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
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.