We need every tool to fight today’s wildfires

Wildfire acts as an all-spectrum ecological catalyst. Good prescribed burns will do the same thing.

Hermit's Peak Fire, Jim O'Donnell credit.jpg
Hermit’s Peak Fire, as seen from Holman Hill in Mora County, NM April 30, 2022. Photo by Jim O’Donnell.

By Steve Pyne

We know now that the largest recorded fire in New Mexico history was started by an escaped “prescribed burn,” or rather by two. The Hermit’s Peak fire bolted away on April 6 when unexpectedly gusty winds blew sparks beyond control lines. 

Then the Calf Canyon fire raced off on April 9 when similar winds fanned embers in burn piles first kindled in January. The two fires soon merged. Together, as of June 12, they have scorched 320,333 acres, with two-thirds of the fire perimeter regarded as contained.  

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s reaction was to insist that federal agencies reconsider their policy on spring burns. The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Randy Moore, responded by announcing a halt on prescribed burning for a 90-day review period. 

Inevitably, the blowups invited comparison to the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico that began as a prescribed burn, then blew out of Bandelier National Monument and into Los Alamos. It was the largest chronicled fire in the state’s history until now.

Prescribed fire is not likely to be challenged in principle. Recognition seems widespread that controlled burning is a legitimate source of good fire that can reduce the threat from areas likely to burn. States from Florida to California have even reformed liability law to encourage burning on private lands.  

The real threat to fire management is death by a thousand cuts, each breakdown leading to shutdowns, each partisan group extracting a concession, that together so encumber the practice that it can’t be implemented. There is always something that can cause a prescribed burn to be shuttered. There is no equivalent mechanism to make up the loss.  

It’s not news that the Western fire scene has become complicated. The early 20th century days, when one response extinguish by 10 am the next morning was adequate, are long past. It was a marvelous administrative stroke: No confusion, no compromise, one size fits all. 

But it made the fire scene worse by encouraging ecological rot and an incendiary buildup of fuels. The change in policy was clear and necessary: Fire is inevitable, and we need to manage it.  

Today, all aspects of landscape fire are plural. Fire control does not mean one thing; it embraces many strategies. It might refer to protecting towns or sage grouse habitat. It can resemble urban firefighting, or for reasons of safety, cost and environmental health, it could mean containing fires within broad borders.  

It varies from extinguishing an abandoned campfire to herding mega-fires rolling over the Continental Divide. It might involve bulldozing around municipal watersheds, or working-with-nature firelines in wilderness.  It might mean setting emergency backfires that can resemble a prescribed fire done under urgent conditions..

So, also, with prescribed burning. It might mean burning logging slash or piled cuttings from thinning operations. Or it might refer to broadcast burns that range freely over areas from an acre to a landscape. It can mean burning to improve forage in tallgrass prairie, to prune pine savannas, or to promote habitat for Karner blue butterflies. 

Wildfire acts as an all-spectrum ecological catalyst. Good prescribed burns will do the same thing.

The choice isn’t between one strategy or the other; it’s selecting from a variety of techniques that work in particular settings and seasons. We need them all, not least because each strategy by itself can fail. 

Fires escape initial suppression at a rate of 2-3 percent. Prescribed fires escape at a rate of 1.5 percent for the National Park Service, or less than 1 percent according to Forest Service records. Managing naturally caused fires has a similar rate of failure. When an escape occurs, however, its destructiveness makes news.

Those figures are not likely to drop. We can’t control the setting of a wildland fire as we can a blowtorch. All we can do is juggle strategies so that each strategy’s strengths fill the others’ weaknesses. The 2000 blowout in New Mexico made prescribed burning more difficult but led to a National Fire Plan. Twenty years later, the fire scene has grown bigger, meaner, tougher. The Hermits Peak fire will likely end up an order of magnitude larger than Cerro Grande.  

Inevitably, our future holds a lot of fire. The goal is always to find and employ the right mix of fire for the land. 

Steve Pyne is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a fire historian, urban farmer, and author of The Pyrocene.

Welcome to Yosemite, the new Pyrocene Park

Yosemite national park prescribed fire
Prescribed fire in Yosemite National Park. Merced River and moon. NPS photo by Isaiah Hirschfield.

By Steve Pyne

The Pleistocene epoch that began 2.6 million years ago sent ice in waves through Yosemite.

