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Why Forest Fires Seem Like They Are Getting Out of Control


An airtanker plane dropping fire retardant over the advancing Chelan Butte wildfire (part of the Chelan Complex fire) in Chelan, Washington. By Ben Brooks.

   Fire is news again.  Big burns are galloping over the Northwest and Northern Rockies and threatening California, which has thrown everything in its caches, and then some, at every new ignition to keep a lid on conflagrations.  Alaska has calmed, after five million acres of pyric tantrums.  Besides, fire is visual and graphic: it catches the eye, which draws the mind.  Advocates love to use it to animate whatever message they are promoting, most often into that sum of anthropogenic insults shorthanded as the Anthropocene.  We are living in a new normal.  It's the age of megafires.

            But fire is also an index.  It's a reaction not a substance or a creature, which means it synthesizes its surroundings.  Changing fires track changing times.  Fires are markers of history, and because humans are the keystone species for fire on the planet, the history of fire tracks the history of humanity.  What has changed that accounts for the alteration we see in the American fire scene?

            Quite a lot.  A thumbnail sketch of fire's American century would begin with the Big Blowup of 1910 that traumatized a fledgling Forest Service.  With the Progressive era to encourage action, academic forestry to supply intellectual justifications, the Weeks Act to promote federal-state programs in fire control, and the Great Fires as a long march that united a generation, the agency committed to a program of fire exclusion.  It would discourage ancient practices of lighting fires for land use and it would fight any and all fires that did occur.  In 1935 with the Civilian Conservation Corps to supply the muscle it announced a single national standard: every fire would be controlled by 10am the next morning.

            By 1960 the agency had largely succeeded in that mission. Fire control constituted less than 15% of the agency's budget; within a handful of years, all 50 states would be connected through it into a national infrastructure for fire protection; and the agency dominated every aspect of fire's administration, from lab to field.  Landscape fire was becoming a government monopoly.  Smokey Bear confirmed the agency's public identity as an agency on fire.  That year Herbert Kaufman published a study of the Forest Service in which he identified it as a paragon of public administration.  No one had to tell its rangers what to do; they had utterly absorbed the agency's identity as their own.

            Then the wheels came off.  The suppression-only policy had beaten down good fires as well as bad.  A civil society rose in protest; in 1962 the Tall Timbers Research Station began hosting an annual conference to promote fire ecology and the restoration of good fire in both wild and working landscapes, and The Nature Conservancy conducted its first prescribed burn.  In 1963 the Leopold Report redefined the national parks as "vignettes of primitive America" and explicitly pointed to the ecological havoc caused by fire's exclusion.  In 1964 the Wilderness Act established a new category of public land that, in the words of one fire officer, practically made it illegal to suppress a lightning-caused fire.  Americans wanted a different relationship to their national estate.  That meant a different order of fire.

            The ancien regime quickly imploded.  In 1968 the National Park Service rewrote its national policy to favor fire restoration.  Ten years later, after a series of institutional adjustments, so did the Forest Service.  In retrospect, though they didn't seem so to participants, the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s were benign fire years.  The fire revolution, moreover, was a part of a wholesale reformation in environmental legislation that cascaded through Congress and changing administrations with bipartisan support.  By 1978 the fire revolution had succeeded as an intellectual and institutional project.

            It was a revolution from above.  It needed time and opportunity and nurturing to become a new reality in the field, and that didn't happen.  The Reagan administration sought to roll back the environmental movement and to bolster the Forest Service as a champion of commodities, particularly timber; then it decided that the fire problem was solved and transferred attention and funds to the military.  Meanwhile, affirmative action broke the homogeneity that had made the agency work with minimal internal friction.  A recolonization of rural America by exurbanites began removing the buffer zone that had allowed fire officers some room to maneuver.  The National Environmental Policy Act laid down legal speed bumps on projects.  The Forest Service downsized and became  increasingly dysfunctional, enduring internal schisms.  This mattered because, however much the new order would be interagency, practice still followed the old order.  If the Forest Service was no longer the informing agency, it remained an indispensable one.  Even nature polarized.  The 1980s began as exceptionally wet years and ended as exceptionally dry ones.  The 1988 conflagrations at Yellowstone National Park advertised the new thinking to the public and media.  The counterrevolution could not abolish reform but it was powerful enough to stall it.  The window closed.

