What’s causing Western wildfires and how to stop them
What’s driving the West’s wildfires? Lots of things — fire resembles a driverless car that integrates everything around it. But that car is running on fossil fuels. Much like Howard Odum’s famous observation that a modern potato is partly made of oil, fire’s environment is also being shaped by fossil biomass.
Long ago, humanity made a pact with fire: We each expanded the domain of the other. We became the keystone species for fire on the planet; people carried fire where and when it didn’t exist naturally and what they didn’t do directly with flame, they did indirectly through pyrotechnologies and the other practices that fire made possible. Eventually, people inhabited a world filled with working fires in their houses, shops, fields and wider landscapes. But it remained a world with ecological checks and balances.
Fossil fuels changed that relationship. Europe unbundled fire into its component chemistry, put it into machines, magnified its power and disregarded its effluents. Enlightenment science dismissed traditional fire lore and stigmatized flame as a badge of primitivism. As Europe, industrialism and science spread, they replaced the old relationships with a new order.
This had generally good effects in houses that were no longer subject to smoke, in cities less prone to burn from lanterns and candles, and in factories whose power multiplied. Steam was emblematic of the new order as railroads reorganized economies, cities and farms, and landscapes generally. Then electricity made energy more widely and handily available.
The problem came when that new firepower opened up landscapes to massive logging and land-clearing and then by extending an urban model for fire protection into the countryside and deep backcountry. From the mid-19th century to the early 20th, a chronicle of megafires fueled by slashing swept over millions of acres, blasting entire towns and killing hundreds. That sparked an overreaction — the determination to abolish all burning — that deprived vast landscapes of the fires they expected and needed.
It’s useful to recognize that the ambition to purge open fire could only have been attempted by appealing to petro-powered machines that promised a counterforce to match the flames spilling across nature. Remove aircraft, engines, pumps and chain saws, and you have to manage fire as people traditionally have, by rearranging the landscape and burning. Instead, a fossil-fuel society extended its firepower even to remote mountains in the Rockies and the Alaskan bush.
In the U.S., the modern era of wildland fire began with the Great Fires of 1910. For the next 50 years, led by the U.S. Forest Service, the country tried to remove all fires. By the 1960s, the folly of that approach was apparent and by 1978 the federal agencies had adopted a policy of fire restoration: They would promote good fires as well prevent bad ones.
Results have been mixed. Florida prescribed burns over 2 million acres a year; California, which is three times as large, burns a tenth that. Since the mid-1980s all the factors that favor large fires have ratcheted up. By 2000, the term “megafire” appeared. In 2015 the concept of a Pyrocene, a fire-informed equivalent to an ice age, was coined.
Four general strategies exist for managing landscape fire. In practice, people use bits of all, adapted to local peculiarities.
One: You can leave the fires to nature. In remote lands and legal wilderness, let fires pursue their course unless they threaten communities or critical assets. Monitor their progress; intervene when necessary. Think of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and most of Alaska.
Two: Do the burning yourself. Accept that fire will happen and needs to happen. Substitute controlled fires (fires of choice) for feral ones (fires of chance). Such burning can range from fields of stubble to forested mountains. Think Florida, prairie preserves and pine plantations.
Three: Change the environment in ways that promote the fires you want, whether those fires are wild or prescribed. This is how agricultural burning works, how cities learned to tame their conflagrations, and it’s also the logic behind mechanically treating lands before reintroducing fire. Close cultivation has always been the treatment of choice for Europe. Think thin-and-burn restoration projects throughout the West. An example of a reverse project — promoting conditions that aggravate fire — would be to amplify global warming.
Four: Exclude fire. Find surrogates to oversee the burning, prevent ignitions and suppress any fires that start. This strategy works well in cities and those anomalous lands for which there exist no natural basis for fire (like central Europe). Mostly, overwhelmingly, it not only fails in fire-prone landscapes, but pushes them toward worse fires. Think of most of the industrial world, including the U.S., until the baleful consequences of imposing an urban fire model onto landscapes became undeniable.
Which is right? They all are. There is no dichotomy for which we must choose one or the other. Remember that fire is a driverless car; no single pair of hands guides it. Restoration projects often combine deliberate burning with pretreatments like thinning. Fire suppression will combine aggressive firefighting around critical sites with some hurried pretreatments and large-scale burnouts further out that can look like prescribed fire done under urgent conditions. What works in Florida doesn’t necessarily work in Minnesota. What works in California won’t in Alaska. Monster fires raged in the 19th century because of logging and land-clearing slash. They blow up today largely because of climate change acting as a performance enhancer on preexisting conditions.
Because fire integrates everything around it, there are many points of intervention possible. Long-term, we need to begin taking the oil out of the potato. Meanwhile, the one sure way to failure is to pick a single technique and exclude all the others. We’ll end in a ditch, or worse.
Stephen Pyne is an emeritus professor at Arizona State University and the author of “Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America” and To the Last Smoke, a series of regional fire surveys.