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We Should Fight Fire With, Well, Fire

David Carle, author of "Burning Questions, America's Fight With Nature's Fire" (Praeger, 2002), was a California state park ranger for 27 years.

“We are painstakingly building a firetrap that will piecemeal, but in the long run completely, defeat the very aim of fire protection itself. The only question that remains is whether, after accumulating kindling by 20 years or so of ‘protection,’ we can now get rid of it safely. In other words, if we try to burn it out now, will we not get a destructive fire? We have caught the bear by the tail--can we let it go?”

Steward Edward White wrote those words for a 1920 article in Sunset magazine. “Light burning” advocates, like White and other lumbermen and ranchers in California, lost their battle with the young Forest Service and, instead, a goal of total fire exclusion became national policy. Inevitably, the “bear” that White warned about became ever more dangerous and powerful.

Wildfires in today’s news are far bigger, far more destructive and often impossible to defeat without the help of weather changes. With increasing numbers of people living at the edge of wild lands, there seems little choice but to muster armies of firefighters and equipment, pay incredible costs and fight to protect lives and property.

Throughout the 20th century, there were those who questioned the nation’s “hundred years war” against wildfire. It was not until the 1970s that national fire policy acknowledged fire’s ecological benefits. Harold Biswell of UC Berkeley’s School of Forestry overcame decades of professional opposition and became one leader of that transition toward the reintroduction of fire. The national fire plan that now guides policy recognizes the role of fire as an essential ecological process and natural-change agent. That is validation for the scientific findings and philosophical arguments of Biswell and other prescribed-burning pioneers.

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Recent fuel reduction efforts are being supported with a multibillion-dollar federal budget, but much of that money, ironically, has gone to hiring firefighters and buying equipment.

If we have truly turned the corner on wildfire policy, an expanded effort at fuel reduction using prescribed burns and judicious thinning will take advantage of that additional staff and equipment. Wild-land firefighters ought to, increasingly, become year-round fire technicians, able to properly conduct burns. Fire management plans have been mandated; actually completing them must become a top priority. Without plans in place, managers have little flexibility and few options but to try to quickly extinguish even fires that serve beneficial purposes.

Twenty-two years ago, Biswell made farsighted predictions:

“Wildfire damage and number of homes burned will become much greater. Suppression costs will continue to skyrocket. Very slowly, but eventually, emphasis on prescribed burning will replace that on fire prevention and suppression.

“When it does, fire suppression will become more effective and much cheaper.

“There will not be as much devastation from wildfires. However, that seems many years off. There will be a greater awakening to the fact that fire is natural and that we must use it for our own survival. We must exercise great patience, and persistence.”

Fire management professionals should be honored when they return blackened and exhausted from the wildfire wars, but we should also celebrate when they come home after routine prescribed burns. On those days, they are not warriors but peacemakers.

In the long term, such routine tasks will be far more successful at protecting property and lives. That attitude adjustment may be the crucial step that lets us rejoin the long list of the nation’s fire-adapted species and achieve peaceful coexistence with nature’s fire.


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