Glaciers gouged out great valleys along the Merced and Tuolumne rivers, ice sheets rounded granite domes, cirques sculpted the High Sierra. John Muir traced virtually every landscape feature of Yosemite to its legacy of ice.

Now the residual ice is melting, the streams and waterfalls are drying and the living landscape is burning. In 1990, the A-Rock fire closed the park for the only time in its history, so far. The 2013 Rim fire burned around the Hetch Hetchy reservoir; the 2018 Ferguson fire burned along the park’s Wawona Road. Where the fires didn’t spread, their smoke did.

Add in the industrial combustion of fossil fuels, with its climatic impacts, and virtually every management issue of Yosemite today traces back to fire.
Humans have always used fire: It’s our ecological signature.

The end of the last glaciation allowed us, a fire-wielding species, to interact with an increasingly fire-receptive planet. Our pact with fire was mutual. Fire allowed us to flourish; in return, we have taken fire everywhere, even to Antarctica.

The pact had to operate within boundaries set by living landscapes. After all, fire was a creation of life, which furnished its oxygen and fuel and established ecological barriers. Then we discovered an immense reservoir of combustibles buried in geologic time. It was as though we had found a new world –- a fossilized, “lithic” landscape –we could work the way we did living landscapes. The only constraints were those people chose to impose on themselves.

Add up all the burning that people now do in living, and it would seem we are refashioning the Earth with the fire-informed equivalent of an Ice Age, complete with a change in climate, rising sea levels, a mass extinction, major shifts in biogeography and smoke palls. Little on Earth is unaffected.

Fire is driving off the last vestiges of the Pleistocene, from its ice to its mammoths. We have been creating a Pyrocene for millennia, but binge-burning fossil fuels put the process on afterburners.

Fifty years ago Yosemite recognized that its fire scene was out of whack. The problem then was not too much of the wrong kind of fire but too little of the right kind. The park sought to restore pre-settlement fire regimes. Among targeted sites was Illilouette Creek, an elevated basin southeast of Glacier Point.

The park recognized that suppressing fire had stockpiled fuels from the foothills to the crestline, caused Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to overflow with invasive conifers that blocked views, and prevented the fabled sequoias from regenerating. The park introduced prescribed fire and learned to loose-herd wildfires. The Illilouette basin shuffled toward something like its former fire regime.

No place has the fire program it wants, but Yosemite seems better positioned than the national forests and private lands around it to cope. The issue is no longer to restore natural fire but to find the right mix of fires suppressed and prescribed, and of wildfires managed, to ward off the megafires that are plaguing everyplace else.

Yosemite deals with fires that can threaten small and not-so-small villages. Its specialty is working with wildland fire.

By Aug. 20 of this year the park had coped with 54 fires, 43 from lightning and 11 from people. Some were put out. Some were confined within natural barriers. And a few burning in Illilouette Basin were tweaked as nature’s invisible hand massaged them into five decades of layered burning. The legacy of past fires had altered the conditions for the fires that followed, softening the shock of tougher, meaner burns.

Yosemite has long been celebrated for distilling into near-crystalline state the magnificence of the Western landscape. As it moves from ice to fire, it is showing that it may also serve as a proxy for some of what the Earth needs to do to survive our deepening fire age. There is no way we can’t not manage fire.

Stephen Pyne
Stephen Pyne

Steve Pyne is a contributor to Writers on the Range where this article was first published. It is a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is the author of The Pyrocene. How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next.



Our new age of fire

Firefighters on the Monument Fire
Firefighters on the Monument Fire in Northern California, August, 2021. USFS photo.

By Steve Pyne

Fire in the West is expected, and not so long ago, it seemed something the West experienced more than anywhere else. Nationally, big fires were treated as another freak of Western violence, like a grizzly bear attack, or another California quirk like Esalen and avocados.

Now the wildland fires flare up everywhere. There are fires in Algeria and Turkey, Amazonia and Indonesia, and France, Canada and Australia. Last year even Greenland burned.

Fire seasons have lengthened, fires have gotten meaner and bigger; fires have begun not just gorging on logging slash and prowling the mountainous backcountry, but also burning right into and across towns. Three years ago in northern California, the Camp fire broke out along the Feather River and, burning southwest, incinerated the town of Paradise. Now, the Dixie fire, starting 20 miles north in the same drainage, is burning in the opposite direction, taking out the historic town of Greenville. The fires have us coming and going.

The causes have been analyzed and reanalyzed, like placer miners washing and rewashing tailings. Likewise, the solutions have been reworked and polished until they have become clichés, ready to spill into the culture wars.

