Reframing “Fighting” Wildland Fire

Fighting fire. I’ve said this phrase countless times. I worked as a wildland firefighter but never stopped to consider the phrase fighting fire.

Since the late 1800’s wildfires, or any agricultural fires in the United States, have been perceived as destructive. Few explorers who came west were able to see fires for what they were- part of the natural environment, and integral to ecological health. When the Forest Service was established it was done so in a climate of “timber famine.”

In some ways the concept of timber famine was helpful. Conservationists used the fear of excessive logging to preserve parcels of land (although many of those parcels aren’t necessarily preserved for anything but logging) and regulate the logging industry.

The logging industry lobbied for more protection from wildland fire. Thus, the Forest Service, through strong lobbying from logging magnates and pro-logging organizations, became an agency whose focus on suppressing wildland fire veered into obsessive.

At this point in time, after decades of ongoing arguments about the importance of wildland fire, there are few people who won’t agree that fire is essential to the health of almost all ecosystems in the United States. Many of our ecosystems, particularly in the the west and southeast, adapted to varying cycles of fire. Countless plants and animals are fire adapted.

Yet we’re still throwing billions of dollars at the firefighting apparatus and funneling millions of dollars from programs that promote ecological health. Prescribed burning is happening, but minimally. There’s not enough funding, not enough personnel. Clean air laws prevent important burning operations from happening- clean air laws that will inevitably be violated when a wildfire comes through at an uncontainable pace.

The more I write about wildland fire, the more it feels like we’ve locked ourselves into a toxic feedback loop. We use helicopters, aircraft, dozers, engines and hand crews to fight fires that burn through areas that need to burn. We destroy soils and landscapes with these tactics. The machines we use to fight wildland fires belch toxic gasses into the air, gasses that contribute to climate change, which in turn creates larger and more erratic fires and more unpredictable weather patterns.

The public demands that uncontrollable and essential fires be fought, even when the fires themselves aren’t necessarily threatening communities. Government agencies, in response, throw cash at the problem, even as personnel accept the uselessness of their actions. I witnessed this constantly as a hotshot.

In order to interrupt this loop, we need to question the entire system. Organizations like Firewise, Terra Fuego, Fire Learning Network, and The Nature Conservancy are doing incredible work. These are just a few of the small and large community and nationwide programs that are helping to promote ecological health and community education. Unfortunately, government agencies remain stagnant- there is no dynamism. Their reactions are either too quick (and often guided by extractive industries and private industry) or glacially slow.

I imagine us educating communities about the importance of fire, and helping them to accept its presence in their lives. We don’t just burn an area once and it’s over. Many landscapes burn in a mosaic, which is a patchwork pattern. Fire naturally burns this way. Often, when fighting fires, agencies conduct burning operations that prevent this natural patchwork pattern, which limits ecological diversity and recovery. The patchwork pattern promotes a more diverse landscape, healthier soils and animal habitat, and a thriving ecosystem, but it also means that fires may need to happen more often.

This is one of many examples of the way fighting fire inhibits natural and important ecological cycles.

Along with the importance of fire, we need to find a way to create more fire resistance in the communities themselves.

This means grants for building with nonflammable materials (which are often more expensive) and clearing defensible space (a non-flammable area around structures).

This also means further regulating the construction of communities in areas that are naturally fire-prone.

Land development in the west has, like everything in our capitalist system, been driven by profit. If this continues, then we will continue to see catastrophic losses like what happened in Paradise, CA, with the Camp Fire. Long before the Camp Fire there was the Tunnel Fire, which decimated the Oakland Hills. The latter was a result of increased development and land encroachment as well as the introduction of invasive species, particularly eucalyptus (which was planted to accompany land development in high-cost areas). The dynamics of this development are complicated. The consequences are tragic.

In the midst of this terrible pandemic, there is an opportunity to expand our views. Can we move towards a more sustainable way of living with fire, rather than only fighting it? Can we employ people to promote land health, rather than destroy it?

Stacy Selby is currently writing a book about their experiences as a hotshot. They live in Seattle.

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