The Fog of War

The Fog of War

13 October 2011

published by

USA — A conversation with environmental historian Stephen Pyne on America’s complex (and unresolved) relationship with wildfire. NFPA Journal®, October 2011

Since the publication of his book Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire in 1982, Stephen Pyne has been regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in the environmental history of fire. He spent 15 seasons as a wildland firefighter on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988. He is a professor at Arizona State University, specializing in the history of ecology, the history of exploration, and the history of fire. He is at work on a book on the history of wildland fire in the U.S. from 1960 to the present day.

Why 1960?
My previous history, Fire in America, ends in the 1970s, but a lot has happened since then. We need a new story, not just a continuation of the old one. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the opening salvo in our modern battle over what to do about wildfire — it was the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference in Florida in 1962. That’s where the idea of reintroducing fire into the landscape, particularly prescribed fire, was really pushed. They were arguing against this firefighting juggernaut, as they saw it, that was sort of mindlessly putting out fires and causing all kinds of problems in doing so. There’s a lot that works with 1960. There’s Kennedy’s comment, about the torch being passed to a new generation. And 1961 was a relatively big fire year in the Northern Rockies. The Brentwood-Bel Air Fire in L.A. in 1961 announces in a celebrity sort of way that the wildland-urban interface, what we now call the WUI, is here.

What was going on with the land-management agencies in 1960?
The U.S. Forest Service was the dominant power, really, when it came to wildland fire policy, but in 1962 the wheels start coming off. By 1968 the National Park Service has broken ranks and created its own fire policy, and the other federal agencies follow suit. So the whole thing fragments.

Not to spoil anything, but how does the book end?
I was going to end it in 2010, which is the centennial of the Big Blowup of 1910 [a fire that burned an estimated 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and is one of the largest fires ever recorded], which was a formative event for the Forest Service and for national fire policy. But I’m moving it to 2011 because the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy was submitted in March, and because the whole fire scene in the Southwest this year makes an interesting backdrop. We have a cabin in Alpine, Arizona, that was in the Wallow Fire—the cabin came through fine, but the landscaping took some hits. The Wallow Fire personalizes it. The book becomes a history of fire in my lifetime.

What do you see when you look at the grand arc of that story?
Institutionally, it’s the fragmentation of that dominant power, the Forest Service, and its replacement by a pluralism of institutions, both private and public. It’s also a pluralism of ideas about fire, a pluralism of fire practices, and the struggle to make that pluralism e pluribus unum. To make out of that pluralism some kind of coherent, sensible strategy for using fire and living with fire.

And what is that sensible strategy?
The story doesn’t have a conclusion. There’s a kind of institutional conclusion in the form of the Cohesive Strategy report [created by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, which outlines a strategic effort to restore and maintain resilient landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and respond to wildfires], but it doesn’t solve the problem. Because the problem will never be solved. It will just continue to change.

Why can’t it be solved?
Because there’s no consensus. The policy to suppress every fire by the next morning, the so-called “10 a.m. policy,” was adopted by the Forest Service in 1935 and stayed on the books until 1978. The National Park Service had it until 1968. Everyone agreed that it failed, that we don’t want to exclude fire, that in fact we want to get fire back into the landscape because it’s an essential ecological component. But the old policy of suppression had the administrative advantage that it very clearly said what you should do, and how you’ll be evaluated. The new policy does not clearly say what you should do or how you’ll be evaluated. That requires reconciling fire with what you want the land to be, and what you’re willing to pay for it. And we have no consensus.

When you say we can’t agree on what we want the land to be, what do you mean?
This summer, after the Wallow Fire, there was a meeting in Alpine, and you had these politicians and many local people who were essentially saying that if the land where the fire started wasn’t a designated wilderness [administered by the U.S. Forest Service], we could log it off. They’d be doing all the things that caused problems and led to the creation of national forests in the first place, but the thinking is if we don’t want wilderness, which is where most of these major fires start now, we could go in and really hammer these fires. And on the other side, the hardcore wilderness people and biodiversity groups that want to shut down logging and working landscapes are just as adamant. So we’re still having the whole wilderness argument, and the debate is completely polarized. If we’re still arguing over what we want the land to be, then we’re not even close to talking about the next stage, which is about getting the right kind of fire into that land, and getting it in under terms that we can agree to pay for. So we go on talking, and fire isn’t listening.

What do you mean by ‘paying for the kind of fire we want’?
We don’t want to pay for the full costs of managing fire on the landscape. From the beginning, we’ve looked to emergency funds to make up the difference. The Forest Service gained control of the national forests in 1905, and the cost of firefighting turned out to be very hard to predict. In 1908 an act was passed that allowed them, in effect, to overspend during emergencies, and Congress would make up the difference. In 1910 they went almost a million dollars over budget, which was real money back then. So right from the start, you have a dual funding mechanism: there’s a regular budget that provides for a base level, but then the number of fires determines what’s actually spent, and that difference is in effect off budget. In the 1930s the emergency fund was expanded to allow the Forest Service to spend in advance of an emergency, and this again was off budget. The Department of the Interior was eventually given the same authority. This continued until the late 1970s.

