In Defense of Wildfire

What climate activists, right-wing loggers and Smokey Bear get wrong

Joseph Bullington December 14, 2017

Flames from the Thomas Fire burn in the hills of Montecito, California, east of Santa Barbara, December 11, 2017. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1972, the year of its cen­ten­ni­al, Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park embarked on a rad­i­cal exper­i­ment — to let wild­fires do what, until the 20th cen­tu­ry, they had been doing in the park’s forests since those forests sprout­ed in the wake of retreat­ing glac­i­ers some 14,000 years ago.

Thankfully, Gary Ferguson reveals Smokey Bear for what he really is: a traitor to his own kind.

Under the nat­ur­al fire” pol­i­cy, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice allowed light­ning-caused fires to run their course on cer­tain lands. The U.S. gov­ern­ment, it seemed, was learn­ing what Native Amer­i­cans and the land itself had long known: that wild­fire is a healthy and unde­ni­able part of wild ecosystems.

For 16 years, Yellowstone’s exper­i­ment with nat­ur­al fire went on with­out major con­tro­ver­sy. That changed in the sum­mer of 1988. Unusu­al­ly dry con­di­tions com­bined with unusu­al­ly high winds to fuel sev­er­al large wild­fires, most of which were not part of the park’s nat­ur­al fire pro­gram. The Park Ser­vice began aggres­sive­ly sup­press­ing all fires in Yel­low­stone on July 21, but with lit­tle effect. By the time rain and snow stopped the fires’ spread in mid-Sep­tem­ber — accom­plish­ing what $120 mil­lion and 10,000 fire­fight­ers could not — near­ly 800,000 of Yellowstone’s 2.2 mil­lion acres had burned.

Crit­ics denounced the fires as the destruc­tion of Yel­low­stone. Much of this beloved nat­ur­al won­der­land died this sum­mer,” began a Chica­go Tri­bune report, head­lined Requiem for a Nation­al Trea­sure.” The edi­tors attacked the fol­ly” of the Park Service’s exces­sive eco­log­i­cal ide­al­ism.” Wyoming’s sen­a­tors demand­ed the res­ig­na­tion of the direc­tor of nation­al parks, William Penn Mott Jr. (He refused.)

More was at stake, how­ev­er, than an agency’s rep­u­ta­tion. In ques­tion was the place of wild­fire, and wild­ness, in nat­ur­al landscapes.

The dead­ly fires in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia in fall 2017 pushed wild­fire back into the nation­al con­scious­ness. Dri­ven by drought con­di­tions and the strong Dia­blo winds, the fires ripped through Men­do­ci­no, Napa and Sono­ma Coun­ties, burn­ing 245,000 acres, includ­ing vine­yards, busi­ness­es and whole neigh­bor­hoods. The fires destroyed more than 8,000 struc­tures and killed 43 peo­ple, mak­ing them the dead­liest in Cal­i­for­nia his­to­ry. Though they took few­er lives and made few­er head­lines than the Cal­i­for­nia blazes, last summer’s fires in Mon­tana burned 1.2 mil­lion acres. Nation­al­ly in 2017, wild­fires burned more than 8.8 mil­lion acres.

In the debate ignit­ed by these fires, some cli­mate activists have added wild­fires to the list of evi­dence for human-caused cli­mate change. Some con­ser­v­a­tives have blamed the fires on envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions that, they argue, have hin­dered the log­ging oper­a­tions need­ed to keep forests clear of fire fuels.

Few have shown much inter­est in under­stand­ing wild­fire, its eco­log­i­cal role or how recent human activ­i­ty has thrown us into con­flict with this ancient force.

The idea that wild­fire is sim­ply bad and should be sup­pressed is rel­a­tive­ly new to North Amer­i­ca. Long before Euro­pean col­o­niza­tion, Native Amer­i­cans rec­og­nized the reju­ve­nat­ing pow­er of wild­fire and start­ed fires of their own to shape the land­scape and encour­age the flour­ish­ing of favored plants and game.

