by Gary Ferguson
We Americans have long been fond of describing ourselves as being at war with things: Poverty. Drugs. Cancer. Crime. Graffiti. And wildfire. When I first came West as a young man in the late 70’s America had been at war with wildfire for some 60 years; a string of relentless battles that over time had enlisted media celebrities from Bambi to Smokey Bear, the latter having reached the status of a five-star general, endorsed by everyone from John Wayne to Aretha Franklin to the Grateful Dead.
Wildfire was our foe because it was uncontrollable — picking our pockets by burning up valuable timber resources. Yet there’s more to the story than that. In the years following the creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 by Teddy Roosevelt, the fledgling agency had no shortage of detractors; in fact Chief Gifford Pinchot spent a lot of his time pressing flesh in Congress, trying to justify its existence. Then in the summer of 1910, the states of Washington, Idaho and Western Montana saw a massive series of fires called the Big Burn. By the time it was over in late August three million acres of forest had burned – destroying towns, killing 86 people, and torching enough timber to fill a freight train 2,400 miles long. It was in the wake of that astonishing event that the Forest Service found its purchase, its raison d’etre. The war against wildfire was on. Not long after the Big Burn the agency announced an outrageously ambitious idea called “9:00 am rule,” which said that all wildfires were to be out by nine o’clock the morning after detection.
The Forest Service was good, and with the rise of machines they got even better. But with their success the natural, fairly low intensity “stand maintenance” fires that came along every ten years or so, clearing away fallen trees and branches from the forest floor, were no longer burning across the landscape. By the time the “suppress all fires” approach began to fade in the 1980’s, we found ourselves with millions of acres of Western forests suffering under unnaturally heavy fuel loads. Today that fairly describes some 300 million acres — or an area about three times the size of California.
And now, in a kind of perfect storm, those fuel loads have come smack up against the effects of climate change. In the most important study of its kind to date, the University of Idaho and Columbia University found that if we factor out natural climate shifts like Pacific Ocean circulation patterns, in just over 30 years human-caused climate change has doubled the number of acres burning annually in the American West.
Even more noteworthy is how those burns have changed. Since the new millennium we’ve seen 11 seasons with more than a dozen so-called mega-fires, loosely defined as burning over 100,000 acres in a single event. The fire season is 75 days longer than it was in the early 1970’s — expanded both by mountain snow packs melting off earlier, as well as with warmer, drier autumn weather. Since 2000 we’ve set five records for the hottest years on the planet: the last three were 2014, 2015 and 2016. There’ve also been three major drought periods since 2000, all of which have either killed trees outright or left them more vulnerable to insect invasions. In 2016 alone, the state of California saw the death of 60 million trees. All of this is making wildfires bigger, hotter, and harder to control.
Wildfire is getting people’s attention these days for reasons way beyond the loss of commercial timber. Right now more than a third of the U.S. population, about 120 million people, are living on about one billion acres designated as “wildland-urban interface” — basically lands where large swaths of combustible vegetation come up against human structures. Of those acres a whopping 200 million have been declared to be at high risk for wildfire. It’s here, in the WUI, where much of the $4.5 billion annually in federal and state suppression dollars go.
Against these realities it’s nearly inconceivable that our federal leaders would abandon sustainable energy development, flip the bird to the Paris Climate Accord, and open precious federal preserves to massive increases in oil and coal extraction. But we can also find absurdity in our own back yards. Of the roughly 70,000 communities in the WUI, less than three percent have adopted fire-wise prevention programs, even though such efforts have proven hugely effective. (To give you a better sense of their usefulness, during the 2013 Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs a housing development known as Brentwood saw 61 out of 67 homes go up in flames; meanwhile in the nearby Cathedral Pines subdivision, where basic wildfire prevention had been a priority, only four homes were lost.) In heavy fire years the Forest Service spends about 500 times more on suppression than it does on prevention. (Curiously, the same Ad Council that basks in 75 years running the Smokey Bear campaign — the longest public service campaign in history — saw its “wildfire preparedness” campaign sink like a stone, finally abandoning it altogether.)
It would be a simple matter for states and counties to require new housing developments in the WUI to have adequate spacing between homes to avoid auto-ignitions from neighboring structures. To insist on adequate water supplies for firefighting, as well as multiple entrances and exits into subdivisions. To establish and enforce proven fire codes and for homeowners to adopt “defensible space” corridors around their homes. Failing to do so will endanger residents and firefighters alike, not to mention pulling in the years to come billions more dollars from taxpayers for suppression costs.
Finally, beyond the neighborhoods, forest fuel loads can be reduced either by prescribed burning or thinning. Reducing fire risk through thinning and other management practices to restore forest health is central the work of many public and private partners, but active restoration takes dollars and long-term commitment (thinning, it should be noted, has to be re-done about every ten years). While there are currently some 500,000 acres of Oregon forest in need of treatment, at this point we’re only able to thin about 6,000 acres a year.
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In ecological terms the most resilient systems are those that react to “disruptions” by quickly reweaving the relationships of the community. Wildfire — along with drought, rising heat levels and increasing storm energies — are asking no less of humans. I can’t say exactly why throughout so much of history we’ve preferred to imagine ourselves as heroes battling the forces of nature — fortifying, generation after generation, the wall that divides the human psyche from the natural world. Maybe we just wanted to feel exceptional. Chosen. Yet what we’ve ended up feeling is disconnected and alone.
It’s not easy to admit that we can’t control things the way we long thought we could. But the good news is that we’re smart enough to change. We can turn these ample brains and hungry hearts toward what it feels like to care for the land in much the way we care for family. We can savor the satisfaction of having traveled far, down a great many roads, making right turns and making wrong turns — taking the chance at last to feel what it’s like to be truly home.
Find out more about Gary at www.wildwords.net, or on Twitter at @GaryAFerguson