Feature: Trial by Fire

A Q & A with fire expert Stephen J. Pyne about the Northern California fires and how to prepare for the next ones

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Stephen J. Pyne, one of America’s foremost experts on fire and fire history, offers advice on preventing disasters similar to the recent North Bay fires.

Stephen J. Pyne is a regents professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, and one of America’s foremost experts on fire and fire history. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America and Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire, which won the Forest History Society’s Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Book Award. He has twice been awarded National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, twice been a fellow at the National Humanities Center and received a MacArthur fellowship. Before his academic career, Pyne worked for the forest fire crew on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for 15 seasons.

I spoke to him on October 27 about the lessons of Northern California’s fires and the opportunities that lie ahead. We have to act quickly, he says.

“There is a political ecology to fires, and it’s the same as slash-and-burn agriculture,” he told me. “That is to say, you can plant successfully in the ash, but if you wait a year, you probably can’t. And if you wait two years, the weeds have taken over and you have to start it again. You have essentially six to 12 months, or the opportunity is gone.”

Stett Holbrook: What struck you most about Northern California’s fires?

Stephen J. Pyne: There were three things that really caught my interest. One, of course, is the scale of damage. This is double the housing loss from the Oakland fire [of 1991], which most people had considered the upper limit of what was possible. And the loss of life—we haven’t seen this scale of loss of life for more than a century.

The second thing is what we might call the collateral damage of fire: Smoke. Smoke has been of growing interest internationally for many years. And for the last couple of years, it’s really gotten around in the fire community that smoke is more than just an inevitable side effect; it’s a public health issue. It’s more than just a seasonal nuisance. It’s not something that just affects rural or semi-rural communities. It really is a major issue.

The third is the likely cause, which seems to be power lines. When I first heard of this whole bust of fires, I thought, “This is the signature of an electrical storm. This is what you have with lightning storms.” It’s not confirmed, but it’s looking like this was an electrical storm—but one of our own making, with power lines. Power line fires are becoming a major threat. They have been an issue in Southern California for a long time and in other places. We are starting to see power lines failing, sparking, trees falling on them. It’s really insidious because the fires start under the absolute worst conditions: High, dry winds. The liability issues are just going to go through the roof here.

Have we entered a new era of fire in California?

I don’t think we’ve entered a new era. In some ways it’s the same era. The “California style” of fire escalated after the World War II housing boom. This is more of the same. What we’re seeing is a ratcheting up of the damages. Climate change is probably contributing here, but we can’t just lay all of this on climate change. That’s just a way of evading all the social decisions we’ve made about how we live and where we build. Fire integrates all these things. It’s good news, bad news. It’s good news that it’s not something new. The bad news is we’ve seen this over and over again. It’s getting worse. It’s intensifying.

What are the lessons from the Oakland fire?

That was a real stunner. The United States had not had an urban conflagration since it happened across the bay in 1906. These things don’t happen anymore, and so why was it happening here? A lot of the attention went to Oakland as a kind of troubled municipality. In many ways, that was just a manifestation of its various pathologies, and it doesn’t really generalize [to other fires]. This was not the advent of something new. It’s just a peculiar thing. It was a horrific event. Startling. But for most people, it did not generalize.

But I think with what we’re seeing now maybe with Santa Rosa, I think it will [generalize], particularly if you pair it with Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or the big fires in Texas in 2011 and others.

These fires were for a long time a California quirk, something only happening on the Left Coast. And it really didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the county. And that’s not true now. It’s becoming a national narrative. It’s all over the West. I think what we’re seeing now is the fires are going where the houses are. At that point, it’s a national story.

How did the Oakland fire change fire policy—or not?

There were some lessons from not just Oakland but the growing number of these fires in Southern California and elsewhere. The state had moved to map high-risk areas and put in some general zoning and coding requirements, but clearly they were inadequate. The problem is people really hate to be told what they can and can’t do on their property or with their house. They want to build what they want to build the way they want to build it. But fire is a contagion phenomenon. Your neighbor’s house is a threat to you. Fire is not libertarian; it’s communal. It integrates its surroundings. We can’t all go off on our own.

I don’t know if many changes were made, and even if they were, they only apply to new construction. What about 40 or 50 years of bad construction? You’re talking about a trillion-dollar retrofit. That’s not going to happen. It’s a social problem, but at some point, you may just have to crack the whip. Not doing these things is like not vaccinating anymore.

How has Cal Fire’s role changed in California?

Cal Fire was originally a board of forestry. And then it was a department of forestry. And then it was a division of forestry and fire protection. And now it’s just Cal Fire. It’s a suppression organization, it’s an urban firefighting service in the woods. They’re really good at doing that. But the way you controlled fires historically in cities was not just by having more hydrants and fire engines; it was building codes and by zoning and building fire protection into the cityscape.

