Wildfires and Us: Part 1

Night photograph of wildfires burning near Grand Coulee Dam in Grand Coulee Washington. Lake Roosevelt, part of the Columbia River reflects the wildfire.

In his tireless efforts to prevent human caused fire, Smokey Bear tells us that fire destroyed his forest home. In Bambi, careless hunters started a wildfire forcing young Bambi and his friends to flee. Smokey’s message and the fire scenes from Bambi, according to UC Santa Barbara professor Roderick Nash, have done “more to shape American attitudes towards fire in wilderness ecosystems than all the scientific papers ever published on the subject.”

Yet for centuries, Smokey’s relatives have been born and raised in trees hollowed out by fire and enjoyed berries growing in the clearings created by wildfire.

Our relationship with fire is emotional and marked by paradox. We know our forests were born in and thrive on fire, yet we want to live in the fire-prone forests and protect the homes we build there. We enjoy our parks and natural areas because they are wild and free, yet we mourn the loss when nature chooses to make them young again through the elemental force of fire. Experts tell us we cannot prevent fire and that we are nowhere near historical levels, yet we like being promised that efforts will be made to reduce the extent and severity of fire. Learning to coexist with fire forces us to examine and confront our dominant cultural norms about fire, as fire has and will continue to shape western landscapes for millennia.

For nearly two decades, I have worked with local residents, experts and community groups to assess the impact of fire on old-growth forests, treasured parks, natural areas, and water supplies. I have worked in collaborative groups at the local level to design projects to restore degraded landscapes. I have worked on a task force with experts, conservation interests, the timber industry and professionals from state and federal agencies to explore options that are good for our forests and the community. I have wrestled with the science, facts, economics, and challenges posed by climatic changes.

As lawyers we know that context matters. Today individual wildfires are burning over larger landscapes (more acres) than they did in the early 1980s. Yet wildfires are still burning fewer total acres now than compared to estimates in earlier decades and longer historical timelines: between 4-10 million in recent years as compared to 20-40 million acres in the early 1900s. Yet the impact of climate is well documented and wildfire season in the West recently has lengthened from five to seven months, on average, and the number of large wildfires over 1,000 acres has nearly doubled. Average annual temperatures in the West have risen by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s and winter snow pack has declined. The increases in acres that burn is attributed, in part, to climate change and the increase is expected to continue in many areas with additional warming, leading to even greater suppression costs and loss of life.

As lawyers, we pride ourselves on our ability to think rationally, analyze the facts, and make a judgment based on what the experts recommend. Fire is an emotional issue with deeply rooted cultural beliefs that tests our ability to challenge conventional wisdom and chart a rational course. The experts are telling us we have no choice but to rethink our approach to wildfire and learn to coexist.

For over a century, we suppressed fires as a matter of policy, including back country fires that do not pose any risk to communities. Our efforts appeared successful because they coincided with a long wet period from the late 1930s to the late 1980s and fit with the dominant belief of the time—that fire is bad and must be put out. The legacy of our effort to suppress fire is a deficit of fire. Today firefighting has proven to be impractical; costly; risky to firefighters; and, too often, damaging to the natural world. Despite Smokey Bear’s best efforts, today humans still start 8 out of 10 wildfires and over 40 million homes are estimated to be at risk.

In the second part of this article, I will share what the best available science and experts have taught me.

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