icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Commentaries, otherwise unpublished

Living with fire - a personal reflection (keynote for IAWF general meeting)

      Thank you for the invitation to speak – I'm truly honored. I'm a fire guy, but by training and temperament I'm also a historian, so let me indulge my instincts and reflect on how the fire world has changed over the past half century.


      My life with fire began in 1967 when I was hired as a smokechaser with the North Rim Longshots at Grand Canyon National Park.  I spent 15 seasons in all, 12 as crew boss.  Everything I've done since dates back to those seasons.  I even met and married my wife on the Rim.  Our oldest child spent her first two summers there.

      In 1967 the National Park Service, like all federal agencies, operated under a 10 am policy – suppression only and everywhere. On the Rim this meant a lookout, two slip-on units as pumpers, abundant snag fires, and lots of hiking and compassing since roads were few and surface water rare.  We lived where we worked.

      Nationally, the US Forest Service was a hegemon that oversaw virtually every aspect of wildland fire.  It dominated both hardware and software.  It set policy, funded nearly all research, and provided an institutional matrix for other federal agencies and those of the states.  The only fire-specific periodical was Fire Control Notes.  Mutual aid agreements fashioned a national system with the Forest Service as keystone agency.  Only the BLM in Alaska had a fire program independent of it.  The Park Service had two dedicated fire officers for its entire system.  International connections meant FAO-sponsored exchanges.

      That year the major fires were in the Northern Rockies.  Two burned to national publicity in Glacier National Park, and two big fires blew up in the Selkirk Mountains.  The Glacier fires gained notoriety because a grizzly bear attack killed two hikers at the same time.  The Sundance fire was the largest in the region since 1934; two firefighters died.  In 15 seasons on the North Rim our largest fire was 300 acres, on a mesa within the Canyon.  The largest regional fire was 1,000 acres.

      We were remarkably isolated from knowledge about the outside world.  We lived in housing and worked in buildings erected 30 years earlier by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Radio reception was erratic; there were no personal phones and no TV.  Once a month the Coconino County bookmobile would roll in.  I learned about Apollo 11's lunar landing when Time magazine arrived in the mail a week later.  

      But fire was equally isolated within the larger culture.  Mostly it meant Smokey Bear, Bambi, and the occasional movie.  For American society at large wildfires were a freak of western violence or a California quirk, not an intrinsic fact of national existence. 

      Yet changes were afoot.  The sense that the current regime could not continue was surprisingly pervasive, like a super-saturated solution waiting only a prompt to crystallize.  In 1962 Tall Timbers Research Station began its influential fire ecology conferences and the Nature Conservancy conducted its first prescribed burn.  In 1968 the NPS reformed its policy to emphasize fire's restoration; ten years later the USFS followed suit.  Those top-down reforms made no difference on the Rim. 


      Today, American fire has undergone a massive makeover.  Forest Service hegemony has long vanished; and suppression costs have gutted the agency for most of this century.  Institutions, policies, and research are pluralistic. Prescribed fire is common, and in some places, foundational.  The US has treaties with its neighbors; a global fire network under the auspices of the UN is near completion.

      Today, wildland fire – or more broadly, landscape fire – is firmly implanted in the media's almanac of annual disasters and routinely claims headlines throughout the world.  Wildfires had been growing more feral for decades.  In California they burned deeply into Santa Rosa and took out Paradise; in Canada, they plunged into Slave Lake and trashed Fort McMurray; in Mediterranean Europe, they savaged Pedrogao Grande and Mati; in Australia, Black Saturday swelled into a Black Summer. In 2020 fire became that other contagion, the pandemic without the prospect of a vaccine.

      Underwriting these changes was another form of combustion – this one wholly under human control – as people accelerated their burning of fossil fuels.  Climate change metamorphosed into a climate crisis.  Fire found itself at the center of an Anthropocene.  Or perhaps of a Pyrocene, as humanity's burning summed up to the fire equivalent of an ice age.  The dialectic between burning living landscapes and burning lithic ones may be the core narrative of our time; it has rendered even climate history into a subnarrative of fire history. A fire crisis has morphed into a fire epoch.  What 50 years ago was something sequestered in outbacks and backcountry has become an informing feature of planet Earth.