            Revolution 2.0 rekindled after the 1994 season that killed 34 firefighters and burned through a billion dollars in suppression costs.  The new administration had a secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, who was personally interested in fire (he even joined the Midnight Suns hotshots for a few fires).  A common federal fire policy was promulgated in 1995 that codified most of the reforms and that culminated in a National Fire Plan in the waning days of the Clinton administration, but it was all too little too late. 

            Every needle now points in the direction of a fast-worsening fire scene.  The legacy of fuels accumulated by fire's removal.  Species lost and invading.  Changing climate, amplifying the old cycles of drought and deluge.  An institutional matrix that can muster world-beating resources for a firefight but cannot do the preventative and wellness programs that might dampen outbreaks.  Suburbs and exurbs pressing against wildlands and filling once-agricultural lands with piles of combustibles called houses.  A shrunken and scrambled workforce.  And increasingly uncontrollable fires.  Fires that are more readily labeled not as either wild or prescribed but as feral and tending toward the rabid.  Fires that are roaring back like an ancient plague believed banished into the past.  Fires that are morphing from seasonal nuisances like annual bouts of influenza into more virulent and lethal avatars.  Fires that are consuming over half the entire budget of a Forest Service recently identified by Francis Fukuyama as the epitome of dysfunctional democracy.  

            When all these factors align, fire seasons are beyond containment, which the media present as disasters.  Alarm over threats to public safety and property force agencies to mount full-scale suppression campaigns, which the media interpret as wars and the agencies recognize, in places, as political theater that only distracts from the fundamentals.  Send in more bombers.  Conscript the national guard.  Call in the marines.  We are sending forces out to fight fires today on the same scale as we did in 1910.  

            Agencies hope that some factors will ease sufficiently to create space for maneuver.  But those periods need to be used to substitute tamed fire for feral fire, and we do not have the social consensus or political will or bureaucratic nimbleness to do that.  Instead, prescribed fire has become a regional phenomenon.  It works in the Great Plains and southeastern coastal plains (Florida routinely burns 2.5 million or more acres a year and would like to burn twice that amount).  In the West a hybrid strategy is evolving in which fire officers concentrate resources around high-value assets like exurbs and municipal watersheds and otherwise back off and burn out from secure sites, or in more assertive cases use wildfires to do the deliberate burning that has otherwise become too administratively cumbersome.  They know that every fire put out in a city is a problem solved, but that every fire put out in a wildland is a problem put off.  They know that the deep story in the 2015 fire season is not the millions of acres burned by wildfire but the tens of millions of acres not burned.  They know that not much of the American fire scene is under their control.  They know the future promises more of the same.

            So fire remains an index of our times: it's like a driverless car barreling down a highway, integrating all the relevant factors around it.  Fire is a natural phenomenon, and if humanity disappeared fire would still thrive.  But most of fire's factors remain under the influence, though not the control, of humanity.  The pathologies of our fire scene are the national pathologies pyrolyzed into flame.  Megafires are the 1% (literally, the 0.1%) of the nation's fires that account for 80-90% of burned area and costs.

            Still, there is hope.  The variety of contributing causes means that there are many possible points of intervention.  It's particularly helpful not to let the fire narrative get hijacked by the climate change narrative because we would have serious fire problems even if the climate remained within its historic range.  And to broaden our conceptual aperture a bit, climate change is becoming a subplot of fire history since it is humanity's decision to burn lithic landscapes instead of living ones that underwrites the larger agenda of the Anthropocene.  That is the real Big Burn of our time.

            The fire community has a short historical horizon - last year, this year, next year.  Historians are largely granted roles as archivists and court poets.  But our fire scene is a historical construction, and if we don't understand that history we won't define the problems usefully.  We need history as context.  But it's equally true that fire can serve historians. Flame is not only an agent of change but a chronicler of it.  The charcoal left by this year's burns may outlast any other historical record of our times.