Then came the Yellowstone fires of 1988, a host of small fires in June and July park managers let burn rather than rushing to suppress. Dry, windy conditions spun the fires out of control. They burned one-third of the park — drawing national attention and intense criticism. At one point 9,000 firefighters battled the blazes, which destroyed buildings and forced the closure of the park. The Yellowstone fires were among 72,000 fires reported that year.
Media accounts suggested the fires would “destroy” the iconic park — causing a backlash against “prescribed natural fires” across the country. Only much later did ecologists suggest that overall the fires probably helped the ecosystems in the park.
Fire ecologist and historian Stephen Pyne in his book “The Southwest: A Fire Survey,” charted the ebb and flow of firefighting efforts and fire management approaches in the Southwest, from the routine fire setting of the American Indians to the decades of suppression intended to save timber for the sawmills.
In the modern era, he charted the extraordinary difficulty of returning fire to its natural role in a deeply unnatural forest, with pine duff so thick on the ground even a low-intensity ground fire could cook the shallow roots of a 600-year-old ponderosa.
“The Southwest had become a miniature for the self-destructing Old West; its grasses eaten out, its springs dried up, its game gone, its indigenes diminished and sequestered, its fires lost,” Pyne wrote.
He said the view of fire as the enemy collapsed, replaced by a view of fire as natural and good.
“It became difficult to argue that natural fire did not belong in natural areas, and if good there, that its goodness should not be distributed widely through the proxy of prescribed burns. Very quickly, the intellectual opposition collapsed.”
He chronicled the various efforts to return fire to the system in places like Saguaro National Monument, Gila National Forest and the forests of the Mogollon Rim.
Some fire plans succeeded for decades, greatly diminishing the threat of major fires. But most eventually floundered politically when a controlled burn or a “natural prescribed fire” slipped the leash and raged out of control.
The Warm Fire on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in 2006 dealt a body blow to fire management programs when a shift in the weather turned small fires forest managers had loosely herded into a 58,000-acre inferno.
Pyne also chronicled the efforts of a band of Northern Arizona University researchers led by Wally Covington to advocate for a middle way, dubbed the Flagstaff Model. Covington and others insisted land managers must first dramatically thin the tree thickets before they could safely return fire to its ancient role in the system.
However, Covington found himself caught in the crossfire.
On one hand, Forest Service managers wanted to keep the massive fire suppression industry in place to ride herd on fires they decided to let burn.
On the other hand, environmentalists viewed the call for a reinvented timber industry as a back door effort to once more turn the forests into tree farms — the philosophy that had created the problem in the first place.
But as Covington remarked, “if you really want to destroy a ponderosa pine ecosystem, graze the hell out of it, suppress fire, cut old growth and then let wildfire run amok.”
Pyne concluded, “the classic preservationist solution is to leave the landscape to sort itself out, even if this takes decades and the outcome is unlike anything experienced before. When wildfires off the evolutionary charts are burning areas 100 times the size of the smallest legal wilderness, there may not be much resilience left.
“There is no way to keep out climate change, unhealthy biotas, invasive species, beetle and budworm swarms the size of states and the relocation of carbon from the Paleozoic to the Colorado Plateau there to burn again,” Pyne concluded. “To do nothing is to risk losing everything save the notion of the wild itself. To do something will guarantee errors.”
The Granite Mountain Hotshots and the hundreds of other firefighters who died in our names have underscored his point.
We can do nothing — and send the best among us forward to fight the flames.
And they’ll die.
Year after year.
They’ll die for our sins.
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Spark by Pia Wyer