The news media have fire season branded into their almanac of annual events. Scientific disciplines are publishing reports and data sets at an exponential rate. So far as understanding the fire scene, we’ve hit field capacity. What more can we say?

One trend is to go small and find meaning in the personal. But there is also an argument to go big and frame the story at a planetary scale that can shuffle all the survival memoirs, smoke palls that travel across the continent, melting ice packs, lost and disappearing species, and sprawling frontiers of flame, in much the way we organize the swarm of starlight in a night sky into constellations.
I’m a fire guy. I take fire not just as a random happening, but as an emergent property that’s intrinsic to life on Earth.

So I expect fires. All those savanna fires in Africa, the land-clearing fires in Brazil and Sumatra, the boreal blowouts in Siberia and British Columbia, the megafires in the Pacific Northwest — all the flames we see.

But then there are fires that should be present and aren’t — the fires that once renewed and stabilized most of the land all over our planet. These are the fires that humanity, with its species monopoly on combustion, deliberately set to make living landscapes into what the ancients termed “a second nature.”

But it was not enough. We wanted yet more power without the constraints of living landscapes that restricted what and when we could burn. We turned to fossil fuels to burn through day and night, winter and summer, drought and deluge. With our unbounded firepower we remade second nature into “a third nature,” one organized around industrial combustion.

Our fires in living landscapes and those made with fossil fuels have been reshaping the Earth. The result is too much bad fire and too little good, and way too much combustion overall.

Add up all those varieties of burning, and we seem to be creating the fire equivalent of an Ice Age, with continental shifts in geography, radical changes in climate, rising sea level, a mass extinction, and a planet whose air, water, soil and life are being refashioned at a breakneck pace.

It’s said that every model fails but some are useful. The same holds true for metaphors. What the concept of a planetary Fire Age — a Pyrocene — gives us, is a sense of the scale of our fire-powered impact. It suggests how the parts might interact and who is responsible. It allows us to reimagine the issues and perhaps stand outside our entrenched perspectives.

What we have made — if with unintended consequences — we can unmake, though we should expect more unknown consequences.

We have a lot of fire in our future, and a lot to learn about living with it.

Stephen Pyne
Stephen Pyne

Steve Pyne is a contributor to Writers on the Range where this article was first published. It is a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is the author of The Pyrocene. How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next.

Wildfires and shootings

Stephen Pyne wondered if there was any correlation between mass shootings and the number of structures destroyed each year in wildfires. Here, with his permission, are the facts he uncovered.

Stephen Pyne quote

Mr. Pyne, who was a firefighter at the Grand Canyon for 15 seasons, is a prolific writer about wildland fire. His most recent book is “To the Last Smoke”.

National Geographic interviews Stephen Pyne about pyrophobia

Michelle Nijhuis interviewed Stephen Pyne about wildland fire management in the United States and his book that was recently released. Below is an excerpt from the article in National Geographic in which the term “pyrophobia” is used.


…In his new book Between Two Fires, Pyne examines the roots of the U.S. wildfire crisis. He finds that while the Forest Service and other agencies have long recognized that frequent, relatively small fires can reduce the risk of large, catastrophic burns, they have been unable to restore a natural cycle of fire to the forest.

Speaking from his home office in Arizona, Pyne reflected on this impasse. “If we keep fighting a war with fire, three things are going to happen,” he says. “We’re going to spend a lot of money, we’re going to take a lot of casualties, and we’re going to lose.”

Question: In the first half of the 20th century, you write, the U.S. Forest Service suffered from “pyrophobia”—it tried to suppress all wildfires. Where did that policy come from?

Pyne: The science of forestry grew up in temperate Europe—France and Germany particularly—and there, unlike most parts of the world, there’s no natural basis for fire. Fire was seen as a human problem, caused by people, and that attitude was exported to foresters in the United States.

In 1910, when the Forest Service was just a fledgling agency, a fire called the Big Blowup, or the Big Burn, blew over the Northern Rockies. It burned more than three million acres, and killed 78 firefighters in one afternoon. It traumatized the agency, scarring a whole generation of personnel. The Forest Service became convinced that if only it had the resources, it could control all fires…


Last week at Wildfire Today we had an excerpt from the book, Between Two Fires.

Stephen Pyne releases book about the modern evolution of fire in Ameica

Stephen J. Pyne
Stephen J. Pyne

Stephen Pyne, prolific author about wildland fire world-wide, has released a book covering what he calls America’s fire revolution. Mr. Pyne had not written at length about fire management in the United States since 1980 when he published Fire in America: a Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire.

