Back to fire’s future: analogues for the history to come

America’s modern fire history now extends over a century.  From the Weeks Act of 1911 to the National Cohesive Strategy is long enough to identify some trends, yet brief enough to prune all but a handful of useful theses and interpretations.  Besides, a hundred is a good round number.  It’s why we celebrate centennials.

That history has undergone two major recharterings.  The first had its catalyst in the Great Fires of 1910, then legislatively codified into an infrastructure with the Weeks Act.  It extended over 50 years, took as its charge fire’s removal, and established the U.S. Forest Service as a hegemon.  The second, what might be termed our great cultural revolution on fire, argued for fire’s restoration, and has promoted a pluralism of practices and agencies.  The first era established a fire commons based on a collective purpose to suppress fire.  The second strives to recreate a fire commons by expanding operations to landscape scales, creating consortia of institutions, and promoting an all-fires strategy; but it still struggles, having broken the old monolith apart, to reassemble the pieces into a new working whole.  We have learned to our dismay that it’s easier to take fire out than to put it back.  So, too, it’s easier to build the first time than to rebuild out of broken legacies.

There are many prisms by which to refract those years into bands of meaning.  The periodization above is an obvious one, but it lies wholly within the frame of the fire community; that is, it means little to anyone else.  Even so, its significance isn’t self-evident.  We might interpret those events as a chronicle of steady progress against changing circumstances, making course corrections from time to time, but a continuing story of amelioration and firmness of purpose as technology, research, and experience improve.  Equally, we might view those same events as simply another refrain of what is necessarily an ironic narrative.  The deep structure is one in which, whatever our ambitions and investments, we will always fail, not simply fall short but actively engage in misdirection.  We might escape the flames.  We can’t escape irony.


If we want a more robust rendering, something beyond the fire community looking at itself, we must turn to the larger culture for insights and analogues.  What might we find?

We might note that the fire revolution coincides with the civil rights movement.  Sit-in protests and Freedom Riders match up with early efforts to create a civil society for fire with the Tall Timbers fire ecology conferences and prescribed burning by the Nature Conservancy; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 aligns with the Wilderness Act; and the FLAME Act with the election of the country’s first African-American president.  It makes a tidy narrative arc, as the countryside’s population of fires begins to emulate the pluralism of the country’s human population.

Or we might consider demographics directly.  The civil rights movement helped open the workforce to new groups.  But it maps exactly onto the maturation of the baby boom.  The first boomer reached 18 in 1964, and the first to enter Medicare did so in 2011, a sturdy narrative span from the Wilderness Act to the National Cohesive Strategy.  In 1965 a reform in immigration law opened the country to the largest influx of newcomers in its history.  The population of the country has more than doubled in my lifetime.  We shouldn’t be surprised to find the American fire community turned inside-out during this time, or that a sprawl of settlement has sparked problem fires.  The epoch of America’s fire revolution has ridden the crest of demographic upheaval.


Now it appears we may be poised to enter another cycle in our relationship with wildland fire.  What analogues from our sustaining society might help us understand this emerging future?  Heaven knows there are plenty to choose from.

If you think that our firefight from the Big Blowup to today has only created an ecological insurgency, there is the Arab Spring model.  The American fire scene was held in check for decades by ever more repressive regimes, but each cycle of protest and suppression only added to instability.  Armed dictatorships can’t keep the lid on indefinitely; eventually the scene boils over.  Some places have made the transition quickly and with relatively little havoc.  Others have slid into biotic civil war, with more savage outbreaks and harsher suppression.  No one has a clue what the final outcome will be.

If you think that it’s too late for guided reform, that climate change, the legacy of combustible-laden landscapes, and waves of invasives point to a biotic turnover, then you might opt for the Genesis Device model.  Recall from Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan that the device, once triggered, burns over whole planets remaking their structure “in favor of its own matrix.”  That sounds like the Los Conchas fire.  We won’t be able to do much except stand aside, point-protect exurbs, and learn to live with a reforged land.  We’ll rebuild fire regimes out of the new matrix.

If you believe that the dominant concern, the Disturbance in the Force that is deforming all the others, is the megafire, then consider the Prometheus Shrugged model.  We’ve created a fire plutocracy in which all the resources and influence go to the 1% – even the 0.1% – of the population of America’s fires.  We’ve lost our middle class, in this case, the domain of middle landscapes.  Our working fires are being shed, lost to global change and ideologies of laissez-faire.  We’re told we can’t resist globalization, and shouldn’t restrain the invisible hand of nature’s economy, however perverted the outcome seems.  The fire regimes that result are the ones ordained by right; it would be ruinous to transfer some of the wealth now concentrated among the 1% to the management of the rest.  Live with it.

If you think the experience of having easy, emergency funds distorted the market, that all that funny money since the early 1990s created a bull market for burning as it did for houses, then consider the Supbrime model.  We disguised the real risks and costs of fire management by bundling – securitizing – it through national agencies.  Then the fire bubble burst, big time, and demanded a bailout.  The FLAME Act is the TARP of the fire community.  Now we are left with landscapes too big to fail and too big to reform, only looking for new bucks to pass.  In the absence of real reform, we can expect another crash and another crisis over paying for it.

