Betting on the future with wildfire. Two ways for the coin toss to land
The agencies made a devil’s bargain when they justified prescribed fire as hazard fuels reduction. The funding for fuels paid for fire restoration generally. Fuels managers became a surrogate for fire ecologists, and hazard reduction, a cover for ecological burning. Now the blowback – being told to do what they said they were going to do – has further diminished the opportunities for prescribed fire, if that is possible.
But buried in the latest iteration of policy is an option by which, once again, fire officers might get fire back on the land. “Appropriate management response” grants wide latitude in managing fires from any ignition source. In the name of firefighter safety, cost control, and ecological benefits, an agency might permit some fires to burn broadly, or to contain some portion of a fire and let the rest blaze freely. An escaped campfire might be allowed to burn out a basin. A lightning strike might be monitored rather than attacked. Even an arson fire might be co-opted to public purpose. The prescribed fire that society won’t readily allow fire officers might be tolerated if the ignition just appears. No one is culpable for starting it, and because it is not labeled a “let burn” but an actioned fire, it lies outside current constraints. Playing with lightning starts may well become the default mechanism for the broadcast restoration of fire.
It’s not a new innovation. Beginning in the 1970s sites experimented with ways to permit lightning to roam untrammeled, as befit parks and wildernesses. The label for that tactic has reincarnated from “let burn” to “prescribed natural fire” to “wildland fire use” – and those are just the approved national terms. All were, in effect, a variant of fire by prescription but which traded a drip torch for a lightning bolt. But there was always a parallel method embedded in the general playbook for fire suppression. It was possible to “contain” or “confine” wildfires as well as directly extinguish them. An advantage to confinement was that could be called “suppression” and thus financed through emergency accounts. What distinguishes the current avatar is that it no longer, in principle, discriminates between suppression and prescription. There is simply “appropriate action.”
It’s a slick solution. It shifts the strategic burden from fuels to ignition. It stands outside regulatory constraints; even air quality boards can’t cite an agency for non-compliance since the fire began as an act of nature, even if most of the burned acres were the result of choices about how to manage that kindling. An ignition becomes truly a “start,” with much more to follow. In places where the groundwork exists for managing fire (and particularly where the ultimate goal is to restore “natural” fire), it is possible to let lightning fires replace those too-encumbered prescribed fires. This is how to get those acres of black. It’s clear that the practice is propagating.
Even for an academic it seems pedantic and querulous to question the shift. But the truth is, it’s a sleight-of-hand. It does with ignition what the fuels argument did: it places one purpose before the public when the real intention is something else. The end – to restore appropriate fire regimes – is honorable. It’s the means that’s questionable, along with the way it’s presented outside the fire community and the virtual inevitability that once started it will widen beyond its originating constraints. Fire burns on slippery slopes as well as dry ones. Emergency presuppression monies began for good reason, and then spun out of control into an agency slush fund. Hazard reduction started from legitimate concerns, and then broadened into practices well beyond their authorized purpose. And it is entirely plausible that the same will happen with ignition. If lightning is accepted because “fire is fire,” then why not an accidental fire, or an arson fire? Fire agencies will cease to proactively manage fire in any meaningful way and will simply react. They will effectively out-source fire management to whatever deliberate, malicious, incidental and accidental mechanisms happen to cast sparks. Cynics have argued that the only thriving component of the West’s economy is casinos. Fire management will consist of pulling the arm of nature’s slots, buying Powerball tickets in a lightning lottery.
It’s a way to “get the burn out” in the same way that clearcutting got “the cut out.” But it isn’t managing for the ecological goods and services that agencies say they are enhancing: it leaves the outcome to chance. A skeptic might call it faith-based ecology. It means fire management is not serving land management but dictating it, because the choice of fire practices makes such sites de facto wilderness. Inevitably, too, some fires will burn far beyond their intended domain; they will be escapes in all but name. Here and there they will burn over towns, burn up budgets, and transfigure treasured landscapes in wholly unpredictable ways. They might also become large – whole complexes of Lotto burns. At that point the public will no longer ignore the man behind the screen. They will sense conspiracy. They will not be pleased, or forgiving.