Released in October, 2015 Between Two Fires: a Fire History of Contemporary America, overlaps with the earlier one by a few decades and chronicles the evolution, or “revolution” as he calls it, over the last 60 or so years.

Much of Mr. Pyne’s knowledge of wildland fire came from spending 15 seasons on the ground with the North Rim Longshots in Grand Canyon National Park. He explains that since 1980 most of his work has involved fire on other continents (six of them as a matter of fact) and he felt that his “stockpiled capital of experience has leached away”. He began to re-immerse himself in the current realm of wildfire in America, leading to this new book.

Much of the information and the examples given in this new effort focus on the U.S. Forest Service. He said it is because “it reflects reality”.

In 1960 the USFS dominated the American fire scene, it continued to be a major player throughout the fire revolution, and it remains the only institution whose actions routinely affect all the rest.

Mr. Pyne writes about a number of notable fires that over the last 60 years had major impacts on management, policy, and the public’s perception of wildfire. One of the more recent blazes was the 2011 Wallow Fire that started in eastern Arizona and spread into New Mexico burning over half a million acres.

Wallow Fire. Photo by Jason Coil
Wallow Fire, 2011. Photo by Jayson Coil.

Mr. Pyne writes about the Wallow Fire:

With spots starting three or four miles away, there was little to contain it. Fuels, terrain, suppression, all had to wait for the winds to subside before they could steer the front’s trajectory, The flames burned with the singular direction of a loosed arrow.

Lynn Biddison, who we called a legend in wildland fire, died October 19 following a vehicle accident. Mr. Pyne devoted a page to him in the book. We appreciated one Biddison quote, on a subject we have written about many times:

Fact that never changes: The safest and least costly fires are the ones that receive strong initial attack and are suppressed while still small.

Reprinted here with the publisher’s permission is the complete passage about Mr. Biddison:


“…Consider the career of Lynn Biddison, who in 1960 accepted the fire control officer (FCO) position on the Cleveland National Forest. He already had 17 years of on-the-line firefighting experience and was a third-generation Forest Service fire officer. His grandfather had homesteaded near the Angeles National Forest and had became a forest guard at Bouquet Canyon, his father had worked up the ranks through the CCC fire program to become assistant FCO on the Angeles, and Lynn had begun work as a firefighter in 1943 at age 16.

Before he retired, Lynn Biddison had worked in nearly every position in the fire organization. In 1950 he was a crew foreman of the Chilao Hotshots in their second year, and he acceded to superintendent the next year. Then he supervised an inmate crew. He pioneered helijumping, the Southern California equivalent of smokejumping. Later, he was the Region 5 representative to the first national fire-behavior training course in Missoula in 1958. While on the Cleveland, he established the first standing forest-overhead teams, and he himself joined interregional teams. In 1968 he carried the California methods to the Southwest Region as regional fire director.

What he knew he learned early. His bosses were tough, direct, old-school bulls-of-the-woods and extraordinary teachers. “They were firm, they were fair, they knew what they wanted, and they knew their limitations. Their style was, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it, we will do it right, and do it now.’” You did your job. To illustrate, he recalls the 1952 Meadows fire on a Mt. San Gorgonio ridge at 10,000 feet amid Santa Ana winds. The district ranger pointed the fire out to them, and the Chilao Hotshots hiked in. They remained for 11 days. They had one blanket for every two crewmen, so they dug pits where they could light fires for cooking and sleeping. They had little food. Every few days a pack string would bring in water and rations.It was late October and “cold, cold, cold.” They stayed with the burn until it was dead out.

Thirteen years later Biddison returned to California as regional fire director. When mandatory retirement forced him out, he left with the exhortation to return to tried-and-true basics. That meant never having a fire, once contained, escape. It meant instilling a sense of urgency, critiquing actions on every fire regardless of size, and boring in and bearing down on standards, because high goals and hard work sparked pride. It meant “if the fire runs out, DO NOT GIVE UP—back up and start again.” Or simply, “FIGHT FIRE AGGRESSIVELY.”

In 1998 he distilled the lessons of his long career into one simple “fact that never changes: The safest and least costly fires are the ones that receive strong initial attack and are suppressed while still small.”  ”


Between Two Fires, by Stephen J. Pyne, was published in October, 2015 by the University of Arizona Press.