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.

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A wildfire threatens homes in San Marcos, California, on May 15, 2014. The blazes come amid record temperatures in the state, where the annual wildfire season typically starts much later in the year.

Photo by Jorge Cruz/AFP/Getty Images

The last time California had a drought this severe, 1977, I was the foreman of the North Rim Longshots, a seasonal fire crew stationed at Grand Canyon National Park. By mid-June every national forest in Arizona had a major burn. Then California began one of its epic seasons, becoming a black hole that drafted in crews and aircraft from across the country in a running firefight that didn’t end until the winter solstice.

What was then exceptional has now become a new norm. The largest category of fire at the time was Class G (more than 5,000 acres). Now the big ones—megafires—come one or two orders of magnitude larger. For the last decade, we’ve had one or two a year on average.

The standard narrative for how this happened revolves around a misguided policy that, after the Great Fires of 1910, sought to remove fire of every kind with equal vigor. It didn’t matter if the fire started from lightning or from traditional human practices, of which there were many because fire was widely used to assist foraging, hunting, farming, herding, prospecting, and land use generally, though a fraction of such burning was careless and abusive. Nor did it matter if it was a good fire that enhanced the land or a bad one that degraded biota or burned through human settlements—they were all to be fought. The mere attempt to do so unhinged most ecosystems and primed many for more explosive burning. By the 1980s that legacy merged with a climate tipped toward drought and a rural landscape that once buffered but was now disappearing into wilds or exurbs.

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A fuller narrative breaks that story in two. For 50 years official policy sought to stop people from using fire in traditional ways, for good or ill—and to suppress any fires that did occur from any source. This project in “fire exclusion” was overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, which became a benign hegemon. It was a strategy that stopped bad fires that might burn into commercial timber or communities. But because it also eliminated the effects of good fire, it ended up triggering the equivalent of an ecological earthquake.

The second half of the story begins in 1962 when protests challenged the suppression policy and created a civil society for fire’s management. That year Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida hosted its first fire ecology conference, and the Nature Conservancy conducted a controlled burn in Minnesota prairie. Those sparks kindled what became, for the American fire community, a revolution.

In 1968 the National Park Service reformed its national fire policy to encourage the return of good fire. The Forest Service followed with a more comprehensive overhaul after the 1977 season, which mattered because it still remained the keystone agency in the national fire infrastructure. By 1978 the policies were in place to halt, if not roll back, those decades of misguided efforts toward fire exclusion. At the same time, agencies reorganized into more cooperative, less coercive arrangements. “Fire by prescription”—fire set or tolerated so long as it stayed within predetermined boundaries—would replace a simple-minded policy of suppression.

This was a revolution from above, however, and it took root only here and there. It flourished most tenaciously in Florida, where controlled burning—substituting tame fire for wildfire—became a general practice. It helped that, if you kept fire out of most Florida environments, the ill effects in the form of overstocked combustibles were visible within a handful of years. In the West, an equivalent shock might take several decades.

For most federal agencies, however, the 1980s were a lost decade. Climate and politics polarized. The Forest Service became increasingly dysfunctional. Urban sprawl began remaking the rural countryside into exurban enclaves. Suppression returned as the default setting. The Reagan years ended with almost Wagnerian flourish as waves of flame rolled over Yellowstone National Park. The fires burned on and on throughout the summer, mesmerizing the public. While the event successfully alerted the public and the media to the new thinking that had begun 20 years earlier, it left policy and practice unaffected.

The real change came six years later in 1994, an annus horribilis that killed 34 career firefighters, burned through a billion dollars in suppression costs, and convinced the fire community that firefighting on the old model was broken. The movement for reform revived—call it Revolution 2.0. By the end of the decade, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt declared that the country faced a “national fire crisis.”

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.

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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