06.28.12

Colorado Blazes Remind Us That National Policy on Fire Needs a Fix

The wildfires in Colorado are flourishing not because firefighters lack know-how but because national action on fire management lags far behind expertise, writes Stephen J. Pyne.

Now it’s Colorado’s turn. In March the Lower North Fork prescribed fire west of Denver went feral, burned 23 houses and killed three civilians. In June the still-uncontained High Park wildfire began pressing against Fort Collins, killing one person and burning 254 houses. The Flagstaff fire, though a trifling 300 acres, threatened Boulder and activated a top-level fire team. Now the Waldo Canyon fire has forced mass evacuations around Colorado Springs, burned more than 300 houses, and, with stunning audacity, threatens the Air Force Academy, which haplessly volunteered four C-130s to drop water. Apparently we can bomb Taliban camps in Afghanistan more easily than we can cope with terrorizing wildfires in our own backyards. For those of us who long for a post-ironic culture, these are difficult times.

Everything that is unfolding is unexpected only in its particulars.  The western fire scene destabilized decades ago; this is not news. The Front Range has been on the fire community’s surveillance radar for almost as long. Section by section it has ruptured as though it were a pyric San Andreas fault line. The 2002 Hayman fire that gouged a long 138,000-acre scar between Colorado Springs and Denver was widely touted as the future of Colorado wildfire if nothing intervened on a scale comparable to such outbreaks. Nothing did.

On the contrary, all the factors that have to align for a big fire are separately worsening. A long-wave drought persists, spiking in some years and places to blanche whole landscapes. Wildland fuels, bolstered by a century’s fire exclusion, have added mountain-sized accumulations from a pine beetle epidemic. Exurban sprawl, slowed because of the Great Recession, has not recycled to retrofit its prior excesses with better protection and is only biding its time before renewing. The effort to reinstate more functional and resilient fire regimens has stalled. The scale of proposed treatments is typically an order of magnitude (or two) less than the fires they seek to quell. A thin-and-burn project of 5,000 acres is considered large, while fires of 100,000 to 200,000 acres are now expected. We continue to rely for airtankers on P2V submarine patrol planes left over from the Korean War, or civilian aircraft such as DC-6s otherwise destined for scrap metal, and all-purpose C-130s outfitted with retardant tanks. Fear of risking firefighter lives—remember Colorado’s South Canyon fire?—shrinks the range of actions possible, such that crews no longer fight at night.  Like a faulty plumbing system, each fix only transfers the pressure to the next weak point. We can even set aside global warming as a primary cause because we are seeing outbreaks that are within historic climatic ranges.

The problem is not that we don’t know what to do. We know how to keep houses from burning. We understand that what the fire community awkwardly calls the wildland/urban interface is the outcome of recolonizing our once-rural landscapes with an urban outmigration and is producing the same kind of rolling conflagrations the 19th century agricultural frontier did. We know how fire behaves. We know we can’t abolish fire, or even try to ban it, without adding further instabilities. We know that firefights, however telegenic and dramatic (and necessary), do not correct the fundamental imbalances. We know a solution requires a political response, which is what the National Cohesive Strategy for Wildland Fire Management (now in phase II) proposes. We just can’t do it. Our landscapes have polarized as much as our politics. Without a middle ground, however, it seems our red states are destined to become really red, and our blue states as well. Wildfire is a political independent.

Our landscapes have polarized as much as our politics. Without a middle ground, however, it seems our red states are destined to become really red, and probably our blue as well.

The American fire community recognized the problem long ago. We are now 50 years since the opening salvos of what became a revolution in policy. It’s practice that hasn’t caught up. Fire officers appreciate that the amount of burning witnessed in recent years is a pittance compared to what is required. We need much more fire, but not the sort of fires we’ve been experiencing. The National Fire Plan adopted in the waning hours of the Clinton administration and overseen by a consortium of federal and state agencies sought a forward policy to contain the disintegrating scene, but the controversies over a national forest health program seem to have only foreshadowed those over healthcare for its citizenry. The national estate remains polarized between the wild and the urban.

The western fire community is close to shrugging that it can’t get ahead of the crisis, that wildfire will be the default setting. They can’t control sprawl or set building codes, they can’t tame wind or level mountains, and the one factor they can manipulate, the woods and grasses, requires interventions that raise controversies faster than they lower fire risks. (It’s hard to believe this country once invented Pragmatism as a formal philosophy.)

Video screenshot

Wildfires burn in Colorado Springs

The largest experiment, the Four Forests Restoration Initiative among national forests along Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, proposes to thin 300,000 acres over 10 years. So far, with the 2012 season still ramping up, we’ve burned 1.6 million acres by wildfire. We’re engaged in a slow, painful ecological equivalent of deleveraging from decades of excess and inattention. What cocktail of treatments we need will depend on the particulars of place.

The particulars of the Waldo Canyon fire prompt two considerations regarding America’s century-long war on fire. One is tactical: the limits of air power. We face an ecological insurgency that we can’t carpet bomb into submission. We have to control the countryside. Fire integrates its surroundings—wind, rain and drought, terrain, and especially fuels, which is to say land use, or more darkly the upshot of everything we’ve done and not done for more than a century. It’s hard to unwind such factors without unraveling the whole setting. But the fact remains, you control fire regimens by controlling landscapes. Air support has a role, especially during initial attack and some housing protection; and retardant drops can rightly serve as a public gesture of political attention. But the high winds that drive big fires often render planes and helicopters ineffective when they are most needed.  The convective plumes rising out of the Rockies will swallow anything we want to fly against them. An emphasis on aircraft is a misallocation of fire resources.

The second issue is strategic, a misplacement of national security.  It now seems that the Defense Department can project American power of a sort into the Hindu Kush but not Pikes Peak. The forward strategy-–we’ll fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here-–suggests a misidentification of real threats and how to counter them. We can spend billions to protect Bagram Air Base but not the Air Force Academy.  While we are looking across distant ridges at potential risks, real threats are coming through the back door. A solution, however, requires some consensus about what the malady is and how to treat it. Effective fire management involves deciding how we live in and around our own lands, and that’s the rub. Why should wildland fire be different than other concerns that require social agreement and political action? It isn’t.

All this goes beyond irony. Maybe we have entered a post-ironic era after all.