Stephen Pyne’s Enough is Enough Editorial: Facing the Flames

This editorial was written in support of FireSafe Montana’s Enough is Enough Campaign.

FireSafe Montana’s Enough is Enough campaign is an effort to provoke discussion around the issues surrounding wildland fire and the urban interface.  Comments and suggestions can be made below each article.  Click here for downloadable document.

Facing the Flames by Stephen Pyne

Three strategies for wildland fire presently compete in the American West. One is regressive, one proactive, and one reactive. All are in play, and the odds favoring each are roughly equal.

The regressive strategy is (to try)(to attempt) to suppress fire. This was a founding doctrine a century ago, and it failed. It failed ecologically, it failed economically, it failed as an informing philosophy of land management. The capacity to fight bad fires is essential, but a firefight resembles a declaration of martial law, a call-out to put down a temporary riot, not a principle by which to govern. You control this insurgency, as others, by controlling the countryside. Besides, while suppression can check bad fires up to a point, it does nothing to promote good ones.

Fifty years ago a fire revolution boiled over that sought to replace fire’s suppression with its management, and fire’s exclusion with its restoration. It was a pluralistic campaign, varied by region and local culture. Then, in May 2012, the bad old ways returned. As a temporary response to a fiscal “emergency,” the Forest Service restored the old suppression norm as a preferred response. AlthoughWhile the agency hedged its wording, there were few doubts what it meant in practice. If a prescribed fire escaped, the episode could end a career. If a wildfire being attacked escaped, it wouldn’t.

The second strategy is proactive. It recognizes that fire is a reaction that synthesizes its surroundings and that the way to cope with fire is to modify those surroundings to promote the fires you want and to contain better the ones you don’t. Fire management means land management: good landscapes yield good fires, messed-up landscapes lead to messed-up fires.

Land use embraces such choices as putting houses next to wildlands, trashing healthy forests by clearcutting, overgrazing, or fire exclusion, or transferring lands to preserves like parks and wilderness. All such decisions are reflected in the kinds of fire practices they encourage – and the kinds of fires that result. Today, America’s land looks a lot like American society, polarized and plutocratic. The urban and the wild thrive at the expense of the middle, while the 1% of nature’s fire economy, megafires, claim 85-95% of costs and burned area.

A proactive strategy targets sprawl by hardening houses, addresses out-of-whack landscapes by calculated thinning and prescribed burning, and bridges political boundaries through consensus projects between public and private entities. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, the Fire Learning Networks, FireWise, FireSafe, and the lands overseen by the Nature Conservancy are active expressions of this ambition.

The third strategy is reactive in that it accepts the existing firescapes and tries to contrive some useful benefits out of them. It takes the fires it gets, whether from lightning or careless campers, and works with them, even expanding them, in consideration of safety, cost, and ecological benefits. It effectively admits that we will not get ahead of the fire problem, which seems to be worsening at larger scales and faster rates. It exploits wildfires to do the work that, in the West, prescribed fire has been unable to do. It refuses to plug the gaps in the nation’s fire project by throwing crews into the breach.

The upshot is that, in some cases, this may mean rapid attack and suppression; in others, point protection and a fallback to community borders; and in still others, a big-box approach in which crews retire to defensible fuelbreaks and burn out. The effects will vary as well, but unless the fire goes completely rogue, it should cost less, pose fewer risks, and absolve agencies of liability.

All three strategies are happening. Suppression continues to tempt by the logic of simplicity and the urgency of protecting houses, even if every fire put out is a fire put off. Proactive projects are popular in principle because they are rational, but they have proved costly in both dollars and political capital and are, year by year, falling behind the metastasizing threat. The effort to fashion a national cohesive strategy may, after congressional finagling, end as a kind of Obamacare for wildlands. Amid such considerations reactive, big-box tactics have become a default setting. They are a major reason why burned area is swelling faster than climate change and legacy fuels alone can explain.

These are the choices as we face the flames. The one thing we cannot choose is whether or not to have fire. Nature made that decision over 400 million years ago.

Stephen J. Pyne is a professor in the School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University. He is currently completing a fire history of the U.S. since 1960.

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