Burned Policy

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves….” Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2.

Still Playing With Fire

Coeur d'Alene National Forest, Idaho. Photo taken between 1909 and 1920. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

Coeur d’Alene National Forest, Idaho. Photo taken between 1909 and 1920. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

It is summer so wildfires are in the news, and this year’s Yarnell Hill and Rim Fires are partially used to hype man-caused global warming. Our fire problem has been a long time in the making. It did not happen overnight. We will not fix it overnight, perhaps we never will.

On August 15th 1979, I had just started my first permanent position with Cal Fire. On that day a four-man crew from Nipomo Forest Fire Station responded to the Spanish Ranch Fire about thirty miles east of Santa Maria. Three of the Nipomo crew (Captain Ed Marty, and firefighters Ron Lorant and Steve Manley) died on the fireline that day. Firefighter Scott Cox succumbed to his burns 202 days later.

Later in my career, I taught at Cal Fire’s Fire Academy. We have there a list of firefighters who died in the line of duty. This year, nineteen more names were added to the list of fallen comrades. The Yarnell Fire joins such infamous fires as Mann Gulch, Inaja, Loop, Rattlesnake, South Canyon, and others. The stories of how our comrades died at these fires are part of our lore.

I can comment on fire policy since I have responded to wildland fires and helped in quelling them, and I taught fire modeling in the Advanced Wildland Fire Behavior course as part of a cadre of instructors during the 1990s.


Our present fire policy began in 1910 with the “Big Burn,” a fire that killed at least 85 people and burned more than 4,700 square miles in Idaho and Montana. It is the second largest fire in U.S. History (the Peshtigo Fire was 5900 square miles and killed 1,500), and 12 times bigger than the Rim Fire which, as of this writing, is nearly 400 square miles.

On August 10, 1910, the region was in the midst of a severe drought when fires broke out and were reported as spreading rapidly on the Blackfeet, Cabinet, Clearwater, Flathead, Kaniksu, and Lolo National Forests. Over time they merged. On the 20th high winds caused a “blow up.” The Forest History Society says “that towns and timber alike perished, heroes were made, legends were born, and history changed forever.” They quote Forester Edward G. Stahl as recalling, “that flames hundreds of feet high were ‘fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.’”

“[F[lames hundreds of feet high were ‘fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.’” – Forester Edward G. Stahl recalling the Big Burn

Arizona State University Professor Stephen Pyne is a recognized expert on wildfire; in 2001 he spoke of the lessons of the Big Burn. “The next three chief foresters [of the Forest Service] – William Greeley, Robert Stuart, and Ferdinand Augustus Silcox – were all personally on the scene of the fires, had counted its costs, buried its dead…Silcox wrote [toward the end of 1910] that the lesson of the fires was that they were wholly preventable. All it took was more money, more men, more trails, more will.”

The year 1910 saw the triumph of that management philosophy over another. It should surprise no one that the rancorous debate occurred due to, in the words of Pyne, “politics, personalities, and professional pride.”

The debate’s loser, Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger argued for what was known as “The Indian Way.” Pyne put Ballinger’s argument this way, it was better to have “fires of choice than fires of chance” because “light burning by the American Indian, after all, was what had created the forests for which everyone [in 1910] now lusted.”

The winner, Gifford Pinchot, the Father of the Forest Service, believed as Silcox did. Indeed most foresters of the day believed that fire had no place in the forest. In their opinion, using fire was anti-conservation. Patrolling, putting out fires, and educating people to be careful was the way of the future.

By 1935, Silcox (now Forest Service Chief) conceded that their policy to put out all fires by 10 a.m. had left national forest lands in worse shape than they had been a generation before. The Society of American Foresters publicly announced that fire was required for certain species, most notably longleaf pine.

To this day, fire has not been reintroduced to any great extent. Fires normally clear away undergrowth and widen space between trees. Without it, those fuels build up. Fire probably will never be used in a meaningful way to create wildland landscapes that resist major fires. For one thing, people such as me now live in what is called the Wildland-Urban Interface, making fire’s use more difficult. For another, there are rules and regulations regarding air and water quality that blunt fire’s use.

Clearing and thinning of trees and undergrowth to remove the “fire ladder”—plants and woody debris that can allow fire to climb into the tops of trees—and widen spacing between trees would help reduce these catastrophic wildfires. But, that probably will not happen due to distaste for logging of any sort.

