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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!