Our Wildfire Policy May Look Like a Muddled Mashup, but It’s the Best We’ve Got

What's to come?
July 4 2014 12:20 PM

Burn, Baby, Burn—if We Say So

U.S. wildfire policy is a muddled mashup, but it’s the best we’ve got.

(Continued from Page 1)

Then the 2000 fire season struck. Wildfires slammed the Northern Rockies, and a prescribed fire went feral and burned into Los Alamos, New Mexico. We would no longer pretend that we could halt wildfires at will—the era of megafires was fast-approaching. Nor could we expect prescribed fire to substitute for wildfire outside the Southeast. The revolution’s revival had come too little, too late. We’ve been chasing fire ever since with escalating losses and ballistic costs.

What strategy might evolve for the Western wildlands?

The old fire exclusion paradigm had clarity—a bogus simplicity, but one easily communicated and measured. What has emerged to replace it can seem muddled and tricky to explain. The reality is that fire suppression remains dominant nationally, though it has acquired a lighter hand in the backcountry and a heavier one near exurbs. The other reality is that every wildland fire put out is a fire put off. Fire agencies now face a phalanx of changes that are powering conflagrations—not only the legacy of stockpiled fuels but also climate change, invasive species, a fractal exurban sprawl, and political gridlock. With no single cause, there is no single solution. Fire officers look instead for pragmatic responses, adapted to particular circumstances.

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Around communities, fire management is morphing into something akin to an urban fire service. In the backcountry, the focus is on confining and containing fires, an option allowed under federal policy. Instead of going toe-to-toe with fire in costly and dangerous firefights, fire offices will back off to roads, lakes, or ridgetops, and set fires to burn out the fuels that would otherwise feed the wildfire. It’s a hybrid practice that might do for the West what prescribed burning on the Southeastern model can’t.

Critics dismiss the outcome as a muddle, but others put a positive spin on it, arguing that it’s more of a mashup. They point out that the country does not have a fire problem: It has many fire problems, all of which require different approaches. In the public lands of the West, the options are few. Fire officers will have to manage their lands with the fires they get, not the ones they would like. In many wildlands they will work with fires that start from any source and “box” them in according to natural or built features that allow easier control. They will then burn out from those perimeters and fire out the interiors. This approach, officially known as “confine and contain,” unofficially as “box and burn,” is likely to become the primary strategy for managing fires in the West. This video demonstrates how a hybrid approach, including “box and burn,” was applied to the recent Slide fire outside Sedona, Arizona.

In the season (and years) to come, we’ll see plenty of strong initial attacks on new fires. Around exurbs and cities, agencies will hurl everything at hand in an effort to squelch the flames before they can gain purchase. Elsewhere, responses will differ by agency, but the likely approach will be variations of point protection and “box and burn.” In the name of firefighter safety and cost containment—and of getting some useful fire back on the ground—crews will cede land.

We may see parts of a given fire attacked, other parts burned out, and still others left untouched. Some patches within the fire’s perimeter will be scoured into moonscapes. Other patches may survive lightly scorched. Much of the burn will likely have outcomes not dissimilar to those of prescribed fires. If we are lucky and smart, we’ll also begin a process of what might be termed “salvage burning”—exploiting that patchy post-burn scene to help reintroduce good fire into those landscapes and commence a cycle of scheduled reburns.

So expect plenty of fires this season. Expect burns that make 1977’s 178,000-acre Marble Cone fire seem unexceptional. Expect critics to harp on wishy-washy policies and a lack of airtankers. Hope that we don’t see communities blown away or crews burned over. Then get used to it. It’s what the future of fire in the West will look like.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Stephen J. Pyne is a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and the author of a dozen books on the history and management of fire.

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