlopers.” Frankly, from what I’ve seen on Google Earth, besides allready developed subdivisions, the private landowners ARE the one who has thinned their forests. It’s quite easy to delineate the property boundry by these thinnings.

    I like Mr. Pyne too…but his peice was a little too much “fire is good, we need to learn to live with it” for me. But “where” fire is good is the details. Philosophize about that for a change. Fire is good in wilderness, fire is good in roadless…fire is bad in the WUI, and bad in roaded forests that are the “recreation working circle” of the locals who live in them.

    • I had to re-read the article again, to make a reply, Derek. The issue is so huge that we have to address it in chunks. The first chunk is the reality that fires are good, and fires are bad.

      Some of the public still clings to the “fire is natural and beneficial and should be allowed to burn, free range”. Yes, we STILL see that in comments to newspaper articles. Then there’s the folks who still want fires outside of a narrow and tiny WUI (also misnamed IMHO). Then there’s the folks who want remote fires to burn, under ANY conditions, believing that “whatever happens” is just fine.

      Dr. Pyne sees the need to change the way people see fires, both “good” and “bad”. In my opinion, controlled fire should be “good”. Uncontrolled and uncontained fire is almost always “bad”, for many reasons the public doesn’t grasp. We need to educate the public about why those fires are “bad”, and how we can, maybe, turn them into good.

      Once we have convinced people that certain fires are bad, then solutions can be proposed, using site-specific science. For now, certain parties continue to embrace “bad” fires, and education is the only solution to that, right now. After that, we will need more education to support those site-specific treatments that seek to keep fires on the “good” side.


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