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