Management by mega-fire

by Paul Larmer

A few years ago on a bright spring day, I decided to burn our small hayfield. With perhaps a little too much glee, I dropped a few matches on the edge of the field. For an hour, nothing happened; I could hardly get the grass to light despite going through an entire box of matches.

But then the breeze freshened, and suddenly the fire stood up and began to move. A few minutes later, my wife and I, running with shovels in hand, could not keep up with it, let alone try to steer it. Within a half hour, it burned the entire field, melted a couple of plastic irrigation pipes, and started toward our neighbors' fields. Fortunately, there was an overgrazed pasture in the way. There, the flames lay down again before they could do more harm.

I had just learned a basic fact of Western life: Fire rarely behaves how you want it to.

During the first half of the 20th century, the West's public-land managers -- especially those at the U.S. Forest Service -- went to war against wildfire, snuffing it out as fast as they could. But evidence mounted that fire suppression encouraged small trees to choke forests, increasing the chances of future massive blazes. So they began adopting new strategies -- from mechanically thinning forests to introducing more controlled burns.

Today, as High Country News Managing Editor Jodi Peterson points out in her cover story, the agencies are solidly committed to reintroducing fire into Western ecosystems. Yet, for many reasons, they are treating far fewer acres than is necessary to restore ecological balance. Meanwhile, gigantic, uncontrolled fires have become more common than ever, largely driven by shifts in climate. Whether caused by lightning, arsonists or negligent campers, these mega-fires are reshaping the West. Smart managers are learning to use them, letting them burn where they can do some ecological good and fighting them where they threaten towns and subdivisions.

Management by natural disaster is a crude philosophy. As one of the West's great fire gurus, Arizona State University's Stephen Pyne, recently wrote, if managers start viewing any natural fire ignition as a career-advancement opportunity, "Fire management will consist of pulling the arm of nature's slots, buying Powerball tickets in a lightning lottery. It's a way to 'get the burn out' in the same way that clear cutting got 'the cut out.' But it isn't managing for the ecological goods and services that agencies say they are enhancing: it leaves the outcome to chance."

Yet in an era when larger fires seem inevitable, and land agencies are increasingly strapped for funds, opportunism may be the best option left. As any Western farmer can tell you, steering fire is like driving a truck down a mountain with no brakes. There's a chance you'll crash and burn on the side of the road, but if you're lucky, you'll get to the bottom faster than you ever imagined.

© High Country News