Learning to live with wildfire

 

The enormous column of black smoke towered before me. As the Hammer Fire closed in on the backcountry workstation that I call home in the summer, fear spread from my hard hat to the soles of my fire boots.

I was on a trail-crew turned fire-crew, suited up to help protect the historic Forest Service workstation in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. Working this close to flames and smoke was a brand-new experience.

I had never been afraid of fire before. I’ve studied its role in the West and always supported using fire to reduce fuels and replenish the ecosystem. This blaze, though, was raging, and the only suppression we could do was inside a half-mile perimeter around the compound.

The fire was burning for “resource benefit,” and every nervous trail-crew worker supported that. We’ve seen the undeniable benefits of wildfire in the wilderness. But suddenly it was burning a little too close to our "home," and we weren’t certain we could hold it back.

When I read about 19 lives tragically lost while fighting a fire in Arizona or see photos of charred homes in Colorado -- I can begin to understand the fear that courses through homeowners as the landscape changes in an instant.  In a year of already record-breaking fires that are predicted to become yet more memorable, expensive and devastating, it’s hard to remember that these fires are raging because they were suppressed for the last 100 years. But the only way to protect future generations from years like this is to let some fires burn while still protecting homes close to forests, and work on fuels management to prevent disastrous consequences in the future.

It’s a challenging situation for homeowners and fire-management officers, but if nature has taught Westerners anything since 2000, it’s that we can’t keep stopping these fires.

The benefits of fires are always a hard sell to people who have been hurt by them, and “let it burn” is a statement sure to stir up controversy.  But that approach was born when foresters finally realized, at the end of the last century, that the 90-year-old, 10 a.m. policy -- to have every fire under control by 10 a.m. the day after it is reported – had created a gigantic tinderbox of fuels.

The Park Service first designated “let it burn” zones in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in 1968, and the Forest Service adopted the policy shortly afterward.  The Flathead National Forest in Montana, which manages the Bob Marshall Wilderness west of the continental divide, has been using wildfire to maintain a naturally functioning forest ecosystem since 1985, and has made notable progress with the policy.

When 36 percent of Yellowstone National Park burned in 1988, however, much of the public feared the fires had “destroyed” the park. Wildland fire-use policies began to be quietly set aside due to public outcry. Today, though, it is apparent that the fires of ‘88 actually rejuvenated the Yellowstone ecosystem and prevented even bigger fires from torching the area year after year.

Nonetheless, the public remained fearful. Westerners still seemed to want every fire put out, as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the many people who built homes on the edge of national forests essentially stacked tinder for inevitable fires that will only burn hotter and faster.

Only 15 years ago, a 500-acre burn was a large fire. Now, fires hit thousands of acres in a few hours. Fear is understandable when homes are at risk, but fear won’t stop mega-fires and it won’t save homes. And sometimes it leads to the deaths of firefighters themselves.

Since the Hammer Fire in 2011, I have watched incredible -- and, yes -- terrifying fires that burned hundreds of acres in minutes. That is what fires do, I told myself, and it’s always a matter of when the trees will burn, not whether they will burn.

While I have always supported letting wildland fires burn to help forests, now that I have stared fire in the face, a pump in my hand and my heart in my throat, I wonder if it is possible to convince Westerners that fire can be beneficial.  When fire doesn't impact things that we place value on, like homes or resources, it should be easily accepted as a natural occurrence.  However, fear is irrational and impossible to argue with.

If the public’s understanding and perception of fire changes, perhaps we can let a fire go as far as it can before reaching structures, allow it burn the understory to clean out some fuels, and let it burn in the wilderness.  Perhaps we can even get used to smoky summer skies and fire camps in towns, and adopt a policy that allows some fires to do their job in less devastating ways. And we can discourage people from building homes in the wrong places.

Like it or not, fires are part of the life and death of forests; it’s our job to get used to it.

Allison Linville is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). She is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Montana and spends summers working in the wilderness near Whitefish, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...