September 30, 2009
With late August’s Los Angeles fires raging and a subsequent dusting of the Colorado Front Range with smoke, a noted fire historian, Stephen Pyne, professor at Arizona State University, spoke at the University of Colorado about the history of fire and fire suppression in the U.S.
Pyne’s delivery was faster than an out-of-control burn through a drought-stricken prairie, but it was filled with choice embers of a U.S. fire legacy laced with hubris, disaster and miscalculation. The storylines of U.S. wildfires and fire suppression are complex, and many are presented in great detail in Pyne’s book Fire in America – A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire.
Pyne’s talk resonated in drought-prone Colorado, where the possibility (real or perceived) of a catastrophic fire looms as about 2 million acres of pine-beetle-infested forests contain countless dead trees, ripe for the flame.
Pyne was prodded to address the issue by a question from the audience after his talk. Acknowledging that the situation in Colorado is “extremely volatile,” Pyne noted that the dynamics of the immense lodgepole pine infestation and the potential for fire haven’t been worked out.
He was clear, however, that as long as needles remain on the dead trees, a significant fire threat exists. Yet once the needles drop, the possibility of a “crown fire” is diminished. (A crown fire was defined by Pyne in Fire in America as a fire pattern that is “… sustained by a surface fire but erupts into the canopies of forest fuels with often violent and discontinuous surges.”)
Needles, grasses (both before and after a fire) and the dead trees themselves present a “rolling wave” of fire hazards for infested forests in the near- and long-term horizons.
Fire as a tool
Fire, explained Pyne, has long been used by humans to clear open range for grazing and agriculture. Pyne displayed drawings by Charles Russell and other western artists depicting the use of fire by Native Americans and settlers on the High Plains. Escape fires were common, allowing settlers and Native Americans to burn out a safe area from a larger fire.
Fire in many cases was the means that made land habitable and farmable on the High Plains.
However, it soon became conventional wisdom in the West to equate the presence of fires with the presence of Native Americans. If you remove Native Americans, you remove fires, so the reasoning went, dismissing the fact that fire is a natural phenomenon in its own right.
Public lands designation fuels the fire
As millions of acres of public lands were established, it was believed that setting land aside would protect it from fire. However, despite this intention and because of prevention efforts, these lands “became a permanent habitat for fire,” said Pyne. Catastrophic fires ensued.
As is better understood now with the advent of fire ecology studies and simple lessons learned after many decades of fire suppression efforts, “fire is a part of what makes the system actually work,” said Pyne.
Yet in the early days of U.S. public lands administration and extending until recently, foresters, said Pyne, became obsessed with fire control.
Much of the bureaucratic devotion to fire suppression was a result of the famous 1910 fire in Montana, dubbed the Big Blowup, during which 78 firefighters were killed. This traumatized the U.S. Forest Service for a generation and the agency “continued to re-fight the 1910 fire,” said Pyne.
Firefighting as war
The Big Blowup led to a deep politicization of firefighting in the U.S., as fire defense became national defense to policymakers. William James’ essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” while not specifically addressing firefighting, reinforced a spirit of the times that coincided with a military approach to fighting fires and combating nature.
Conveniently, as Pyne noted, a post-World War I surplus of equipment and personnel, notably planes and pilots for air reconnaissance, boosted the new focus.
Later, in the 1950s, surplus equipment from the Korean War was employed by firefighters.
The zeal to extinguish fires in the backcountry resounded through the USFS, leading to the conviction to put out fires “to the last smoke,” a fanatical policy to pursue fires until the very last smoke was extinguished.
Pyne shared an old photo from Olympic National Park demonstrating how a tree “fire” was extinguished, to the last smoke, by felling a nearby tree to gain access to the “smoke,” which appeared to be no more than a harmless plume. Killing a tree to save a tree somehow made sense in this era.
Smokejumpers and “hot shot crews” added to the drama of firefighting. Certainly the efforts and lives of many well-intentioned, heroic men, fighting great odds and crazy expectations, were among the most tragic casualties of U.S. government policies regarding fire suppression.
The “10 a.m. policy” of the 1930s was a standard predicated on the belief that large fires were controllable, and should thereby be wrestled into control and containment by mid-morning following the report of a fire.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, in effect, became the USFS’s civilian army, ready to respond to fires and support the 10 a.m. policy.
Among the militaristic excesses of U.S. firefighting policies and activities, Pyne pointed to the 650-mile-long Ponderosa Way fireline, built on the west slope of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains by the CCC in the 1930s.
The fireline, meant to serve as firebreak by separating brush from timber, eventually was maintained by using the defoliant Agent Orange.
The tide began to turn in 1970, said Pyne, as the USFS realized it couldn’t maintain its fire suppression policies, helped along by the emergence of fire ecology in the 1960s. People began asking the question: “why are we sending bulldozers out to control a natural phenomenon?” Policymakers also began considering the costs of all-out fire suppression — not only the economic costs but the ecological costs as well.
Into the breach came the modern notions of prescribed burns; letting certain fires simply burn out; and the recognition that fire is a part of the natural order. Yet, despite the inroads of fire ecology science into the USFS and other agencies, the percentage of USFS expenditures dedicated to fire suppression, while ebbing in the 1960s, has returned to very high levels.
According to The Wilderness Society in an April 2008 posting on its Web site, USFS wildland fire management activities (with suppression the largest component) jumped from 13% of the agency’s budget in fiscal year 1991 to a projected 48% for fiscal year 2009.
Who’s lighting the match?
Interestingly, private landowners have assumed a greater role in fire suppression techniques, including controlled burns. Pyne noted that The Nature Conservancy burns more than the U.S. Parks Service, thus, in a way, returning fire to “civil society,” the segment that was so much involved in fire during the frontier days of the West before public lands were established.
Adding to the modern-day dynamic is the presence of fire on the “urban fringe,” as tony subdivisions have expanded into forests. Thus, a major focus of wildfire suppression is focused on the so-called “wildland-urban interface.”
Stay & defend policy
As more and more fires affect homes and subdivisions built in or at the border of wildlands, policies have shifted. Pyne cited Australia’s controversial fire defense policy of “prepare, stay and defend, or leave early.”
The policy, according to the University of California – Berkeley, encourages able, trained residents to stay home and actively defend their property from wildfires — or leave in the early stages of an encroaching fire.
People can be trained to defend their houses from wildfires, said Pyne. Such a policy “puts the burden back on people,” he said. Importantly, the policy is based on evidence that people are often most placed at risk and killed by leaving late. Also, most homes are burned after the main fire has passed.
Instead of mandatory evacuations, the Aussie policy, according to UC scientists, stresses homeowner preparation beforehand, including stocking up on hoses, radios and protective clothing, clearing vegetation around the property, and installing ember-blocking screens. Once a fire ignites in the vicinity, homeowners should vigilantly patrol their property for spot fires that may have ignited from flying embers.
Pyne joked that he “can legally defend his house with an M16 and a bazooka, but under mandatory (fire) evacuations, I can’t defend my home with a garden hose.”
While introducing an element of personal responsibility into the safety of one’s home, the policy is not without its problems, as a deadly fire in Australia in February claimed 173 lives and a subsequent inquiry partially faulted the policy, according to the Financial Times.
As “resource beneficial” fires, stay-and-defend, suppression and partial suppression are now all strategies in the land manager’s toolkits, Pyne said any strategy is going to have to be different from site to site.
“General solutions have failed.”
Thankfully, a relatively wet year has dampened the occurrence of fires in Colorado, yet if history is any guide, fire dangers will inevitably return.
Pyne’s lecture was presented by the Center of the American West.
Story by David Iler