One 'n Done is Not the Answer
Why mechanical fuels management needs to be second priority, after rx and Indigenous fire
I’m back; I’m here. I (have almost) finished my book revisions and it’s (almost) in the hands of my editor. Hoo-boy do I have a lot to say, and I hope I can find the time to say it all. I’ve missed you. I know there are a few different wildfire newsletters and I’m grateful you’re reading mine (and the other ones!). If you want to support this newsletter via paid subscription, I’d be honored. Once (or rather “if”) those subscription levels get past a certain point financially (to sustain me and this newsletter in addition to my paltry academic stipend) then I’ll donate a percentage to small fire nonprofits and I’ll be transparent about that here.
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A lot has happened this summer. There was the pause on rx burning, which sucks. A firefighter lost his life on the Rum Creek Fire, which is burning in a fairly remote area in Oregon (though evacuations are currently in place for some small communities).
I was eternally pissed when I heard of Logan Taylor’s death. He was young. He was out fighting a remote fire. In land that needs to burn. His death was senseless, and my heart goes out to everyone who knew him and loved him.
As I’ve been revising my book a conflict has grown in my heart. When I was a hotshot, I loved fighting fire. I loved being a firefighter. There are a lot of reasons I left, but none of them had to do with not loving the job itself, especially being able to exist in the woods so often (choking smoke and life-threatening hazards aside), in so many places that others never ventured. I left because I got tired of ego-tripping men trying to police my existence (to be clear).
The conflict? Well, it’s the importance of fire. That’s one half of it. Fire is absolutely essentially for ecological health in almost all of the ecosystems in the United States. When explorers and colonizers came up into the west from the south, or passed the west coast by sea, or arrived in what’s now Delaware and Massachusetts, they wrote about the constant haze of smoke in the air, and how the Indigenous people they encountered used fire to shape the land, making it easier to hunt (amongst many other things).
Here’s the thing: the lands we live in in the Untied States (and much of Canada) evolved with anthropogenic (human-caused) and nature-caused (mostly lighting) fires. The land that burns in the spring and summers, that forges its path through towns and communities, is meant to do just that. And it will burn whether we try to suppress it or not.
I am baffled by Biden’s ten year infrastructure plan to address wildfire and support firefighters. It’s very similar to President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which was signed into law after the gangbuster 2000 and 2002 fire seasons. It calls for more mechanical thinning and fuel breaks— neither of which have proven themselves entirely effective against fire.
Take this story by Bill Tripp, told on The California Report Magazine podcast. The story is about the Slater Fire, which occurred in September 2020, in the Klamath National Forest, which is on traditional Karuk land. The land is overgrown and sick because of a lack of fire.
The Forest Service does some fire mitigation here, but has historically (along with Cal Fire) been avoidant of true collaboration with tribes wanting to reinstate tribal burning. The agency “controls 98% of Karuk land.” As of now, federal and state agencies refuse to grant Indigenous people the rights to land that historically belonged to them.
Back to Tripp’s story, which disturbed me to my core. Tripp, on the podcast, relays the story of a clearing project implemented by the USFS which left piles of slash (branches, small trees, and brush) on the forest floor. This happens often, because federal and state agencies siphon money meant for “fuels management” into summer suppression, whose costs have ballooned over the years. Crews will do project work when they’re free, and they’re not always free.
The piles of brush on tribal trust land were burned within a reasonable time frame. But the piles on Forest Service and public lands weren’t. According to Tripp, these piles languished, and the Forest Service, against Tripp’s advice, covered the piles in plastic to keep them dry (this is a common practice with the USFS, because if the piles get too wet they won’t burn).
Tripp says that the district declared that pulling all the plastic off of the piles was too expensive, and it was against burn laws to burn plastic. The piles sat there “for about six years or so,” until the Slater Fire came. The fires likely contributed to the intensity of the fire.
The Forest Service Doesn’t Care About Us.
The conflict in my heart is this: I know that in these rural lands, like where the Rum River Fire is burning, there are people who deserve safety. And yet: we need fire. I recently read this article at NPR reported by Kirk Siegler. The article it titled “Why suppressing wildfires may be making the Western fire crisis worse.”
The flimsy “may” there really got me. I understand that a reporter can’t make false claims, but it’s very clear that fire suppression absolutely has made fires worse. But what really upset me was the lack of nuance: throughout the entire article, never once is prescribed fire mentioned. Only fuel breaks and mechanical means for fuels reduction.
Recall Tripp’s story, then read this blurb from the piece:
“Fairbanks is a retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter who now runs a small forestry company. They got a grant from the new Infrastructure Law that could make a big difference here. Further up the road, crews have already thinned out trees from private land that's peppered with homes and small outbuildings. The trees are stacked in piles awaiting to be burned this Fall when it's cooler and wetter.”
Now, are those piles really going to get burned this fall? If so, who’s going to burn them when there is an historical worker shortage?
Here’s the thing: the Forest Service and federal/state agencies could be doing a lot more to protect these small communities. But they aren’t. And I don’t think they will.
It’s incredibly short-sighted for us to think that these problems— the problem of monster fires (some of which need to happen)— is going to be solved at a federal, or even a state level. Articles like these, which prioritize the old way of doing things and call it new, are counter-productive.
Do we need some mechanical thinning and fuels mitigation? Yes.
Did President Bush’s bill work to restore forests? No.
Will Biden’s? No.
Because restoring forests is not a one and done deal.
We need fuel breaks around communities, but fuel breaks won’t help if homeowners aren’t given the resources and education they need in order to firesafe their houses. A fuel break doesn’t stop spotting, which occurs when embers float ahead of wildfires (sometimes by miles). Mechanical fuels reduction doesn’t work if we don’t have the personnel we need to burn the piles in the fall, winter, and spring. And burning piles doesn’t work if we don’t come back through and burn the land again and again.
Because these ecosystems are fire adapted.
And they need fire in order to be healthy.
There is this idea that keeps popping up, that we need to “manage fire.” But no. We need to live with fire. We need to live with the presence of fire, and understand and see how it brings life to our lands and restores ecological health.
A huge part of that is allowing Indigenous people to restore their relationships with fire without interference or liability.
And we need to accept that, sometimes, intentional anthropogenic fire is going to get away from us. We need to remove liability for that when it comes to prescribed and Indigenous burning, or we aren’t going to make any progress.
Additionally, federal agencies need to think differently about how they are implementing fuels work. They need to accept their lack of a work force and hire contractors for fuels and burning projects— this also creates more jobs (and sometimes pays better than federal jobs).
The priority cannot be making the piles and thinning the forests, but burning. That needs to be as urgent and suppressing fires— because, as counterintuitive as it sounds, more fire on the ground creates less of a chance for catastrophic, uncontrollable fires.
We also must understand that the presence of fire, and frequency of fire, depends on specific ecosystems. And that some ecosystems need high severity fire on a longer cycle, like the forest ecosystem in Yellowstone.
Watch a video about prescribed fire here:
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I didn’t know about USFS plastic piles in SlaterFire, horrible.
Homeowners must take responsibility in hardening their homes, slashing & RX fires should not destroy native plants that then invites invasive species (mustard plants the bane here inland SoCal).. —This spot on: There is this idea that keeps popping up, that we need to “manage fire.” But no. We need to live with fire. We need to live with the presence of fire, and understand and see how it brings life to our lands and restores ecological health.