      The International Association of Wildland Fire was organized after the inflection point of this transition.  Fire publications, fire conferences, fire effects – all were on the uptick of an exponential curve.  Earthly fire was too expansive a topic for any one discipline and too massive for any single agency or nation to handle. In 1989 came the first International Wildland Fire Conference and the publication of International Forest Fire News.  The following year the IAWF took on the task of trying to bring all people concerned with landscape fire into a common cause. 

      Since then the fire scene has quickened.  In the United States the fire revolution rebooted after the 1994 season.  In 1998, the Secretary of the Interior declared a 'national fire crisis.'  In 2002 the term megafire was introduced; in 2020, gigafire.  Fire seemed everywhere, with global tongues of flame proclaiming the advent of an environmental apocalypse. 


      What of the future?  The future of fire will depend on what humanity does.  So, too, the future of the IAWF will be what its members choose.

      It was chartered amid an awakening of fire-related interests.  It claims a unique position as a global association of fire folks – practitioners, researchers, managers.  Its size and catholicity are its great strengths.  It brings critical mass to whatever task it elects to address: it can invest a substantial voice and presence to issues that until it appeared had no constituency to speak for it.  It has been both mother ship and midwife to gatherings, journals, and other institutions.  What integrated fire management is as a concept, the IAWF is as an organization.

      Yet those same strengths are also a weakness.  It will be hard to hold all the parts together.  The tendency will grow to spin off new societies and specialty journals.  It will be particularly tricky to hold researchers and practitioners in a valence of shared enthusiasms.  The centrifugal will compete with the centripetal. Or to adopt a fire metaphor, the spreading perimeter will tend to fracture into multiple heads.  Science values the new; practice values the inherited.  Fire management needs both.   

      The IAWF is also a mentor.  I don't mean only its formal program to match prospective mentors with mentees, a project to which I try to contribute.  I mean its role in handing the fire community's accumulated knowledge of all sorts across disciplines, nations, and generations.  It's been said we don't own knowledge; we just hold it for a while, passed to us by our predecessors and in turn handed to our successors.  That is as true for organizations as for individuals. 

      The IAWF occurred at a unique historical moment when fire, environmental concerns, critical personalities, and international politics crossed and sparked.  It's hard to imagine the association happening a decade earlier or a decade later.  If it dissolves, I can't foresee it being reconstituted.  So while its role will surely evolve, it will thrive in the years to come if its members continue to do for that future what they have successfully done in the past.



Be the first to comment

Buy a book, save the planet

       In November, 1997 negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which aspires to regulate the production of greenhouse gases, stalled when Europeans and Americans failed to agree on what might count as a carbon sink.  Americans wanted to tally carbon stored in crops, soils, and woods, while Europeans refused to let Americans continue to belch out as much carbon as they could combust if only they could connive enough biotic blotters to sponge up the mess.  They wanted Americans to get out of their damn cars or at least pay the same exorbitant prices for gasoline that Europeans have to. 

      So the talks broke down.  Americans went back to their multi-car garages and revved up their SUVs.  Europeans retired to their smug condescension over ill-disciplined Americans with their tendency to identify culture with extended-cab F150 pickups and all-terrain tires.  One can almost see the French intelligentsia sniffing over their sagging volumes of fusty Foucault and dreary Derrida.

      There may, however, be a solution.  The moribund American publishing industry should turn seriously green, and not with envy.  Paper is almost half carbon.  Books are carbon bullion.  Bookstores and libraries are carbon sequestration banks.  Published books - the bigger the better - may be the missing carbon sinks the U.S. seeks.  The more books we buy, the more miles we can drive.  That's a formula that should set publishing's tachometer racing.  Buy a book, save the planet.

      Do the numbers.  Approximately 45% of modern paper is carbon.  A book weighing a kilo holds 450 grams of carbon.  A back-of-the-envelope calculation (actually a pile-on-the-bathroom-scale reckoning) of my own humble oeuvre (12 books, more or less) weighs 10 kilos.  This may not seem like much - I harvest a heavier bucket of citrus every morning to make juice - but everyone can stockpile books, even in Maine and Iowa where lemons are more often found on used car lots.  If a modest 100,000 people bought my entire list, America would have proudly amassed a million kilos of processed carbon, roughly what the residents of Phoenix release every morning from gasoline just to get to work.  That trees are minced to make paper is irrelevant; or rather, the whole point.  The trees grow back.  The books stay.