The middle is missing: the middle landscape between the wild and the urban, the middle management that held the torch. There is no question that prescribed fire has become too tricky and troublesome. The solution is to fix it; to find new ways to fire forage, to reform tort law, to make the claim for burning to the public. It may not work, save in high-asset landscapes. But at least it will be honest and it will let the public decide what kind of fire it wants on public lands. Otherwise those wanton burns will end up steeping a Tea Party brew.
June 2011 / [pdf]
Tails is also Heads
Many western fire officers feel that the modern economy of fire is a rigged casino. They play against a stacked deck. Every card they get is a turn against them.
The modern combustion economy avidly and implacably seeks to remove open burning either by technological substitution or by outright suppression. The laws against setting fires overwhelm those edicts for setting them. Contemporary society has few personal experiences with fire: it no longer occupies a central role in domestic life, work in factory or field, or even awareness, apart from a virtual mural of disasters and spectacles of the feral. It has left modern consciousness as it has modern landscapes. Those elements of American society that enjoy the public lands may accept fire in true wilderness as they might grizzly bears, but they don’t want it near their cabins and campgrounds, their fishing streams, or their hiking trails and climbing routes. Smoke befouls air. It promotes nasty invasives and ruins habitats for endangered species. It threatens the world they knew as a child or the one they first encountered when, with fresh eyes of discovery, they found their favorite place. And these are fires that simply happen. That fire officers might deliberately set them moves the act from the annoying to the perverse. It’s one thing to have a grizzly in the backcountry. It’s another to have one in your recreational backyard and be told that it’s okay because the beast is trained and under voice control. From time to time it isn’t. Nearly everywhere FMOs turn there is a reason not to burn
The southeast is different. There, nearly every factor favors fire, save newcomers’ suspicions and the general thrust of modernity. The treatment of choice is prescribed fire, which in one form or another is what historically put most fire on the ground. The culture promotes fire as heritage. Endangered species demand more flame. However difficult, with determination, fire officers can burn. Every day’s a burn day. But none of this holds for the western wildlands.
There is no culture for burning since reserving public lands extinguished it. The critical species seems to favor exactly those habitats in which fire comes rarely but explosively. Reintroducing fire must fight against a century’s stockpiling of combustibles. Liability – real and imagined – limits their capacity to replace history’s lost fires with modern surrogates. Prescribed fire resembles boutique burning; it stands to landscape fire as souvenir shops do to the old economies of ranching, lumbering, mining, and trapping. Efforts to rearrange the fire environment into more favorable landscapes are stymied by the legacy of bad behaviors, desires to keep roads out, and skepticism that the way to correct the errors of the past is to let the same actors try again.
It’s tough to stay in the game. Every failure reduces the chips they have to play with, while every success holds them where they are. They play with the hand they’re dealt. And when, every so often, they get some good cards, they might be forgiven for betting high. It’s the only way to beat the house odds. Otherwise, they are stuck with a game of gambler’s ruin in which the only acceptable fires are wildfires.
§ Recent thinking has sought to improve those odds by turning wildfire to constructive purposes. Behind that ambition is not just the belief that any fire is better than no fire but that fire will happen, willed or not. If the only fire of any scale the public will allow is wildfire, then that is the hand you are dealt. You bet on wildfire.
The project requires that a lot of boundaries be erased. The geographic boundaries between agencies and jurisdictions, which demand that the same fire be handled differently. The conceptual boundaries that distinguish among fires such that even fires which are doing ecological good must be deemed bad and suppressed. The classificatory boundaries that mince up operational firescapes into wild or prescribed fires, monitored or modified suppression, planned or unplanned ignitions. Regardless of source or purpose, those fires can be massaged to useful outcomes. They may be only means to get working fire back onto landscapes; no other option can rack up their acres. They are not even wildfires.
The big fires are coming. Climate change, land use change and continued buildup of combustibles, changes in perceived values regarding wildland fire and changes in practices and norms for fireline safety – all will boost burned area. The costs and complexities of restoration measures mean that agencies will not get ahead of the big-burn curve. Instead of preburn treatments, they should prepare for postburn projects on a landscape scale, using the wildfire as the first installation for a reformed firescape. They will use nominally bad fires to good ends.
That, at least, is the theory. Instead of discarding those poor cards, or folding and leaving the table altogether, fire officers must make them pay, even if it means betting that the public won’t call the element of bluff behind them. “The dealer stands pat.”