Guest Editorial (IFFN No. 19 – September 1998)



The Political Ecology of Fire
Thoughts Prompted by the Mexican Fires of 1998

by Stephen J. Pyne

(IFFN No. 19 – September 1998, p. 2-4)

The fires are nearly everywhere visible in Mexico, and nearly everywhere the population – officials, foresters, citizens – believes they will lead to important reforms. Big fires sometimes do. But not often, and frequently they propel reforms for reasons that have little to do with fire, politics, and perhaps surprisingly, economics.

Just as drought does not cause fires, so big fires do not by themselves create political change. Here as elsewhere fire’s greatest impacts result from its ability to interact with other phenomena. Yet of all the varieties of fire scholarship, the political ecology of fire is perhaps the least studied. Surprisingly, granted the fire community’s insistence that governments take action, the subject is almost unknown in any systematic way.

This could change. The 1997-98 ENSO-induced fires on both sides of the Pacific, the new countries created after the breakup of the USSR, major policy reforms in places as diverse as Germany, the United States, and South Africa, all offer an opportunity to study the politics of fire. Whether or not the 1997-98 fires result in practical reforms, they offer an opportunity to reconstitute our knowledge of how fire and humanity interact.

* * *

Fires create opportunities. Reviewing the aftermath of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in Australia, D. R. Douglas offered a “sad scenario” of postfire succession. First comes “an elaborate enquiry followed by an excellent report.” On occasion some legislative reform follows, typically addressing the need for improved bushfire suppression. Bushfire research flourishes for a while, then withers away. So do many reformist enthusiasms and practices. As the years pass there is a slow, steady return to the status quo ante. This scenario holds true for most countries, and it suggests the basis for a kind of general model.

The politics of fire is not unlike the ecology of swidden. The opportunities for change are greatest in the first year, drop significantly after the second, and almost disappear by the third. Sites recover quickly, memory overgrows with the weeds of everyday life, the media moves feverishly on to new disturbances. Just as a fire’s effects are prolonged and more profound if the site is grazed or logged or otherwise manipulated, so if a big fire connects to some other social, intellectual, or political movement, it can leverage its consequences.

But this can be overdone. If fire is part of a general wreckage, environmental or social, its particular urgency may be lost. The fires that have accompanied revolutions or Black Death-type plagues were little more than the char left by more profound social upheaval, like the blackened stones of a sacked city. However vast their presence, they did not result in fire-specific reforms. The fires must connect to larger political movements, but not too large. It will be interesting to see, for example, the varying responses of the Asian countries that have been traumatized by simultaneous environmental and economic crises. Too little shock, and the fires can be safely ignored as an ENSO aberration. Too much – say, if accompanied by political crisis as in Indonesia – and there may be little will or institutional apparatus by which to deal with them. Burning malls in Jakarta will mean more than fired fields in East Kalimantan.

* * *

Perhaps the best known history is that from the United States. In each instance of major policy reform, large fires acted as catalysts in what was, for other reasons, a favourable context for action. The 1910 fires occurred during a time of peace and relative prosperity that was also a time (the Progressive Era) recognized as a period of political activism and reform. No other crisis obsessed the nation. The fires commanded center stage. Another era of restructuring occurred during the Great Depression in which large fires in the backcountry coincided with single-party domination of Congress and the Presidency (a coincidence rare in American history) and a President determined to merge conservation programs with public works. Policy debates and eventually changes during the 1960s and 1970s surfaced amid a de facto social revolution. It is probably no accident that the federal agencies did not complete their reforms until after the Vietnam war and the Watergate crisis had concluded. All these episodes suggest that fire reform depends on timing: it requires a general crisis, highlighted by fire, sufficient to scare the political establishment but not so damaging that it cripples the capacity to act.

Yet the political ecology of fire is more subtle and profound than this suggests. Political coincidence is not enough, as the reforms prompted by the disastrous 1994 season in America demonstrate. At nearly $1 billion suppression costs were large, but the country had not seriously questioned such expenditures before. The loss of 34 firefighters was exceptional, but crews had been burned over previously without catalyzing serious reforms. Fires had grown more intense, the area burned on public lands vaster, the imbalance between fire use and fire control more pronounced; yet these circumstances had evolved over many decades without a sense of crisis. The Republican Party’s electoral take-over of Congress argued for some reform, but the party’s platform advocated less, not more, government.

What made the 1994 fires significant was that two years earlier Norman MacLean had published Young Men and Fire, his meditation on the 1949 Mann Gulch fire that killed 13 smokejumpers. The South Canyon fires eerily recapitulated the events of that best-selling book. The media – the public – had a prism through which to view the tragedy. The events acquired political importance because they achieved a broad cultural significance. The American public knew, or thought they knew, what the fires meant. There was little protest over a major policy change.