      It's a virtuous circle.  The more books the public buys, the more robust the publishing industry.  The more vigorous publishing becomes, the more people will be enticed to write, and the more they will make from it.  A proper government would promulgate policies to encourage such a process.  A proper government would enact carbon tax credits for those who buy the goods, and dole out carbon subsidies to those who produce them.  Houses would then swell with shelving and groan under the weight of collected works.  Book superstores would sprout like mushrooms.  Libraries would proliferate like Circle Ks.  Publishing's chronic lament that it is economically marginal would vanish overnight.  The energy industry would buy up publishers to complement its existing distribution networks.  Gas stations would include self-serve, buy-at-the-pump paperback dispensaries.  Like a ringed benzene molecule, an industry would close the cycle of carbon spewed out and carbon sopped up.

      The real beauty of the scheme, however, is that no one actually has to read the books.  In fact, there is a case for leaving them in their shrink-wrapped cellophane (which adds its own, admittedly infinitesimal, carbon increment).  Here is an opportunity for deep(-time) discounting.  Sure, the Europeans will squeal, but they can hardly object to America's amassing of both carbon and culture.  After all, the French have managed to make their own "cultural" creations exempt from World Trade Organization rules.  Even they can't bare-facedly denounce a massive expansion of American book publishing as harmful to either trade or ecology.  If enough people bought it, for example, Al Gore's Earth in the Balance might be itself a practical solution to the problems he expounds.  In France's case, more books bought and fewer seriously read might actually help the world get on with its business. 

      The open road and the unopened book - it's America.  We can fill up our tanks with all the gasoline we want, so long as we fill up the trunks with books.  Let the Kyoto negotiations begin anew. 

Be the first to comment

Burning bush, burning Earth

      Australia is a fire continent.  Imagine California on the scale of the 48 contiguous states, but drier, more routinely kindled, and with winds that can transform the southeastern quadrant into a veritable fire flume.  From time to time, more often than most places, its simmering fires boil over into seeming tsunamis of flame.  It even boasts, in eagles and hawks, the only other species outside of humanity known to carry a firebrand.

      What makes Australia a firepower, however, is that it has a culture to match.  It has institutions to study, fight, and light fire.  It has a literature of fire, a folklore of fire, and a fire art that is continuous from Aboriginal bark paintings to modernist musings.  It has special bushfire collections at the National Museum of Australia and Museums Victoria.  It has a fire politics; on three occasions conflagrations have sparked royal commissions, and from 2009-2017, 51 official inquiries. 

      Bushfires have never been far from Australian consciousness because flame and smoke are never far from quotidian life, whether Outback stations or the city-states that demark European settlement.  That so much of Australia's firefighting capacity depends on volunteer brigades keeps the social connection especially close.  Other countries, other continents, have abundant fire, a few have a fire science, and some display patches of fire art.  Hardly a handful have them all, and perhaps none in anything with the range and cultural depth of Australia.

      With European settlement the worst fires acquired names and became historical milestones.  Red Tuesday (1898), Ash Wednesday (1983), and Black everything else.  The Black Saturday holocaust of 2009 completed that calendar.  It was not enough: there are scores of others, some nationally significant, many of regional memory, from the Dwellingup fires (1961) and the Black Christmas fires (2001) to the Alpine fires (2003) and now the yet-unnamed megafires of 2019-2020.  Call them the Forever fires, for they seem inextinguishable, burning with implacable insistence and smoke palls that extend their reach far beyond the flames' grasp.


      Australia and bushfire are old acquaintances.  But the past 20 years feel different.  The bad fires are more frequent, more eruptive, and more damaging.  The Black Saturday fires struck with the cultural force of a terrorist attack that seemed to question the very premises of a first-world society on a land capable of such fury.  The Forever bushfires deepen that query.  Those two events are geodetic markers by which to triangulate the future of Australian fire.

      But there are two other fires that provide a wider panorama.  One is overt, the fires that burn living landscapes, the bush.  The other fire is covert because it burns lithic landscapes.  These are once-living, now-fossilized biomass like coal and gas that we combust to power our industrial economies. 

      Those two fire realms are interacting in ways that are proving ever more entwined and threatening.  That so many of the Black Saturday (and California) fires started from powerlines is an apt metaphor for the way the two realms of fire can interact.  The knock-on effects are not restricted to global warming or ocean acidification.  They affect how people organize landscapes – their agriculture, nature reserves, transportation grids - all aspects of geography that influence the character of bushfires. 

