Wildfires: Stamp Them Out Or Let Them Blaze?

In the fall of 2003, in one of the biggest wildfires in California history, 22 people lost their lives, thousands more lost their homes, and hundreds of thousands of acres burned. Yet, by recent standards, 2003 wasn?t off the charts. In 2002, 7 million acres burned.
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In the fall of 2003, in one of the biggest wildfires in California history, 22 people lost their lives, thousands more lost their homes, and hundreds of thousands of acres burned. Yet, by recent standards, 2003 wasn?t off the charts. In 2002, 7 million acres burned.

Today’s fires burn more intensely than did those of past decades, scientists say. But as we all know from the nightly news, these fires, no longer confined to wilderness areas, also tear into residential neighborhoods with horrifying results. When 137,000 acres caught fire in Florida in 1998, 25,000 people near Daytona Beach fled their homes.

Three years earlier, eastern Long Island faced 40-foot waves of flame. Why have wildfires—a threat that once seemed to have disappeared—returned with such fury? To find out, VT interviewed Stephen J. Pyne, author of the new book Tending Fire: Coping with America’s Wildland Fires. A professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University in Tempe, Pyne is no ivory tower intellectual: He spent 15 years as a fire fighter at the Grand Canyon and at Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks.

You write that fire had once “receded from everyday life” but is now “more virulent than ever.” Why? What’s going on?

We’ve made public lands—supposedly protected places—habitats for fire because of the way we manage them. In our determination to keep them from burning, we’ve allowed the very things that catch fire—pine needles, twigs, brush—to accumulate. So when lightning strikes or a campfire gets out of control, fire spreads more quickly than it otherwise might.

At the same time, we’ve begun building housing developments next to woodlands. This complicates matters. We know how to fight fires in woodlands. We know how to fight fires in towns. But these are two different challenges. So when a wildfire in the woods spreads to the suburbs, fire fighters who are trained to work in forests don’t necessarily know how to respond. So a fire can roar through one of those housing developments, causing devastation.

Have we always viewed fire this way—with these results?

No. Years ago, we used fire routinely in farming. We understood fire better then, so we weren’t as terrified by it. We knew it could be used responsibly. Native Americans also once used fire regularly. They burned their fields, which helped limit the accumulation of brush and branches that fuel wildfires. But Native Americans were driven out. Then settlers in the 1870s and 1880s overgrazed the lands, stripping them of the grasses that tend to burn slowly, and replacing them—again—with materials that burn quickly.

By the time protected lands were created, our impulse was to suppress all fires that would naturally occur otherwise. That meant pine needles, twigs, etc., were allowed to build up. Insects, with all the damage they do, were allowed to thrive. In times of drought and high wind, these “protected” forests become tinderboxes. So when a fire starts, it burns more intensely and spreads more rapidly.

You’re suggesting that some amount of fire is good.

It is. Fire functions ecologically in a way that nothing else does. Fire performs biological work that only it can do. It sets into motion a natural recycling of plants and animals. Old trees and bushes are cleared away, so the wind and sun can reach the soil. New species can replenish an area.

We almost never think of the good things fire does; we
have been conditioned to think only of the damage. We think that fire destroys a log, for instance, which it does. But by destroying the log, it releases everything in the log for other important biological purposes. When a log is turned to ash, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium are released. These chemicals are put into circulation again—in the air, soil or water. Different environmental conditions favor different species of plants. Some plants need lots of light; others don’t. Some, such as fireweed, do well in burned-over areas, while others go to seed, waiting for new conditions in which they will do well. The best ecological system is one in which there
is continual change, and new species come and go. Periodic fires help make that possible.

So fire can be a good thing. But what’s the worst that can happen if we continue in our present course of trying to suppress it?

You can’t suppress fire. Fire will come—through lightning, if nothing else—and when it does, it will spread more rapidly and burn even more intensely in areas that no fire has claimed recently. As a result, it will do more damage than a “normal” fire would have done.

You’re destroying the same wilderness you’ve set out to protect. Also, unless the brush and pine needles I keep talking about are burned off regularly or otherwise removed, they form a “pavement” of pine needles and twigs that covers up flowers and grasses, which is terrible for the soil beneath. When pine needles break down, they change the chemical composition of the soil, making it more acidic. Most flowers and grasses need soil that is more alkaline, so they won’t grow where pine needles build up.

