We’ve Never Seen This Before

Did you see that?

The internet (and the written word for that matter) has its drawbacks. One of which is that you could not see me roll my eyes back at the title of this post.

It’s easy to forget history. It’s in the past, right? Can’t do anything about it now so why give it any thought? There are bills to pay, people to see, and that random YouTube video demanding your attention. Who’s got time for the history?

Well, as the saying goes, if one does not know one’s history, one is doomed to repeat it.

And since plants and ecological processes are not people with memories, rest assured they repeat themselves.

So, whenever I read that someone is shocked at recent fire behavior, I can’t help but trudge out the many fires that were “unprecedented”.

The History

…clouds of smoke have been sent forth from a tremendous fire… (1)

…fires raging from San Bernardino to Jacumba. (2)

A dense volume of smoke overhung the city…from the combined influence of the weather and the fires raging in the mountains. (3)

Those media quotes sound familiar, don’t they? However, they use language we don’t hear of too often now-a-days. Today, we see words like “catastrophic” and “devastating”. “Raging” seems to have gone out of vogue.

Wondering when those quotes were printed?

  1. September 11, 1869 in the Los Angeles Star
  2. September 21, 1869 also in the L.A. Star. Note: the distance between San Bernardino and Jacumba (on the border) is over 150 miles.
  3. October 8, 1875 in the L.A. Star.

In 1987, R.A. Minnich published a paper in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (77:599-618). A research brief of the paper can be found here on the California Fire Science Consortium (CFSC) website. The title of his paper is rather long, so I won’t bore you with it, but I will summarize CFSC’s summary.

Prior to fire suppression in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, frequent fires were reported in the growing metropolis of Los Angeles. The populous and officials were so concerned about these fires they even studied them.

USGS reports for the area, dated 1899 and 1900, showed large areas of chaparral had been repeatedly burned with severe damage to soil and water holding capacity. ~ CFSC Research Brief, May 2012, emphasis mine.

In addition to these post-fire effects, presumably started by lightning strikes since many of the reported fires also indicated that a rain event occurred during or prior to the fires, fire behavior was reported to be both smoldering and intense, with frequent reports of “raging infernos”. Not unlike the “catastrophic” fires reported in our media today.

If you’d like to read more (and gain some perspective), check out this paper original published in Ecological Applications (Vol. 17, No.3). Talk about incendiary language (“fearful flames”). And let’s not forget the summer of 1988. While not in California, that year, the fires in and around Yellowstone National Park exhibited the widest range of fire behavior you can imagine. And it was often reported that the “catastrophic” fires ruined the park. But it didn’t. Less than one-tenth of one percent of the park experienced temperatures high enough to kill deep roots. Read about what scientists are saying about those fires here.

Remember, back before our public agencies started putting wildfires out, the weather or geography did it. Either a large enough rain even occurred to put the fire out or it ran out of vegetation (fuel) to burn. While our current and recent fire suppression policies may have altered the frequency and distribution of wildfire on the landscape, it sure as heck didn’t stop it. And while fire suppression may have contributed to “extreme” fires, it is nothing new under the sun.

In addition to the likelihood that fires (both small, low intensity fires and large, high intensity fires) will continue to dominate our landscape, our ever growing population also continues to increase the intersection of human settlements and our wildlands (called the Wildland Urban Interface or WUI), providing ever more opportunities for accidental fire starts and arson activity.

So, yes, fires are getting more frequent, and they are impacting relatively larger areas. But that doesn’t mean it’s new or unprecedented on the landscape.

Fire is Scary

Photo courtesy of John McColgan and The Public Safety Electronic Post Office

When you have a wall of flame in front of you, puckering your skin and standing your hair on end, believe me, you are scared (shitless, I think is the term often used here).

And fire does destroy. It destroys forest/plant systems, shelter and food sources for many wildlife species, and our homes. In addition, it also rejuvenates forest/plant systems and provides new opportunities for wildlife. And, one might say it presents interesting challenges to us. Regardless, fire as a process of change on our California landscapes has been happening for millennium and there is nothing we can do stop that (except, of course, change our climate – but that’s another topic all together).

But just because we are scared of something that is dangerous doesn’t mean we need to over-react and attempt to eliminate it. For the past hundred years or so, we’ve tried that – and it doesn’t work.

What To Do?

Post-fire view of the King Fire, Pollack Pines, CA. Photo by P.E. Mandeno.
Post-fire view of the King Fire, Pollack Pines, CA. Photo by P.E. Mandeno.

In my next post, I’ll highlight some of the things we are learning to do right when it comes to wildfire in California. There are still many things we are doing wrong, but we know now that eliminating fire from our ecosystem will not save us from devastating fires. They happened before we got here and they’ll happen after we are long gone. If we intend to stay for the long haul, what we must do instead is learn to live with fire.