      Initially, the two fires compete, as industrial societies try to abolish fire in the bush as they do in the built environment.  Sixty years ago, as the consequences of that experiment became apparent, American critics forecast a ruinous fire future and inspired a revolution in federal fire policy to restore good fire and so dampen bad ones.  This was underway before climate change acted as a performance enhancer.  The pervasive effects of a fossil-fuel economy were enough.  Now, it's payback time.  Instead of competing, the two fires are colluding.  We have been burning our combustion candle at both ends.

      Australia's predisposition to fire makes it an early flash point for what we might aptly term the Pyrocene.  But many of the same phenomena are appearing in America – unstoppable fires, fire deaths and fire refugees, smoked-in and incinerated cities, damaged watersheds and postburn floods, economic crunches from lost tourism, bankrupt utilities, and snakebit insurance companies.  Wildfires moving from exurban fringes to city cores.  Extended states of emergency.  Prolonged and painful cleanups.  Political anger. 

      Those locales that have a history of fire will exhibit the most flame, but the combustion miasma will seep into sites seemingly immune.  Paradoxically, places like California long frequented by fire are better prepared to cope with the coming crises.  Those like Gatlinburg, Tennessee not accustomed to conflagrations lack institutions and infrastructure and will struggle. 

      Even if fossil fuels ceased overnight, greenhouse gases will take a good while to work their way out of the atmosphere, so the climatic effects will linger.  This puts the immediate focus on coping with landscape fires.  There is plenty to do – harden communities, get more good fire into the countryside, design to accept that landscape fire is not a freak apparition from the fringe but an informing fact of modern life.  Wild, feral, or prescribed, there is much more fire to come.  Another paradox – we can expect a lot in the coming years – is that the more we stop burning lithic landscapes the more we will need to burn living ones. 

      These are the two fires that are triangulating the deep drivers of combustion not just for Australia but for the Earth.  Add the impacts together and it would appear that we are creating the fire equivalent of an ice age.  The Forever fires will stop at the Pacific shores.  The Pyrocene will persist long into the future.

Post a comment

Craig C. Chandler, a remembrance

Craig C. Chandler, a personal observation

We first met in late 1977 at his office in Rosslyn when he was director of Forest Fire and Atmospheric Science Research for the U.S. Forest Service. I wasn’t sure what to expect. We chatted freely and when I left I was better informed, except  Read More 
Post a comment

The Big Blowout - a 30-year retrospective on the 1988 Yellowstone fires. An extract from To the Last Smoke, Vol. 3, The Northern Rockies

Everyone agreed at the time that the fires of 1988 were a monumental event, not only for the Northern Rockies but for the nation; and that judgment has persisted. For years afterward the big burns were the pivot of conferences, training sessions, scientific studies, and fire cache chatter. Twenty years later they merited a retrospective  Read More 
Post a comment

California split - fire careers, north and south

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  Read More 
Be the first to comment

When Johnny Cash walked out of a burning ring of fire

Sometimes culture and fire collude, sometimes they clash, and sometimes they just collide. When celebrities are involved, an episode can become a curious cipher on American fire, and when those celebrities are Johnny Cash and California condors, the event can transcend the quirky into the just plain bizarre. Of course it happened in Southern  Read More 
Post a comment

NASA vs. NARA: taking the measure of the two cultures

Taking the measure of the two cultures

The two cultures may share topics, problems, and occasionally the same cranium, but they rarely mix. When it comes to practice, my usual index is simple. The sciences deal with figures, and the humanities, with figures of speech. Numbers act on the marketplace of ideas as monetizing  Read More 
Be the first to comment

Words on fire

Words, texts, language - these are normally considered the stuff of the humanities. But words, good, bad, and ugly, saturate fire management. They have consequences. We ought to understand them better

Words matter. They matter in themselves, because their use reflects choice and imparts information. They matter because they contain analogies  Read More 
Post a comment

Buzz Off

A reflection on Buzz Aldrin on the occasion of MIT+150 seminar on the future of exploration.

It was a symposium dedicated to the future but it kept getting hijacked by the past. MIT+150 “The Future of Exploration” was part of the university’s sesquicentennial, a celebration of previous accomplishments that, it was asserted, would be surpassed by the dazzling achievements to come. But every time Buzz Aldrin entered the room all eyes turned to him. Read More 
Be the first to comment