The dawn of wide­spread fire sup­pres­sion can be traced to the sum­mer of 1910, when a series of large fires black­ened swaths of the North­west. The Big Burn” rat­tled the coun­try at a time when the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, only a few years old, was strug­gling to jus­ti­fy its exis­tence to a skep­ti­cal Con­gress. The agency argued that, with enough resources, it could vir­tu­al­ly elim­i­nate wildfire.

For the next 60 years, the For­est Ser­vice sold itself as a fire sup­pres­sion agency that could pro­tect the nation’s valu­able tim­ber. In 1935 it adopt­ed the 10 a.m. pol­i­cy” — wher­ev­er and when­ev­er a wild­fire broke out, it was the For­est Service’s goal to con­trol it by 10 a.m. the next morn­ing. In the 1940s, the agency intro­duced one of the most effec­tive pro­pa­gan­da cam­paigns in U.S. his­to­ry: Smokey Bear. With his sim­ple and ubiq­ui­tous slo­gan — Only You Can Pre­vent For­est Fires!” — Smokey con­vinced peo­ple that wild­fire was an ugly thing, like lit­ter­ing, that could and should be stopped.

Thank­ful­ly, Gary Fer­gu­son, author of Land on Fire: The New Real­i­ty of Wild­fire in the West, reveals Smokey Bear for what he real­ly is: a trai­tor to his own kind. Being a crea­ture of the woods,” Fer­gu­son writes, Smokey might well have known what it would take humans longer to under­stand — that fire can in a lot of cas­es be a blessing.”

The pon­derosa pine, an icon of the West, is rec­og­niz­able for its thick, red­dish, spongy bark and tall, bar­ren trunk topped by a mane of branch­es and nee­dles. These char­ac­ter­is­tics are not arbi­trary. The bark insu­lates the trunk from fire, and the shed­ding of low­er branch­es pre­vents ground fires from climb­ing to the canopy and killing the tree.

Oth­er species don’t sur­vive fire — they thrive in its after­math. In Yellowstone’s lodge­pole pine forests, for exam­ple, between 38 and 58 per­cent of the trees pro­duce resin-sealed seed cones that open only through expo­sure to the heat of fire. Vast lodge­pole forests like those in Yel­low­stone have adapt­ed not only to low-inten­si­ty burns that clear the for­est of dead wood and under­growth, but also peri­od­ic stand replace­ment fires” — big burns that kill swaths of old trees and seed the next generation.

A year after the Yel­low­stone fires, a research project found lodge­pole pine seeds sprout­ing at the rate of 300,000 per acre. Not only were tran­si­tion­al plants — fire­weed, cur­rant, rasp­ber­ry — abun­dant with­in just a cou­ple of years of the burn,” writes Gary Fer­gu­son, but also the vast major­i­ty of greater Yel­low­stone was on its way to rebuild­ing the same mix of veg­e­ta­tive com­mu­ni­ties that were present before the burn.”

Nor did the fires do much harm to wildlife. Accord­ing to Fer­gu­son, only two species suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion declines due to habi­tat loss: cap­shell snails and moose. Nutri­ent-rich grass­es, favored by elk and bison, sprout­ed pro­fuse­ly from the black­ened ground, and increased sun­light along streams fed more algae, which fed more insects, which fed more trout and birds.

Fer­gu­son says that while the media response to Yellowstone’s 1988 fires may have soured many peo­ple on the idea of nat­ur­al fire, sci­en­tists who doc­u­ment­ed the recov­ery grew more con­vinced than ever that fire plays a vital eco­log­i­cal role in the landscape.