As sickening as it may sound, there may be nothing you and I can do except prepare for the inevitable. At the family level, clear flammable vegetation, mow down grass, and have an evacuation plan and meeting place decided on. Keep a bag with toiletries, clothes, and cash ready in case you are told to leave (there is a preparedness checklist at www.ready.gov). The South Lake County Fire Safe Council has good suggestions on preparedness. At the county level, we have a Community Wildfire Protection Plan that assessed our risks. Not surprisingly, much of the plan focuses on Fire Safe planning for new developments. Many of our existing roads and driveways do not meet the minimal requirements. My plan, in case of a major fire, is to grab my wife and our cat and walk into the lake; our road, as many in Lake County, is without an outlet and too narrow to accommodate incoming fire equipment and outgoing cars.

The fault for catastrophic wildfires, lies not in our global warming ‘stars,’ but in our politics.

Fires 1960-2012

Acres burned due to wildland fires, 1960-2012. Source: National Interacency Fire Center



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Science Isn’t Enough: A Forester’s Search for Truth


A presentation on 10 February 2010, by William W. Keye (of the California Licensed Foresters Association) given at the UC/USFS Pre- and Post Wildfire Conference.
You may get the PDF version (with the visuals) of his talk here: http://ucanr.org/sites/Prepostwildfire/files/3765.pdf


In looking over the agenda preparing for this talk I must tell you that I have little confidence in science to put us on the right path as far as what to do about our public forests and whether they should be managed or not. This is not a criticism of science, or academia: please don’t take it that way.

But there are plenty of people with agendas that can conjure science to say what they believe. It’s not supposed to be like that, but neither is there supposed to be superstition, repression and genocide, or demagoguery.

As a young forester I had more confidence in science to settle things. But I’m an older forester now. I have witnessed great upheaval in federal forest management, including a sort of mass hysteria or lesser holocaust. It has been driven to some extent by science, yes, but from my perspective to a much larger degree by perception, values, trust and the lack thereof. So that’s what I think is most important to talk about today. I think we need to be honest about where we are at, and why. I beg you to consider these thoughts.

The Forest Service used to have a clear mission, which included getting the wood out. My profession of forestry was resistant to change in the 1960s and 1970s. After all, the greatest generation came back victorious from World War II, hit the books under the GI Bill, graduated from forestry school and knew how to manage our national forests very well, thank you very much. Even age management on public lands was taken too far, and then it was too late to go back.

Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot (Image via Wikipedia)

A new force had seized control of the land, animated by a different sort of zeal, demanding purity. Given the revolutionary dynamics it was no longer acceptable to simply reduce forest management intensity. The timber beast needed to be declawed, an industry dismantled, people in timber dependent communities would have to find something else to do, thank YOU very much.

That was the 1990s.

And here we are 20 years after the pivotal and socially cathartic listing of the northern spotted owl as threatened. We don’t do even age management anymore on public lands, or even selection. We do some thinning projects, sometimes including a little bit of commercial timber Mostly we burn down our public forests and then let them go to brush. That’s our default forest management program, although no agency or elected body has ever promulgated it. It has taken shape over the last generation, mostly due to court rulings. Each individual court ruling a star, connecting them a constellation of no, don’t touch that, no it’s just too scary.

If the forest burns down, it is the will of Gaia. If it goes to brush, it is the will of Gaia. If you need science, we can get that for you.

I favor some degree of salvage logging on public lands, on a site-specific basis under the auspices of highly trained natural resource professionals, including foresters. We can use the dead trees to build or power things with, and employ lots of people. We can plant new trees and control competing brush so that the deforested site doesn’t have to wait for decades or potentially centuries for trees to come back. We don’t need to do this on every acre, nor should we (given competing management objectives), but we can do it on many if not most. I also support pre-fire fuel treatments and green timber sales to meet any number of social, ecological and economic objectives.

With management, we can engineer ecosystem resilience and diversity, high levels of carbon sequestration, bountiful recreation and wildlife habitat. We can revitalize rural communities, build schools and hospitals, support literacy and the arts.

We can celebrate the good land with dirt under our fingernails. I believe we can do all these things with our grandchildren, and theirs, in mind.

In some circles this is blasphemy, I know. Unacceptable hubris from a discredited profession.

Sustainable forestry is a non-starter for some, because it inevitably involves some amount of timber extraction, some component of touching and turning, some degree of commercial enterprise. That doesn’t sit well with Gaia, and it feels very threatening.

We can’t trust those people anyway. They just want to cut down all the trees. Let’s stick with the precautionary principle. Let’s do nothing; that feels safer.

