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Know the West

How to live with fire

Wildfire needs new narratives. The podcast ‘Fireline’ is a start.

 

Flames cascaded down hills, engulfing old oak trees as firefighter Lily Jane Clarke watched, transfixed. She was standing in the thick of the August Complex, a giant 2020 wildfire that burned over a million acres of Northern California forestland. “It’s beautiful,” she said, speaking into a recorder, her voice light and measured. It was also destructive: The blaze consumed nearly 1,000 structures and killed one firefighter. The August Complex was a stark reminder that wildfires are getting bigger, hotter and more devastating across the West. But even as she inhaled thick smoke beneath an orange sky, Clarke was riveted by the fire’s brilliance, its beauty and might.

Clarke’s reverence and awe captivated Justin Angle, a marketing professor at the University of Montana and the host and creator of the podcast Fireline, released this spring. A six-part series from Montana Public Radio, Fireline attempts to reconcile two seemingly incompatible views of wildfire: a catastrophe that amplifies climate anxiety, and a “part of the natural world, like the view from a mountaintop,” as Angle describes Clarke’s outlook. Combining illuminating histories of wildfire in the Western U.S. with details from the frontlines today, Angle finds room for both splendor and severity. At the same time, he explores how Westerners might live alongside fire in our inevitably entangled future.

For conveying a sense of what that future might feel like, Angle’s choice of medium is ideal: Sounds of fires crackling, boots crunching on gravel and wind rustling in trees punctuate the series, bringing the listener closer to its subject — the people and communities grappling with wildfire and climate change.

The August Complex Fire burns in Mendocino National Forest, California, in 2020.
Kari Greer

The first of Angle’s stories traces the Forest Service’s history of suppressing fires, beginning in 1910, when one of America’s largest-ever forest fires, the legendary Big Burn, scorched huge swaths of Montana, Idaho and Washington. Its destruction and death toll inspired a century-long effort to eliminate wildfire from the landscape. But many Western ecosystems require low-intensity burning to rejuvenate soil. Without periodic fires, in fact, fuel accumulates and forests grow denser, leading to hotter and deadlier fires that sear the soil instead.

To understand the importance of controlled, low-intensity fire, Angle visits two members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The pair, a father and son, use prescribed burns to revive their ancestral lands and encourage the growth of camas, a culturally significant plant with star-shaped purple flowers, near the Flathead Reservation’s Mission Mountains. For millennia, the CSKT have viewed fire as a gift, using it to maintain and shape the landscape before European settlers, with their Dante’s Inferno-esque fears, commenced a regime of fire suppression.

From there, Angle and his team traverse the West to unearth other narratives that see fire as more than just an enemy, invader or destructive force. They tell the story of the anthropologist who believes that food cooked over a fire is what set humans apart from apes, for example, and talk to a former firefighter who tracks declining mental health among firefighters as fire season” begins to encompass the entire year. 

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/drought-a-parched-west-heads-into-fire-season]

Fireline’s final two-part episode considers the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, the neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities and towns that bleed into undeveloped land. The nation’s fastest-growing land-use type, it already includes one in three houses across the U.S. In conversations with forest rangers, volunteer firefighters, social scientists and homeowners across the West, Angle shows how practical actions aimed at fire resistance in the WUI, such as retrofitting homes and thinning nearby forests, are possible only through prolonged and intentional trust-building. Near Missoula, this happens through “listening sessions” between the Lolo National Forest and at-risk communities, and plans such as Wildfire Adapted Missoula that seek to help officials and residents create fire-resilient neighborhoods. Coordination is necessary to, as Angle puts it, “see a future that’s not just doom and ash and gloom.”

By early June of this year, the Intermountain West was experiencing historic drought. “It is possible that this may be the baseline for the future,” Elizabeth Klein, an Interior Department senior counselor, testified before Congress near the end of May. The situation is grim — nearly every state in the West has seen its biggest wildfire since the year 2000, Angle reminds us, and scientists say that fire season is 80 days longer now than it was in 1970. 

Fire season is 80 days longer now than it was in 1970.

Fireline acknowledges those realities but resists resorting to fear, hopelessness or, worse, resignation. Instead, listeners receive new lenses through which to view fire: reverence, gratitude, wonder, curiosity, resolve. Fireline, then, comes as a sort of salve against the arresting panic that’s dominated mainstream fire narratives since the Big Burn. It’s not an antidote to fire itself, nor a robust game plan for moving forward. It’s an invitation to understand the West’s long and troubled relationship with fire, and to envision a new one.

Surya Milner is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.