The following article was contributed by Frank Carroll.
For the United States Forest Service and the other major federal, state and local wildland fire agencies, the music is playing the band. It worked OK for the Grateful Dead. It’s a different story when it comes to developing and conducting wildland fire policy.
It may surprise no one to discover that wildland fires are bigger, more costly, more damaging, and more out of control than in any decade before the present, all the way back to 1910. There was so much large fire on the ground in the 2015 fire season we ran out of superlatives to describe how big and bad they were. In many cases the fires burned together forming “charismatic megafires” of untold destruction, sometimes because we had no choice.
Author Stephen Pyne, in an often brutally honest book about where we’ve been and where we’re headed with fire management in America, observes that fire is managing us; we’re not managing fire (Between Two Fires 2015).
What began in the late 1960s as a scarcely heard warning siren that wildfire should be left to its own devices on certain wild lands (prescribed natural fire or “let burn” fires pioneered by the National Park Service) became, by 2000, a five alarm screaming wail heard round the world. Our best laid plans have come to naught. We are caught in a blizzard of falling ash, awash in a river of flying embers, and blinded by the smoke. It is clear that no human power will stop the rising tide of flames in wildlands and Red Zone suburbs where 10 percent of our homes are, no matter what the cost.
How we got here is a tale worth reading. Where we’re headed is into the fog of war, but not without guideposts and markers. Based on the very sound idea that fire should play a natural role in natural resource management, agencies and scientists spent the past 50 years trying to work out how to get it done. And they had help. The Nature Conservancy can field its own firefighters and burn its own ground. Environmentalists looked for ways to burn without having to pay for the work of preparing and herding fires, and without the expertise to help. Their grand experiment in the theology/ecology of hope over the last 50 years accelerated the fuels problem. The fuels situation is also exacerbated in places where logging results in activity fuels with resulting backlogs needing treatment and feeding wildfires.