Living With Fire

It has been some time since I posted about fire in our California landscape so I’ll give a quick recap.

In the summer of 2014, the King Fire in the central Sierra Nevada mountains burned close to 100,000 acres in less than two weeks. It is considered one of the worst wildland fire incidents in California history, prompting many in the popular media to predict the usual doomsday scenarios. So, I thought, let’s look at the numbers and see what they tell us.

I posted a quick article about how, indeed, given the small data sample available to me on recent fire history (from 1913 to 2013), fires have become more numerous and fire sizes (in terms of acres burned) have increased.

However, I failed to follow up on that post to illustrate that:

  1. those numbers reflect fire history during a period of intense fire suppression (a management policy born from human needs and fears, and do not reflect good land management practices), and
  2. an increase in fire size reflects those fires that started under extreme weather conditions in remote locations, guaranteeing they would escape suppression efforts to begin with.

I know that’s a poor substitute for an in-depth article, but you can read Fighting More Forest Fires Will Come Back to Burn Us by Michael Kodas, in On Earth. The author does a great job of detailing the controversy and the science (or lack of it) behind national fire policies (that inevitably influence state and local management policy).

The point is:

The rise in the number of fires and their sizes has more to do with our land management policies and human activity, than anything going on with climate change and/or our fire ecosystem. Fire has long played a starring role in shaping the California landscape and will continue to do so.

In mid-November, I wrote another post about the language used in media to describe forest fires. Public perception of fires are heavily influenced by how we refer to them. And whenever someone says things like:

I’ve never seen that before.

Please, for the love of all things green and black, do not take much stock in it. Think about it. Even a 40 year wildland fire veteran would not have seen it all. How could she? Our landscapes have been evolving with fire for thousands and thousands of years.

During a conference I attended last fall, Tamara Wall of the Desert Research Institute is trying to explore statements just like the one above. Her aim is to find out directly fire-fighters how they experience fire behavior, and how it changes throughout their careers. Remember, how we perceive something is based on what we expect and relative to what we have experienced before.

Living With Fire

I  hope that those two previous posts along with this one would bring us to a realization that fire in our landscape is at our doorsteps. It always has been and will continue to be so far into the future. And as our population balloons and more of us move into the edges of urban areas, we must all learn to live with fire instead of fight it.

In 1997, my post-graduate adviser, Paul Tueller (University of Nevada, Reno) and Ed Smith started a public outreach program called Living With Fire. It was initially developed for the Nevada landscape, but it has been adopted by many California communities. Along with the efforts of the California Fire Safe Council and the national Firewise program, these programs aim to educate the public on fire issues in their community, teach how to protect one’s home through defensible space and smart building material choices, and provide a framework to collaborate on larger, fuel reducing projects.

While these are all great, sometimes they fail on what I think is the most important issue facing Californian’s today – the lack of fire.

While protecting one’s home through defensible space is paramount in most people’s minds (and it should be, you shouldn’t expect someone to put their lives in the path of fire to save your home), what about the rest of the landscape?

Photo by Debbie Robinson (as it appeared on Ear to the Ground).

No matter how relieved the owner of the above house was after the fire, do you think they really want to live in that blackened landscape?

And what about homes that immediately abut other homes? And what about the 42% of California owned by federal and state agencies? And what about those large tracts of private land that no one seems to weed, let alone manage?

How do we protect all that land from fire?

The federal and state agencies task with managing our forests and wildlands cannot do it*.

The timber industry cannot do it**.

The military cannot do it***.

But fire can.

What? Fight fire with fire?

Prescribed Fire Councils began in the United States in the southeastern states of Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma. They quickly spread throughout the southeast when land managers and private land owners realized how great they worked. Councils in the west have been recently formed in Washington, Oregon, California, as well as British Columbia, Canada.

Their goals are to facilitate the use of prescribed fire to manage our landscapes – regardless of ownership boundaries and regardless of who wields the torch. They do this by working to change national, state and local policy, collaborating closely with regulators, and educating citizens on the use of prescribed fire. They also provide training venues for everyone (regardless of agency affiliation or lack of it).

In other words, they are doing everything they can to get fire back in its natural role in our landscapes. By allowing prescribed fire to do the heaving lifting of removing dead and dying material (that no one wants to buy nor can we pay to remove it all) and thinning excessive vegetation, the aim is to create landscapes resilient to fire. The idea is so when an unplanned burn does start (it will, we know it will), its effects are moderated (because of less fuel).

Yes, this means more smoke in the air.

Californians crow and covet their clear, blue skies. I know I do. I love them.

And haven’t we just spent the last forty years trying to clean up our air?

While it is true that prescribed fire will put more smoke into our skies, it does not mean a return to smoggy cities. Emissions can be estimated and plume travel tracked to optimize when and how a fire occurs to reduce smoke impacts.

This is what I mean by living with fire. It means all land managers implementing fire policies that allow us to use fire to live with fire.

I admit, that is a lofty goal. However, it is inevitable. Our landscapes are going to burn one way or another. Would you (i.e., land managers, private home owners, etc) want to be holding the torch when it burns? Or are you willing to give that up to some random arsonist or the weather?

Living with fire is not just about defensible space, but includes embracing fire as a land management partner.

* Federal and state agencies have been hampered by policy, and environmental and management constraints.

** The timber industry’s goals are not (necessarily) coincident with developing a fire-resilient landscape.

*** They have other wars to battle.