If you regard the near future as an impending fiasco because we will not be able to muster the political will to deal with it, that this past summer’s fiscal crisis will become permanent, and will do so imminently, then you might project the future through the Fiscal Cliff model.  We keep overspending our budget – there’s always a reason.  There’s a town with a palisade of Action TV minicams, an influential senator who wants to earmark part of the suppression effort, the fire industry keeps holding hostages.  But in this model a Campfire Party insists that enough is enough.  In the name of austerity we’ll stop paying for fire management because that way we’ll starve the fires to a pittance we can drown in a bathtub and fire control will magically be able to finance itself.  Call it supply-side fire economics.  The less we spend, the fewer problem fires we have.  That putative cliff isn’t real.  Rather than concede a dollar more, we’ll burn down the West.

If that seems extreme – if you think we won’t step over the edge, but we won’t have the resources to cope – then consider the Chapter 11 model.  It assumes that we will have to mix bailouts with bankruptcies.  We’ll do stress tests for fire regimes.  Some will make it, some won’t.  The good ones will right themselves on their own.  The lousy ones are insolvent – and here we dive into seriously mixed metaphors – and will remain underwater.  They will cost more to salvage than they appear to be worth under current political calculus.  Trying to save them will simply drag the rest of wildland fire management deeper into the pit.  Deleveraging will take decades: some landscapes just won’t be worth the effort.  They’ll declare bankruptcy and to go into receivership under new management.

And finally, my personal favorite, there is the Euro model.  What was supposed to be a common union is fracturing because it lacks a political order to match its monetary one.  There was only a general source of easily accessible funds that held all the fractious parts together.  Now, one bailout follows another, each declared a final solution until the next crisis.  The union is splitting into incommensurable regions.  The system seems headed for a breakup, whether by lopping off a failed country or two, or by the wholesale abandonment of the project.  Competing analyses point to different technical solutions.  One argues for austerity and another for stimulus; the first sees the problem as overspending and the second, as lack of growth.  The only salvation is a fundamental reconstitution of the political order so that the flow of funds and operations aligns with a general consensus about what should be done, how to do it, and how much to spend on those choices.

The Euro model has much to recommend for the American fire scene.  The funding fiasco has been unfolding for years, and no one agency is able to pay for the endless emergencies that continually exceed the latest and nominally last tranche.  The division of the country into regions for purposes of the National Cohesive Strategy is a map of civil war America.  Each region has its own fire culture – a suite of peculiar institutions – that seems unable to relocate beyond its borders.  Risk analysis will putatively guide decisions, although risk analysis is also what Wall Street assured us was behind its clever securitization schemes and hedging derivatives.  (We would have had more success by shucking the algorithms and modeling CEO behavior on baboon troops.)

The austerity strategy seeks to force the agencies to live within a smaller budget.  That’s what happened with the Forest Service last summer, and threatens to make it the Greece of the American fire community.  The stimulus strategy calls for serious investments in the form of enhanced funding and freedom of action.  In this conception the deficit matters less than diminishing unemployment (translate: reducing fuels) and boosting productivity; but where that money will come from and how it will be used are unclear.  While the old pattern of emergency financing tended to decouple fire from management, so do the new ones.  They lump good and bad landscapes, resilient and non-resilient exurbs, ants and grasshoppers under a common rubric and funding source.  The only serious reform, as with the EU, lies in redesigning the political order.  It requires a new fire constitution.

The reason is that the primary driver of the American fire scene is not amenable to technical fixes and funding.  It’s about how Americans live on their land.  It’s about values.  This is where the National Cohesive Strategy, which could act for the American fire community as a new treaty might for the EU, should help.  Unfortunately the Cohesive Strategy puts science at its core when the reality is politics.  The fire scene is not about positive knowledge; it’s about choices, and values chosen get sorted out by politics.  We’re talking about the public estate and public safety.  If those aren’t matters for democratic politics, what is?  The decisive issue is not whether our science is good enough, but whether our politics is.

Not least the American fire community’s Euro moment resembles the unraveling across the Atlantic, too, in that there is no Plan B.  Either we fragment and end up with a mosaic of settings, some well protected in fire-gated communities, others exposed; or we find common cause and agree on a process by which we rebalance roles, rights, and responsibilities.  We renegotiate the political order behind American fire.  Or we continue as we have been, unable to do more than chase ever-worsening fires with ever-dwindling options.


A whimsical reconnaissance, I grant you.  But it says that what happens in fire is necessarily connected with what happens in the sustaining society, and this is true even in wildlands because wildlands exist by cultural choice.  It rejects the assertion that we are headed into a no-analogue future, because there are always analogues.  The problem is that there are too many to choose from, and we won’t know which applies until too late.  The only prophecy that will work is one that is believed and, by acting on it, becomes self-fulfilling.

William Faulkner once famously observed that the past isn’t over, it’s not even past.  We might say the same about our fire future.  It isn’t to come, it’s already with us.  We just won’t know what it is until it’s happened.

 Steve Pyne  /  December 2012