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Commentaries, otherwise unpublished

California split - fire careers, north and south

January 8, 2018

Tags: California fires, careers

Fire lighting and fire fighting - two tasks that should be joined but rarely are. Careers veer into one or the other. Like so much of the California fire scene, they tend to divide north and south. Those who began by quenching fire, if they drift into the right niches of the north, might begin starting them. Those who began keen to engage with fire's ecological presence would, if they remained in the south, begin to bend under the unrelenting stress toward suppression.
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Like nearly all of his generation, Jan van Wagtendonck learned fire by suppressing it. He studied forestry, worked a summer on the Umpqua Hotshots, transferred to the smokejumping corps on the Siskiyou and in Alaska. And like most of those who retooled from fighting to lighting, he had an epiphany, but one he only recognized years later, after he had converted and wondered why he hadn’t seen the light sooner. In his case the spark was education, and it kindled when his father, an academic, had sent him an article on fire ecology written by Charles Cooper and published in 1961 by Scientific American. Reading the piece caused him to reflect back on snag fire in the middle of a scree field he had once jumped into. It could go nowhere. There was no point in throwing people out of airplanes to extinguish it.

He wanted to know more, found the inaugural proceedings of the Tall Timbers fire ecology conferences, and through them discovered Harold Biswell, then at the University of California-Berkeley. He applied to UCB for grad school, but was rejected. During a tour at Fort Ord, he meet Biswell at last, reapplied to UCB and was accepted. The Forest Service, with whom he had spent his years in fire, was still suspicious of prescribed burning, so Jan turned to Biswell as a PhD adviser. At the time Biswell was just beginning his liaison with the Sierra national parks. It was an ideal circumstance for an acolyte in fire ecology: the place, the time, the personalities all converged on Berkeley and Sierras. In 1971 he did his field work at Yosemite, where Bob Barbee and Jim Olson provided assistance. The next year he was hired at Yosemite as a research scientist.

Yet even here, where the fire revolutionaries were hurtling the barricades, the future stalled. The Park Service was reorganizing, fire was split between resource management (which started fires) and protection (which stopped them). Meanwhile a riot in Yosemite Valley had led to a “purge” of personnel and pushed the park into a semblance of a security state. Law enforcement, not resource management, and protection, not revolution, became the order of the day. Compared to most of the country, Yosemite was still a beacon of hope; relative to Sequoia-Kings Canyon the program struggled. The Yosemite story, as Jan expressed it, became one of “progress in spite of the agency.” Eventually the project stabilized. Sequoia-Kings took most of the heat from controversies. But if the fire revolution couldn’t happen at Yosemite, where could it?

Over the years his role expanded to include wilderness and master planning, but restoring fire was never far from his field of vision. If prescribed fire faltered, he could midwife its rebirth in the upcountry Illilouette Valley. When bad wildfires returned beginning in 1990, he was on site. When his research position was kneaded into the National Biological Survey (and then USGS), he stayed at the same desk and continued to promoted fire. He told the Yosemite story frequently at fire conferences. He represented the NPS on the national review teams that culminated in the 1995 common federal fire policy and its 2001 update. He did what he had done for 30 years: he argued for more good fire.

That it hadn’t gone along the trajectory that seemed possible – inevitable – in the 1960s was curious and frustrating; practice depended more on human behavior than on fire behavior. But there was plenty of cause to celebrate. Yosemite had made a difference when it mattered. The Illilouette Valley became a paradigm of how free-burning fires could interact across decades. For most of his professional years Jan had been the face of NPS fire science. His own career could serve as a cameo of how a person, a park, an institution, or a country could convert from an unthinking command to eliminate something that nature needed to an empirically backed program to reinstate it. Yosemite remained a fitful isle of fire amid a rising sea of California suppression.
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Chris Childers inverted that biographical arc. He was born in North Dakota of easterner parents (Virginia and Pennsylvania), and spent his early years on the road, mostly in North Carolina and Ohio. By the time he was ready for middle school, the family had moved to San Diego. He graduated from high school there and enrolled at UC Santa Barbara. A course on Wilderness and Man by Rod Nash, a guru of American environmental history and author of Wilderness and the American Mind, galvanized his interests. He took a course in fire ecology. This is what he wanted to do: work in the wild, do the right thing.

A friend suggested the Young Adult Conservation Corps as a possible entry point to a career in nature; he got the summer job. When the YACC held a fire school, he discovered what he really wanted to do. He wanted to work in fire. In 1981 he got hired on a Forest Service engine stationed at Refugio, next door to Ronald Reagan's western white house (the engine was on call 24/7 when Reagan was at home; "lots of overtime," Chris recalls). Then he transferred to the Los Prietos Hotshots on the Los Padres National Forest, doing his training while jumping back to campus to complete his senior finals. He stayed with the hotshots until 1989 when the Forest Service, unsettled by the consent decree, began overturning its workforce. Still, he liked fire – was good at it and wanted to stay in the region. He turned to the San Marcos municipal fire department, which hired him. After four years, in March 1994, he transferred to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Santa Barbara is one of six contract counties. That standing dates from 1937 legislation that permits counties to provide their own fire protection instead of relying on the state. Santa Barbara so elected. The state supplements for initial attack, such that of a $55 million budget, CalFire furnishes $5 million. It’s an odd institutional hybrid for an odd landscape and an odd population demographic, half in cities and half in the countryside. As it evolved, it followed the model of Los Angeles County. Its chiefs wear black. Its fire officers have bugles on their lapels to designate rank. Its most recent chief comes from LACFD.

Chris was bright, educated, and had the fire bug. He rose through the ranks. In 1998 he became a captain. For three years he oversaw the vegetation management program, which largely meant clearance around structures and communities. In 2001 he became a battalion chief. When the Zaca fire romped through the backcountry of the Santa Inez Mountains, he was on the line - for three tours. And he was there in 2008 and 2009 for the Tea, Jesusita, and La Brea fires (he missed the Gap because he was on the Northern California fire bust). Few fire hotspots have the public visibility of Santa Barbara: the mountains form a colossal amphitheater that makes every wildfire a public performance. The system drives toward suppression, even if its fires may burn for weeks. Anyone associated with fire will have to go along for the ride.
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The pith of the fire revolution was that fire and land had to bond. In working landscapes this typically meant controlled burning. In wild landscapes, it meant giving fire room to roam. In urban and exurban landscapes, it meant suppression: it meant adopting the ethos, hardware, and organization of urban fire services. If a battalion chief for the SBCFD seems an odd career for someone first inspired by the ideals of wilderness, it's no less odd than for a smokejumper to end up lighting fires in sequoia groves and letting lightning fires ramble over Yosemite's backcountry. The land imposes its character on fire - and fire on the character of those who engage it.

Steve Pyne
August 2011; May 2014