In the arid West, the process of decay is hob­bled by lack of water, which is essen­tial to the diges­tion of bac­te­r­i­al and fun­gal decom­posers. There, wild­fire large­ly takes the place of decay in the cycle of life: It frees and recy­cles the car­bon and oth­er life-fuel­ing nutri­ents locked up in trees and oth­er plants. As from a decay­ing nurse log in a tem­per­ate rain­for­est, new life often blooms from the scorched ground in the wake of a wild­fire. In his essay The Fire of Life,” fire his­to­ri­an Stephen J. Pyne puts it this way: Com­bus­tion takes apart what pho­to­syn­the­sis puts togeth­er. It is among the most ele­men­tal of bio­chem­i­cal reac­tions; when it occurs in cells, we call it res­pi­ra­tion, and when it occurs on land­scapes, we call it fire.”

What­ev­er we may pre­fer to think, peo­ple are not inde­pen­dent from the mutu­al rela­tion­ship between fire and life. James C. Scott argues in his recent book, Against the Grain: A Deep His­to­ry of the Ear­li­est States, that bio­log­i­cal­ly mod­ern humans would not exist with­out wild­fire. Our ances­tors,” Scott writes, could not have failed to notice how nat­ur­al wild­fires trans­formed the land­scape: how they cleared old veg­e­ta­tion and encour­aged a host of quick-col­o­niz­ing grass­es and shrubs, many bear­ing desired seeds, berries, fruits and nuts.” Learn­ing from wild­fire, and ini­tial­ly using flames cap­tured from wild­fires, ear­ly humans shaped lands to attract more of the plants and the ani­mals they liked to eat.

At some point, our ances­tors also began expos­ing raw food to fire. By exter­nal­iz­ing the diges­tive process, cook­ing allowed humans to eat a wider range of foods, to get more nutri­ents from a small­er quan­ti­ty of them, and to expend few­er calo­ries doing it. As a result, Scott writes, we have a gut less than half as large as our pri­mate cousins — and a much larg­er brain.

Fire is arguably the tool that allowed humans to con­quer the world. Tool,” how­ev­er, is not quite the right word. Fire is, at best, a semi-domes­ti­cate,” Scott writes, appear­ing unbid­den and, if not guard­ed care­ful­ly, escap­ing its shack­les to become dan­ger­ous­ly fer­al.” This, it seems, is the deal.

When humans break this deal by try­ing to bring fire more firm­ly under con­trol, the con­se­quences tend to be far-reach­ing. Iron­i­cal­ly,” Fer­gu­son writes, the most sig­nif­i­cant result of sup­press­ing all wild­fires has been to cre­ate extra­or­di­nar­i­ly flam­ma­ble forests.”

In a Sep­tem­ber 2017 Wash­ing­ton Post op-ed, The Amer­i­can West Is Burn­ing,” Sen. Steve Daines (R‑Mont.) laments, The trea­sured forests and sky­lines I have loved all my life may not look the same for my grand­chil­dren.” Daines blames the fires on fringe envi­ron­men­tal­ists” for hold­ing up log­ging oper­a­tions in West­ern forests and allow­ing fire-fuel buildup. He advo­cates open­ing nation­al forests to exten­sive logging.

Gary Fer­gu­son says a mechan­i­cal thin­ning oper­a­tion would require a road-build­ing pro­gram so large as to be both imprac­ti­cal­ly expen­sive and unde­sir­able, because it would destroy the essence of road­less wilder­ness areas. Log­ging also removes trees from the for­est, while fire recy­cles trees into homes for birds, food for insects, and nutri­ents for oth­er trees and plants.

Daines also con­ve­nient­ly ignores the oth­er major rea­son we have seen record-set­ting fire sea­sons in recent years: human-caused cli­mate change. As Fer­gu­son notes, the fire sea­son today is longer than it was in 1972 by about 10 weeks. West­ern forests tend to become fire-prone with­in a month of the dis­ap­pear­ance of moun­tain snow­pack, and snow­pack is melt­ing sev­er­al weeks ear­li­er than in the 1970s. On the oth­er end, hot and dry con­di­tions are per­sist­ing longer into fall.