Part of the reason the forestry pendulum has swung so far is because America has so rapidly transitioned into an urban civilization. That wasn’t the case in 1905 when Gifford Pinchot was crafting a new US Forest Service based on progressive ideas and utilitarian land management principles that had come to be called conservation. “The Greatest Good of the greatest number in the long run.”

In 1905, about half of us still lived on the farm. Think about that – living and working on a farm.
Entering the 21st Century, we find an America transformed. Many city dwellers a generation or two ago still had relatives “back on the farm”, so they knew something about mud and manure and growing and killing things for food and fiber.

That is much less common today, and the connection is fading.

And although with the current economy we may not be feeling it right now, another major factor influencing American attitudes is that since 1950 there has been a significant rise in per capita living standards and relative freedom from day to day want. This has freed up time and treasure to pursue more altruistic interests.

With people increasingly removed from the land, affluent and isolated in large population centers, it’s easy to appreciate the collapse we have seen in basic understanding of agriculture and forestry, where wood comes from, and so forth.

So today we burn down our public forests and then a highly dedicated cadre of our fellow citizens works diligently through political action, administrative appeals and litigation to try to ensure that none of the dead timber is recovered. They’ve been very successful.

In California, we now import 80% of our lumber – despite our own vast and perennially renewable timberlands – over half of which are held under federal ownership – mostly as national forests, but also in national parks and BLM lands.

Other states and foreign countries are eager to fill our appetite for forest products, and this way we don’t have to look at the stumps. We get to be Disneyland, or at least chase that level of abstraction.

Has anybody seen the movie Avatar? Isn’t the yearning for ecotopia something that constantly nags our subconscious, that fills many a dream?

It’s a wonderful fantasy, a recurring theme in art, literature and fairy tales. With Avatar, we can pretend that somewhere, somehow, maybe on another planet, there is a place where everybody has what they need and lives in pure harmony with each other and nature. Ecotopia.

And then the Colonel comes in and has to screw everything up. Kind of like Yahweh laying waste to the Garden of Eden.

So in the collective and now very urban imagination, highly sensitized to environmental threats by non-profit activists (the Avatar people, if you will), foresters and others who advocate quaint concepts like “multiple use” or “salvage logging”, “sustainable forestry” (or maybe even “reforestation”) may just be the diabolical Colonel trying to sound reasonable.

Are you going to trust him, or us?

So purity demands are fundamental: Nature has to be something more than it actually is; like it’s portrayed in some of the wonderfully romantic 19th Century landscape paintings by great American artists like Albert Bierschtadt and Thomas Cole. Nature as it ought to be.

And it has to be separate, an allegory without humans. At least not miserable creatures like us. We are definitely not worthy!

Nature separate and divine. Nice. But forced across the western landscape, outside of special preserves, I call the vision sterile, and ultimately phony. A constellation without a soul. America has strong roots in the so-called Puritan Ethic. It’s interesting to note that John Muir was raised by a maniacally religious father. If you think about 19th Century America, the push for expansion, Manifest Destiny and the pioneer ethos – there is also a dark undercurrent of genocide against native peoples. After the aboriginals had been killed or otherwise removed from the land, the conquerors (future conservationists as well as preservationists) deluded themselves that the forested landscape they had seized was somehow entirely “natural” and not the product of centuries of Native American management practices.

The closer you are to genocide or great social turbulence, the more psychologically invested in it you are – whether you realize it or not.

So here we are.

I invite you to Google DEFORESTED CONDITIONS to learn more about what is happening to our national forests in California. I hope that the spreading deforestation will soon be seen by the public for what it is. Not as the will of Gaia: Our creation, and something that we can begin to reverse whenever we are ready to have at it.

I have confidence, invoking Avatar as well, that people want trees, lush forests and diverse ecosystems for their grandchildren.

If you want healthy forests, I say talk to a forester, preferably a member of a professional organization like CLFA [California Licensed Foresters Association] or SAF [Society of American Foresters].

But you won’t do that until you trust him or her. I think the profession will get there. After being so thoroughly put down, some of it for good reason, our recovery is ongoing, but will take time. And it will only be complete when – and if – people of good will think forestry professionals have something of real value to offer the public, the American people, our fellow citizens and their Avatars too.

That’s something science can and will greatly assist with.

Truth has a way of getting out, of seeping through cracks and leveling false prophets.

America, and our Golden State, will find the courage to engage with our land once again. That is the hope I leave you with, the confidence in a more equitable and interesting future.

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