What happened?
There were studies showing that costs were really starting to go up, and there seemed to be no link between how much was spent and a reduction in burned area. The thinking became, ‘Let’s contain the emergency side of it and put the money up front.’ So the Forest Service lost the ability to use this money as a pre-suppression emergency fund. They were given a larger budget up front with the idea that it would contain both the budget and allow them to make rational preparations. In fact, though, Congress allowed those emergency funds to continue, not as pre-suppression, but after the fact.

Good intentions gone awry?
When the fires actually happen and the TV cameras are rolling, particularly if houses or people are threatened, no politician’s going to say, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is, we’ve already spent our emergency funds, there’s nothing we can do.’ They’re going to bring in the airplanes and the helicopters. So it doesn’t matter what all the planning amounts to, because the dual funding for emergencies is still there. It’s not looked at very hard over the next decade or so, which is pretty benign for wildfire. But by the mid-1980s, fire starts to come back. Then Yellowstone National Park burns in 1988, and anywhere from $150 million to $300 million is spent just on those fires alone. Suddenly, fire is back with a vengeance, and we start seeing these wild escalations in spending under emergency. By 1994, we hit our first billion-dollar fire suppression budget. By the late 1990s, the General Accounting Office is involved, and they’re saying, ‘What’s going on here? Why are we having all these big fires? Why is it costing so much?’ That sets into motion the most recent era, where costs continue to escalate, and the GAO pushes for the land agencies to come up with a cohesive strategy to contain them. But fighting fires in the wildland-urban interface, which means protecting structures, is certainly raising those costs.

WUI firefighting and reintroducing fire into the landscape may not seem compatible to some people.
A lot of people accept that fire has a natural role in protected areas and parks and so forth, and they sort of like the idea in the same way that they like the idea of wolves being reintroduced into the wild. They just don’t want them in their backyards. The problem, though, is that we’re creating this kind of fractal landscape where there are more and more people in the crevices, and there’s less and less of a buffer zone. The old rural landscape, which acted as a large buffer, is disappearing. Instead, we’re sort of slamming the wild and the urban together.

What does the disappearing rural landscape mean for our relationship with fire?
People have much less experience with it. They don’t use it in their daily lives. We’re not heating our houses, we’re not cooking our food, we’re not burning off our grass. Even in agriculture, we burn a lot less than we used to. People used to start fires that moved into the wild environment; now fires start in the wild and move into the human environment. All those kinds of vernacular uses of fire that familiarize people with what fire is and how to do it are pretty much gone. It’s a lot like our larger connection to the natural world. Nature’s becoming virtual for most people. It’s what they see on television, or what they get on a monitor.

You’ve said that an increase in the amount of burned area isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Why is that?
If we got fire right, we wouldn’t see a reduction in burned area, we’d see an escalation, because there would be more controlled burning and a lot less feral burning. I think it’s entirely possible that at one time 20 percent of the country burned every year, if you just measured it in acres.

Why do some of these feral wildfires become so ferocious?
One answer is that we had a fire deficit and now we’re making it up. It’s just that we’re going to make it up violently. Another is that there’s something wrong with the natural system.

In what way?
Fire has a lot of other ecological effects besides consuming surplus fuel. It’s a biochemical reaction — it releases nutrients, and it rearranges things. That’s why fire and logging are not equivalent operations. Logging takes the big stuff and leaves the little. Fire burns the little and leaves the big. One doesn’t substitute for the other. It’s the whole sense that these landscapes are now out of sync, because they were used to a particular regimen of fire that’s gone away, and they’re unhappy with it. More intense wildfires is one expression. But it would be nice to be able to restore that system without having to go to that extreme.

Which is the goal of the Cohesive Strategy, which you don’t have a lot of hope for. So what could work?
I think we’re going to see a regional translation of how this all works. There’ll still be one national policy that extends over everything, but it will express itself in regional practices and regional approaches to the landscape that are very different. The prescribed fire pattern you see in Florida will not extend to the Northwest or California, for example. These regional considerations will determine your plan for mitigation, for how you deal with fire, for what you decide to let the fire do. How can we break it apart so that the pluralism we need can still make sense in terms of larger national social goals?

You experienced the Wallow Fire firsthand. What was your reaction to that event?
My immediate reaction was, ‘We’ve done this for a century and this is what we’ve got to show for it? A hundred years of money and effort and intensive fire research and all those firefighting lives lost, and this is it?’ I mean, you’ve got Wallow, you’ve got Texas burning up, you’ve got record fires all over. It’s a real challenge to explain how this happened, and what it means for the future.

What does that do to the new story you’re trying to tell about wildfire in America?
I’m frankly sick of irony, and I don’t think we have to end the story that way. It’s more important to create a new narrative. We had a great narrative of firefighting that came out of 1910 — we know how that works out, but it was very important. Part of our difficulty now, I think, is that we don’t have an equivalent story to tell. It’s less clear. But we need some kind of narrative to adequately explain what’s going on, why we’re doing it, why it matters.

Narrative as cohesive strategy.
We need a narrative as much as we need air tankers and helicopters. This is something that has to be created, and this is going to be my contribution.

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