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Wildfire’s New Normal Looks a Lot Like the Old Normal with a Software Update

On August 9, 2018 California’s big three burns – Ferguson, Carr, and Mendocino – reached 539,000 acres, and counting, and commanded national attention. They had human causes, two unknown in particulars, one from a faulty car. The Ferguson had forced Yosemite National Park to close its west entry and Yosemite Valley. The Carr fire had burned into suburbs of Redding. The Mendocino fires were two, nearly adjacent, treated as a single megacomplex. None were contained; fire officials stated the Mendocino complex would not be extinguished until September. More broadly, the three fires formed a complex of our times. We had entered, it was said, a new normal. Probably we have.

But history, ever changing, is full of new normals. California's big three were approaching the size of the Adirondacks complex that burned 600,000 acres in upstate New York during the spring of 1903, and the Mendocino complex, California's largest on record, was an order of magnitude below the Big Blowup of 1910. A baseline for burning is hard to find.

Over the past 200 years American fire history has followed a narrative arc of landscape burning that rose and fell and then rose again. The great wave of American fire swelled during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as landscapes littered with slash allowed normal fires to mutate into monsters. Settlement was a fugue of fire and axe. So great was the havoc that it inspired state-sponsored conservation to end it. 

Loren Eiseley once likened humanity to a flame, transforming everything in its passage. That was literally true for America's frontiers. The narrative is one of people and nature interacting, each one's fires sometimes competing, sometimes complementing with the other's, both feasting on the fuels made freshly available on the land. Most burning was chronic rather than cataclysmic. Smoke and flame were normal, so common that they quelled the prospects for large fires. But conversion could also be catastrophic. 

It manifested first in the late 18th century with smoke, the product of landclearing further west, as immense palls passed over New England like a biblical curse. A grand chronicle of identifiable conflagrations begins in 1825 with a fire complex of 3,000,000 acres that spilled across Maine and New Brunswick. The fires moved west with the frontier. The Oregon Trail ended in serial conflagrations, with especially noteworthy fires coming in 1849, 1853, and 1868. 

Then a third fire entered and unbalanced that dynamic as humanity discovered how to amplify its firepower by burning fossil fuels. Unlike surface combustibles these were both unbounded by ecological fetters and unmoored from fire seasons. Industrial combustion could boost surface fuels by leveraging humanity's capacity to slash the woods. In a sense, lithic landscapes came to overlie living ones, with three fires now maneuvering over available combustibles. 

The most dramatic expression of this new firepower was the railroad. Steel and steam opened whole new terrains for axe and fire, and scattered sparks from smokestacks and brake shoes. What had been routine events, like a seasonal flu, now mutated into more lethal varieties, and what had been exceptional, like Miramichi's conflagration, became a new normal. A cadence of conflagrations followed. In 1871 the Peshtigo fire burned a million acres in northern Wisconsin, incinerating Peshtigo and killing between 400 and 1,400 people. The lethal chronicle rolled on: 1881 in Michigan, 1894 in Minnesota and Wisconsin, 1902 in Washington, 1908 along the border with Canada from British Columbia to New Hampshire, 1910 the Northern Rockies. North Carolina burned 3,000,000 acres in 1898. Even New England blew up in 1903 and again in 1908. In 1918 a wildfire complex swarmed into Cloquet and Moose Lake, Minnesota and killed at least 453 people. So widespread were the 1924 fires in California that Zane Grey wrote public appeals. These are only the most famous, recorded because they consumed vast acreage, wiped out towns, left hundreds dead, or attracted celebrities. 

The cycle crested in the Dirty Thirties with California's Matilija fire, Oregon's Tillamook Burn, Montana's Selway-Bitterroot blowup, all the largest single fires on record for those states. Then, as the amount of land under protection increased, as ruralites moved to cities and shed their fire practices, as the power to suppress grew and many of the conflagration-prone lands went into rehab, the fires quieted. The grand chronicle of rural fires ends in 1947 where it began, in Maine, with a quarter of a million acres burned, fed by old burning habits, fall drought, and debris still left from the hurricane of 1938.

The scene calmed. 

America didn't suddenly cease to burn. It just didn't burn as often, as widely, or as savagely, as a virtuous cycle replaced a vicious one. The nation cobbled together a national infrastructure for which the U.S. Forest Service oversaw an institutional matrix and furnished a common policy of fire exclusion. In 1910 Chief Forester Henry Graves declared that fire protection was 90% of American forestry. By 1960 it claimed only 13% of the agency's budget. A postwar generation grew up with Smokey Bear and forgot what free-burning fire could do; the plague passed away, like polio.

But what had succeeded as an emergency response did not work as a method of land governance. A paramilitary strategy of fire suppression only created an ecological insurgency. Even as the public felt the wildland fire problem was well in hand, the American fire community was poised for revolution.

The founding events came in quick succession. Between 1962 and 1978, amidst a surge of environmental legislation, a fire revolution boiled over. Taken together new acts and attitudes made a suppression-only, suppression-always doctrine untenable. Besides, fire officers began to speak openly that they were not putting fires out, they were putting them off. A suppression-centric program led by the U.S. Forest Service that had seemed to critics as an unmovable, monolithic presence, a bureaucratic Berlin wall, suddenly fell. 