Surely the people who set fire policy understand this, right?

It has been a long-standing debate. Back in 1910, when what became known as the Great Fires swept across the West, the government adopted a policy of suppressing fire. The Great Fires were never to happen again. For about 50 years after that, fire was something to be fought. But,
starting in the 1960s, when so much conventional wisdom was questioned, there was a shift. Certain policymakers came to understand that some fire was good, and that fires could even be started—“prescribed fires,” they’re called—to do vital cleanup work within our protected areas. However, not everyone agreed.

This has been an area of controversy ever since, leading to standoffs. Timber industry people say you can safeguard public lands by building roads on them and allowing “thinning,” which can be a pretext for logging on protected public forests. Thinning is when you clear out some of the smaller trees, which burn just like dry shrubs.

Unfortunately, extreme environmentalists oppose all thinning, even when appropriate, because they equate it with logging. They also oppose fighting any fires. Because they believe fire is natural and that natural is good, they say, “Let it burn.” So we’re not making nearly as much progress as we should. And things are just getting worse. 

In what way?

We’re inviting worse fires. And because we don’t think clearly about these issues, we use resources irresponsibly.

Here’s an example: Instead of controlled burning in wilderness areas, we could go in with chain saws and clear out the brush and chop up the smaller trees. But chain saws still don’t work as effectively as fire does.

And chain saws also create a lot of “slash”—branches and twigs and debris—which is a fire hazard too. So you have to get trucks in there to haul off the slash. The trucks burn fossil fuel. So do chain saws. By not letting fire do its job, we’re creating all kinds of environmental problems. We’re trading one set of problems for another, and often for worse problems.

Think of it this way: Centuries ago, when we used fire in our daily lives—for burning our farmlands, for heating our homes—we used open fire. But as we found alternatives to open fire, we confined fire to combustion chambers. It’s still there; we’re still using it. But instead of burning logs, we now burn fossil fuels—at great environmental cost. Global warming is mainly a consequence of burning fossil fuels in combustion chambers.

But open burning carries environmental costs, too, right?

Burning imposes some costs, certainly. Burning brush releases greenhouse gases, though not to the degree that burning fossil fuels does. So, in many cases, open burning is still the most efficient and least environmentally damaging way to use fire, which, as we said, we can’t really get away from. We need to recognize the reality that fire is ever-present and then make responsible, informed decisions about how and under what circumstances to use fire.

Can you offer an example?

I remember a time when, every spring, people burned their lawns as a matter of course. I have Bermuda grass, and burning it is the only really effective way to clean up the yard for the next season. But because you can’t legally do that anymore, you have to rent a de-thatching machine, a kind of vertical rake that—like a chain saw—uses a small combustion engine. This tears up the Bermuda grass. Then you rake it up and put it in plastic bags. Then the bags are hauled away in gasoline-powered trucks to a landfill. There, it decomposes, producing methane gas, which is a far worse greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide you’d get from burning the lawn.

We refuse to use fire intelligently, supposedly for environmental reasons. But, as in this case, we end up creating worse problems than we’re trying to solve. Fire can do great things for a lawn and its soil, releasing nutrients from the ash and clearing away dead matter. But because we no longer use fire for those purposes, we find substitutes. We use chemical
fertilizers and herbicides, but where do we get those chemicals? Mainly from fossil fuels.

It would make more sense if, one day every spring, people just burned their lawns and got it over with. It’d be done with a lot less environmental damage.

How about when we fight fires?

We make similar blunders there. We drop retardants on wildfires—retardants that are agricultural fertilizers. Proponents say that the retardants will help restore vegetation after the fire is out. Maybe so, but fertilizers cause the same problems in forests that they do on farms: They wash into streams and ponds where they stimulate the growth of algae. The algae sucks up oxygen, so fish and other plants die.

You paint a bleak picture. What hope is there that
we’ll come to a more responsible approach before the burning gets any worse?

It’s complicated because it isn’t only a matter of science. It’s also a matter of politics, attitudes, values—the whole maddening moral universe we inhabit. It’s also highly
emotional because it involves our fears. So we make mistakes.

But Nature gave us this task of managing fire. Burning things causes problems; so does not burning things. Fire is complex. There’s no single, simple solution to the challenges
it presents. We need to understand how fire works in our lives. That’s the only way we can make informed choices that are based on its potential for harm but also its potential for good.