Fighting fire with common sense

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Daniel James Brown is the author of "Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894."

When the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first approached the coast of Southern California one fine but breezy October day in 1542, he noted plumes of dense smoke rising from the hills and concluded -- correctly as it turned out -- that the land was inhabited.

California’s Native Americans regularly set fire to the hills above what is now Los Angeles to renew the fresh vegetation they depended on, to clear the land for better hunting and to reduce the chances of being ambushed by enemies in chaparral-cloaked canyons. Once the fires were started, they sat back and watched them burn toward the sea.

If Cabrillo had approached the Southern California coast this week, he would have seen the same kinds of plumes of smoke, but he would have found that the current inhabitants have a very different attitude toward fire.


When the Spanish took California from its native inhabitants, they at first tried to end the practice of setting land-clearing fires. But eventually they, as well as the Mexican and American ranchers who succeeded them, found that fire filled a useful and in fact necessary role in the oak savannas and on the brushy hillsides. All of them, like the Native Americans before them, realized what we seem to have forgotten -- that fire is an integral element of the human and natural ecology of California and, indeed, of most of the nation. Instead of being surprised, traumatized and victimized by fire every few years, we need to learn to expect fire and to manage it more realistically and effectively.

We hear something similar to this every year, but somehow we fail to take it to heart. Much of our current attitude toward fire was forged a century ago, in the aftermath of a series of devastating wildfires in the upper Midwest. In October 1871, many small fires that had been left to burn on a heavily logged and debris-covered area around Peshtigo, Wis., converged, overwhelming the town in a matter of minutes and taking as many as 2,000 lives. Then, 23 years later, more than 400 people died under similar circumstances in Minnesota in a fire I have studied closely, the Hinckley firestorm of 1894. In October 1918, it happened again in the Cloquet and Moose Lake areas of Minnesota. This time, more than 450 people died.

Horrified by the human toll of these fires, Americans demanded action. State and federal agencies were created that set out to accomplish two ends: suppress all wildfires and compel logging operations to clean up after themselves. In the first instance, they did us a great service. In the second, they inadvertently did us a disservice, for the unintended consequence of complete fire suppression has been to vastly increase the fuel loads in our forests and canyon lands.

But increased fuel loads in our wild lands are only one element of a converging series of fire-related threats that now challenge us in unprecedented ways. Our penchant for building homes in fire-prone areas is another obvious and much-discussed factor. And a third, now undeniable, one is the role that global warming plays in raising ambient temperatures, promoting drought in already drought-prone regions and lengthening our fire seasons.

Statistics compiled by the National Incident Information Center make the trend clear. Even before the current rash of fires in Southern California, more than 8 million acres had burned in the U.S. in 2007, well above the 10-year average of 5.8 million acres. And we are now on track to approach the record 9 million acres that burned in 2006. A quick look at the graphs on the center’s website ( should convince anyone that our fire crisis is deepening as the climate is warming.

What then to do? What does it mean to manage fire more realistically and effectively?

For starters, it means gradually undoing the harm we have done in allowing vast accumulations of fuel to build up. We need, where feasible, to unleash the cleansing power of fire to clear and renew the land. It means seriously restricting residential growth in areas where the fuel loads can’t be reduced -- no matter how badly people might want to live there or how much they might be willing to pay to do so. It means taking the kinds of sensible precautions around our homes that some homeowners already embrace but others ignore, to the peril and vastly increased insurance costs of all. And it means getting serious about climate change sooner rather than later.


A few weeks ago, I sat next to a Forest Service firefighter on a flight from Sioux City, Iowa, to Seattle. He was on his way to receive advanced firefighting training. Because I have written about historic wildfires, we got into a long discussion about firefighting and the current fire environment.

It’s bad out there, he said, worse than he has seen in 12 years of firefighting. Bark beetle infestations, high summer temperatures and an early snowmelt have left much of the forest land in South Dakota’s Black Hills, from whence he hails, exceptionally vulnerable to fire. What struck me most about our conversation, though, was how bitterly he complained about being ordered every October to leave the Black Hills, which he loved, in order to help protect Southern California.

There, time and again, he said, he found himself desperately hacking brush away from the sides of multimillion-dollar houses whose owners had failed to take even rudimentary steps toward fireproofing their homes. “Why can’t these people just use some common sense?” he lamented.

I imagine he’s out there on one of those hillsides again this week, pulling stacks of firewood away from structures, throwing lawn furniture into swimming pools, digging fire lines and risking his life to save homes -- perhaps, in some cases, homes he’s saved before. It’s time we started using our common sense when it comes to fire management.