The organizing concept for the coming era was the prescribed fire. It could be started by people or accepted from nature, but it was deemed a means to retain control while restoring flame. In parallel there was an institutional realignment that removed the Forest Service from its standing as a benign hegemon and forestry as the sole-source supplier of science. Interagency collaboration and consensus would guide decisions. Even the climate seemed favorable. After a horrific fire season in 1977, the weather turned wet. Climatologists exulted that they had cracked the code of the ice ages; another glacial era was inevitable. Their interest in fire was its possible role in a nuclear winter.

All this occurred well before the 21st century's global alarms, before climate change became a universal talisman, before urban sprawl abraded the countryside in ways that sparked wildfire. The protesters had warned that the nation was suffering a dangerous fire deficit that would translate into unmanageable fuel loads and unhinged biotas which would culminate in a fire crisis. Some places like Florida made the transition, most did not. Fifty years later, the forecasts proved prophetic.

But it had been a revolution from above. It needed room to mature - geographic room to maneuver, bureaucratic space to work through the details of policy, political space to accommodate the stumbles that were sure to happen. It needed empathy with the cause and patience with practice while doctrine translated into field operations.

Instead it stalled. A lost decade, and more, followed. 

All the favorable factors of a historical sweet spot turned sour. In the mid-1980s the American West flipped into a long drought. A few failed prescribed fires proved scarier than successes were emboldening. Fuels went untreated, and increased. Agency cultures developed under suppression proved tricky to reinvent. In Southern California the geeky term wildland-urban interface was coined to describe the consequences of an aggressive sprawl that was crowding against fire-prone landscapes. By end of the decade nuclear winter had morphed into greenhouse summer.

Mostly, the politics flipped. The long run of bipartisan support for environmental reform transfigured into partisan efforts by the Reagan administration to roll back environmental legislation or enfeeble its application, as though clean water and grizzly bears were part of the Evil Empire. Conflicting charges made the Forest Service dysfunctional, even schismatic. The move away from fossil fuels was reversed. Taken together the administration's actions were not enough to kill the fire revolution, but they stalled it exactly at the last time conditions allowed for a large-scale intervention. 

The narrative of American fire now inflected upward. The frontier of agricultural colonization that had spawned monster fires rekindled as a frontier of urban colonization aligned with megafires. In the first wave fuels and human ignitions had acted as fulcrums to leverage bad circumstances into horrific fires; in this second wave, climate change and human ignitions serve the same role. They have become performance enhancers, leveraging land use and acting on revanchist fuels. 

The great fire busts of 1987 in California and the Yellowstone fires of 1988 brought the issues before the public and the media. Policy reforms followed the catalytic 1994 fire season, culminating in a common federal policy on wildland fire in 1995. In 1999 Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt declared the country was in the midst of a “fire crisis.” In its waning hours the Clinton administration passed a National Fire Plan to devote money and attention to reform.

It was not too little, but it was too late. Too many partisans were interested in using fire to advance some other agenda, too few in managing actual fires. As if in parody of the rhythms of wetting and drying that underwrite fire regimes, politics flipped as Democrats and Republicans assumed office. Emergency reaction became the default setting. Wildfire burned in the cracks of a splintering political order.

Meanwhile, climate change has been granted a starring role. Raging fires became the flip side to melting glaciers - and are far more telegenic. Yet climate is acting on a set of stubborn, pre-existing conditions; the country would have a serious fire problem even if the climate had remained in the 1970s. More deeply, anthropogenic climate change is only one pathology of many created by a fossil fuel civilization. Which is to say, it is another expression of humanity's species monopoly over fire.

Fire is a reaction: it integrates its surroundings. Dispersed sprawl made possible by cars is remaking the rural countryside; a global economy powered by fossil-fuel transport has brought invasive grasses and woods-killing insects to interact with drought, while native infestations, no longer checked by winter, bulk up; power plants send electricity to cities and exurbs by high-tension lines that fail during high winds. Even fire suppression on the classic American model is possible because of engines, pumps, helicopters, and air tankers that move crews quickly and allow more fires to be fought along the front rather than by burning out. 

Humanity has gone from cooking food to cooking landscapes to cooking the planet. Ultimately, our new firepower has not removed flame on the landscape, only replaced quasi-tame flame with feral fire. Wildfire has reappeared like a re-emergent disease. The new normal is starting to look a lot like the old normal, rebooted with a software update.

When fires cluster, the accepted strategy is to group them into a complex, draw a large box around them, remove people, and treat the result as a single entity. But this approach can expand dramatically the amount of area burned, which is exactly what is happening with the Mendocino complex. Within its containment perimeter the fire will likely continue to flare and smolder for weeks from burnouts and its own momentum.

That's not a bad analogy for handling America's wider fire scene.  The three fires have braided so tightly they need to be treated as one.  We won't solve our issues with nature's fires or with our own until we put fossil-fuel combustion back in the ground.  But we don’t have to wait for nature’s next glacial or humanity’s move away from its own ICE (industrial combustion era) age. We can harden houses and tweak communities to make them less susceptible to storms of embers.  We can massage landscapes to better herd stampeding flames away from critical assets.  We can acknowledge that we can’t bomb complexity out of a fire planet.  We can admit that lots of little actions can add up to big changes, but that they will demand patience and, more than money, social capital.  And we can accept that we can't evacuate ourselves from the scene, that we will need to draw a very large box, and that we can expect a lot of burning for a long time to come.