Many cli­mate activists, how­ev­er, pro­mote the dan­ger­ous log­ic that recent wild­fires are unnat­ur­al — a mere symp­tom of human-caused cli­mate change. In Sea­son of Smoke,” her Sep­tem­ber essay for The Inter­cept, Nao­mi Klein only men­tions the eco­log­i­cal role of fire as a qual­i­fi­er to her point that these fires are the shud­ders of a dying plan­et. She warns us that wild­fires threat­en” Glac­i­er Nation­al Park and includes inter­rup­tions from her 5‑year-old son, who won­ders, What about the animals?”

Her essay is large­ly pre­oc­cu­pied with the summer’s wild­fire smoke — which Klein deems “#fakeweath­er, a mess in the sky cre­at­ed, in large part, by tox­ic igno­rance and polit­i­cal mal­prac­tice.” This sto­ry is a use­ful addi­tion to an arse­nal of rea­sons to act against cli­mate change, but it traf­fics in an easy and false nar­ra­tive: wild­fire is bad, it destroys forests, and humans can and should con­trol it.

Know­ing the val­ue of wild­fire, how­ev­er, does not make the job of wild­land fire­fight­ers less com­pli­cat­ed, espe­cial­ly these days. One wild­land fire­fight­er, who asked to remain anony­mous because he is not allowed to talk to the press, explained to me that the deci­sion of whether to sup­press a fire or let it burn can be as dif­fi­cult as pre­dict­ing the future. For exam­ple, what starts as a small light­ning-strike fire in the back­coun­try could, under cer­tain con­di­tions, flare into a big fire that threat­ens struc­tures and requires a lot of work and mon­ey to con­tain. Before it blew up, the small fire could have been an easy, in-and-out job for smoke­jumpers — the elite fire­fight­ing crews that para­chute into road­less areas to fight fires.

The job of keep­ing wild­fire away from peo­ple is more dif­fi­cult now than ever because more peo­ple than ever live in the wild­land-urban inter­face” (WUI) — areas where human struc­tures abut unde­vel­oped wild­lands. Devel­op­ers are rapid­ly expand­ing these bor­der­lands: Since 1990, wild­lands have been con­vert­ed into WUI at an aver­age rate of 3 acres a minute. WUI now makes up about 9 per­cent of the land­mass of the con­tigu­ous Unit­ed States and con­tains 38 per­cent of all homes. As of June 2015, less than 10 per­cent of WUI com­mu­ni­ties had adopt­ed build­ing codes designed to mit­i­gate wild­fire risk.

Ferguson’s book is won­der­ful­ly prac­ti­cal, even in the face of such stag­ger­ing fig­ures. A bright yel­low page is reserved for the Top 10 Ways to Pro­tect Your Prop­er­ty from Wild­fire” — the kind of check­list you could rip out and hang on the fridge. But his focus on the nar­row­ly prac­ti­cal seems to shield Fer­gu­son from dis­cussing the obvi­ous but polit­i­cal­ly hereti­cal prob­lem — name­ly, too damn many peo­ple are mov­ing into the WUI and more hous­es will burn because of it.

When asked about this, Fer­gu­son agreed that hereti­cal” was the right word for such a diag­no­sis. He thinks, though, that a lot of good can be done by edu­cat­ing peo­ple to fire-proof their homes and by requir­ing WUI devel­op­ers to adhere to fire-pre­ven­tion build­ing codes.

This is, essen­tial­ly, the calm, com­pli­cat­ed, prac­ti­cal mes­sage with which Fer­gu­son leaves us at the end of the book: In this land of wild­fire it is up to us, not fire, to adapt. He quotes the plant ecol­o­gist Frank Egler: Ecosys­tems are not only more com­plex than we think. They’re more com­plex than we can think.”

When you accept that,” Fer­gu­son tells me, when we approach these prob­lems with some humil­i­ty … then we do start to hon­or the nat­ur­al world by being com­plex ourselves.”

Joseph Bulling­ton grew up in the Smith Riv­er water­shed near White Sul­phur Springs, Mon­tana. He lives now in Liv­ingston, where he works as an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, part-time ranch hand and the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times.
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