But there has been little practical outcome with regard to instituting controlled burning as a symmetrical practice with suppression. One reason, I suggest, is that behind the 1994 narrative stands another: the story of the 1910 fires. Even Young Men and Fire was a modern restatement of that epic, not a challenge to it. The United States has no other story to tell about wildland fire. There is no narrative for controlled burning or fire ecology equivalent to that created in the great crucible of 1910. Until there is, reforms that seek to fundamentally reposition American fire practices will not occur on the scale proposed for them. The American tragedy was not merely its postwar ambition for a program of fire exclusion, but its commitment to specialists who could no longer engage their larger culture.

Something like this will decide the long-term success or failure of fire reforms after what the World Wildlife Fund has fatuously termed a historically unprecedented year for fire. The political ecology of fire is not a science, will never be a science. But it can aspire to a rigor of scholarship at least akin to that known for history and anthropology. No responsible authority would send out a fire crew untrained in the basics of fire behaviour or without some forecast of likely risk. Yet fire institutions routinely argue for political solutions without understanding any better the political behaviour of fire reforms and without some empirically informed sense of what the odds for success and failure are.

* * *

Reform-minded Mexicans would do well to ponder these observations. They have a year, probably no more than two, to instigate official programs in response. That would coincide, moreover, with the fundamental rhythm of Mexican politics: the 6-year tenure of its powerful presidents. Traditionally every new occupant reorganizes and renames the bureaus under his direction. A fire program would have to survive that process.

This time, however, the political context has altered profoundly. Mexico is experiencing the greatest social turmoil since its revolution. It is moving away from one-party politics dominated by the PRI; it is feeling the economic impress of the North American Free-Trade Agreement; narcotraficantes in the north and rebellious peasants in the south are pushing the borders of internal politics, as immigration, legal and illegal, into the U.S. are redefining its relation with its superpower neighbour. This year’s fires have burned within an extraordinary context.

In searching for a suitable response, Mexicans have several levels of analogy open to them, many drafted from America. Mexico would be wise to scrutinize the Florida fires that flared as its own were dying out. Even the U.S. with its immense firefighting resources was helpless and had to evacuate almost 100,000 residents. Mexico has a long tradition of responding to internal unrest with military force; the Florida experience suggests the limits of that option with regard to fire. While it clearly needs to improve fire control, particularly at a community level, suppression will not solve the larger problem. Undoubtedly Mexico will also look to American science and information technology. It will use the crisis to push for satellite imagery, computer modelling, radios, air tankers. Yet this too, while necessary, may prove surprisingly limited unless they connect with a broader culture.

As Mexico looks for advice and examples, it should not only examine computer modelling of fire behaviour and risk, and explore the technology of GIS and assess the impact of the fires on biodiversity, it should develop its cultural consciousness of fire. It needs to find folk heroes among the campesinos killed fighting fire in Puebla; needs to perceive the incinerated hillsides around the Valley of Mexico as a threat to its national identity, as the smoke was to public health; needs to promote a response to the burned cloud forests at Chimalapas more culturally engaging that debris dams and reforestation; needs, finally, to find an Octavio Paz or Carlos Fuentes to incorporate the saga into its national literature. It needs, that is, to metamorphose from the hundreds of thousands of burned hectares, the grim fatalities, the opaque smoke, the helpless and stinging embarrassment into a story that speaks to its deepest desires and sense of itself.

This last January a new museum opened on the Cerro de la Estrella, a hill in the center of the Valley of Mexico and scene of the fabled Aztec “new fire” ceremony. During the rite, celebrated every 52 years, all fires in the surrounding landscape were extinguished, a new fire kindled from a special wooden drill, and its flames redistributed to all the cardinal points. The new fire drove back the threat of darkness and demons. It may seem odd to link a museum dedicated to precolumbian rituals with a profession that prides itself on its electronic gadgetry, its air tankers, its paramilitary discipline. This year’s wildfires after all burned over the Cerro, as they did most the surrounding landscape. But it is precisely this linkage of new fire with old that will measure the depths and successes of Mexico’s anticipated reforms.

The author thanks Dante Arturo Rodriguez Trejo, Baldemar Arteaga Martinez, and the Forest Sciences Division of the Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo for their support on his recent tour of central Mexico.



Stephen J.Pyne
History Department
Arizona State University
Box 872501
USA – Tempe, Arizona 85287

IFFN No. 19

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