And when you convert what are basically land-management agencies or fire agencies that had responsibility for managing that larger land, when you turn them into only a firefighting system, you lose control over the countryside. And that’s where fire derives its power. The power of fire comes from the power to spread. And the power to spread resides in the countryside. The way you control is to take away some of the power so it doesn’t blow up on you.

So every time we have one of these big fires, the natural response is we’ve got to protect our people, and we’ve got to protect these houses from being burnt. And we do, absolutely. But that tends to come at the expense of everything else. What about the other sides of this?

What is the best defense against fire in a place like Santa Rosa?

There has been a national effort mandated by an act of Congress in 2009 called the FLAME Act that aimed to fix fire funding at the federal level. It didn’t work because Congress never put in the money the act required. It did require fire agencies to create something called [the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy]. There’s no money behind this, but they came up with a three-part strategy and it’s pretty sound.

You need to adapt it locally, but one part was to build “fire-adapted communities.” Many, many of our communities outside of New England are in fire-prone areas and can burn, and we need to accept that fact and build our cities and build our suburbs with that expectation in mind. This is a chance to rethink what fire means in those communities and to accept that urban conflagrations are now back. It’s like measles or polio coming back. We thought we’d fixed that. But they’re back, and we’ve got to start to do the things that took the plague out of these places in the past. We need to harden our cities and redesign them.

The second part was “fire-resilient landscapes” and to think about ways of putting these landscapes into forms that can burn without doing the kinds of damage that we see, and to burn in ways where we have a possibility of containing them and allowing these ecosystems to survive fire, because they are getting fires that are outside their evolutionary experience.

The third part is to build your capability. That’s your workforce, your equipment and all the stuff you need to apply it. That’s what generally gets the attention. “We’ll get more engines. We make more air tankers. We want to see those helicopters up there.” If you don’t do the other stuff, you’re in fire’s cycle. You’re just playing whack-a-mole. It’s just coming back at you.

What eco-friendly measure can be undertaken to prevent fire in wildlands?

There are a whole lot of things we can do in wildlands, short of paving it or clear-cutting or just nuking the place. We don’t have to. You can let it burn. You don’t have to keep fire out. You just don’t want fires of the sort that are really going to be beyond our control and a threat. Places that used to have surface fires are now overgrown with woody shrubs and young trees, and fires are responding and behaving differently. We can thin those out. It’s a kind of woody weeding. It’s not logging. Logging is not a surrogate for fire. When you log, you take the big stuff and leave the little. Fire burns the little stuff and leaves the big.

There may be a place for some prescribed grazing, say, after really heavy rains when you’ve got extra grass, maybe you bring in some grazing animals and let them knock that down. Mowing is an option. Greenbelts would be a great option as a way of stepping down from a wildland setting. And burning, prescribed fire. You can substitute your fires for wildfires. You have fires of choice rather than fires of chance. There are lots of things to do. It really varies by site, but you don’t have to strip it raw or pave it over.

What kind of political will is necessary to undertake this kind of nuanced approach?

The problem will be defined as a matter of public safety—it is a matter of public safety. A lot of lives were lost, property burned up. Lives were disrupted. I imagine you’ve got an internal refugee problem. Where are these people going to go? What do they do? That is going to dominate the discussion, as it should up front.

But we should have this second discussion that goes back and echoes the National Cohesive Strategy and do the fundamentals and recognize cities can burn in ways we had not imagined. Have that discussion, and now you’re getting something, now the different pieces are interacting in a positive way. Otherwise you just build up the suppression and you’re going to have another blowup like this.

Even if your firefighting force had been doubled, would that have made a difference in those first few hours? No. You’d have to have the fire equivalent of a police state. That can’t solve it.

What opportunities do the fires present?

California is specially placed to make a difference. The National Cohesive Strategy is worth taking as a frame and then operating within it. The state of Utah enacted that into law. I would have never predicted Utah of all places to do that. They have accepted we need to do all of it. If California were to do that in a serious way, it doesn’t necessarily mean tons of money; it means modifying the state fire plan so everything is not stripped to fight a fire in Southern California when they need to be doing burning in Northern California. It means reassessing what you can realistically do and getting a better balance between them. If California were to do that, it would affect the whole country. California is a huge presence nationwide in fire. That would be the hope.

There really is an opportunity to step back and not overturn the system, but move the parts and give better balance so that we can really turn this into a virtuous cycle. Right now, we’re in a vicious cycle. We build up more suppression and the fires get worse, the damages increase.

Nothing is going to change that if we keep doing the same stuff.

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