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Commentaries, otherwise unpublished

"Science supplies the solution"

It was an auspicious entry to an august setting amid desperate times.

The National Academy of Sciences had been established in 1863, amidst the American Civil War, to bring scientific advice to the federal government. Its imposing building sits on the Constitution Avenue, facing the Mall. Its logo features a torch. Its Great Hall spills into the auditorium beneath a mural that depicts Prometheus carrying flame heavenward. For fire folk tasked with discussing the future of wildland fire science at a time when fires were hollowing out the U.S. Forest Service, it couldn't get more distinguished.

The Workshop on a Century of Wildland Fire Research, hosted by the Academy on 27 March 2017, gathered many of the best minds in the field. The session took place against a political order presided over by a new president famous for not reading, who seemed to govern by TV and tweets, whose spokespersons preferred "alternative facts" to vetted empiricism, whose temperament seemed more likely to wield a flamethrower than a hose. Though the country was not openly at war with itself, it was more implacably divided into warring tribes than at any time since the Civil War. Even the National Cohesive Strategy segregated the country into three geographic realms, which, revealingly, was also a map of Civil War America.
Chief Forester Tom Tidwell announced to the assemblage both its charge and his challenge. Wildland fire was becoming an existential crisis for the USFS - burning through budgets, disrupting landscapes, shredding plans, mocking the premise behind the agency's century-old charter to apply rational, science-based solutions to the national forests. These were dire times. The 2016 fires had absorbed over 50% of the Forest Service's entire budget, and there was no fiscal suture in sight. Deputy chief Carlos Rodriguez-Franco noted that a science of wildland fire had begun, largely under the Forest Service, a century ago. Now was the time to inventory and data-mine that past. Now was the desperate moment to project the knowledge gained and find an answer that would quell the flames and stanch the hemorrhaging of monies that was bleeding the agency white.

Yet like the torch on the NAS logo, the founding faith of the agency still burned bright. The chief declared, as an axiom, that "science supplies the solution." What science are we missing? he asked. What gap in research, if filled, will allow us to complete our understanding? What elusive gadget of modern technology, found or devised, will permit us to translate that revealed knowledge into practice? What was the missing link of scientific expertise that would ignite the National Cohesive Strategy into a rational program to address the nation's escalating need to halt bad fire, promote good fire, and end the fiscal immolation of its agencies?

Implicit in the chief's plea was the recognition that the wildland-urban interface (WUI) had unbalanced the national fire scene. Its metatasizing spread over rural America had pulled the federal agencies away from land management and was hammering them into a national fire service that would, by endlessly suppressing fire, ultimately only worsen the scene. My mind drifted. The WUI was a true problem but a tired trope.

My thoughts finally alighted on what might well be regarded as the interface's founding fire, the Bel Air-Brentwood conflagration of 1961. Call it WUI One. On the screen of my memory, I recalled images of burned houses and columns of fire engines. I replayed snatches of Design for Disaster, the documentary produced by the LAFD, and heard again its sonorous narration by William Conrad. Through the smoke I saw two canonical images that 56 years later still spoke truth to the power of fire.
One image was specific to California - call it California Iconic. The other was a testimony in twisted irony that could have occurred anywhere but happened to fall out this time in California. Call it California Fallout.

Iconic California is the template image, endlessly recycled by photojournalists, of some doofus on a wood-shingle roof with a garden hose. Except that this time the doofus was Richard Nixon in white shirt and tie, vacantly staring up and away from the background flames while a piddling stream of water collected at his feet.

The usual interpretation is that the photo shows the indifference to hazard by Southern Californians, who then expect firefighting to plug the gap, or that politicians are ever-eager for staged photo-ops. But what I read in this version is that politics is not an afterthought when it comes to fire management. Wildland fire, particularly the WUI, is a matter of public safety and public assets that properly belongs in political discourse. It has its distortions and comic perversions - Nixon with a garden hose is a great illustration - but politics is a fundamental reality of the scene. The belief that fire can be managed by disinterested agents who apply the tested conclusions of science is an illusion. Politics has been there, right from WUI One.

California Fallout features another member of the great-and-famous. Willard Libby had, the year previously, been awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for his 1949 work on 14carbon dating. In the intervening years he had joined the Atomic Energy Commission and become a public shill for fallout shelters. Two weeks before the Bel Air-Brentwood fire, he was photographed, in formal wear, complete with bow tie, in what he called a "poor-man's fallout shelter," which he had built out of sand bags and railroad ties (along with a little plastic sheeting) for $30.

The fire incinerated his shelter along with his home. His wife fled the flames with her mink coat and his Nobel medallion. A repeat photo of the shelter taken after the burn, sans Libby, failed to garner the same interest. Learning of the episode, Leo Szilard declared it proved two things. One, God exists. And two, He has a sense of humor. It also proved that fire was less predictable than the other effects of nukes.

Or more broadly, it hinted at the limitations of science to resolve the problems that would plague the WUI and wildland fire generally. Unlike blast and much of fallout, fire was a biological construct and a creature of context. It propagated. Its spread depended on wind, fuel moisture, the arrangement of combustibles, most of which grew according to ecological imperatives or, where built by people, by cultural considerations, all of which would likely be shattered by a bomb's blast. So, too, fire's character as friend or foe, as a transient summer job or a chronic bureaucratic crisis, depended on its social and political setting. In March, 2017 that context seemed dire.
The assembled scientists did their best. They talked, they traded thoughts, they proposed paths forward. But in the end, they testified, if by their deeper silence, to the limitations of science. There was no shame in that: it was the way of the world. The fire crisis was really a crisis in the American experiment itself. The wildfires burning through agencies were burning through the widening cracks in culture and politics. What the USFS needed was not a scientific breakthrough or a problem-disrupting technology but a clarity of mission, a legitimacy before the many American publics and their representatives, an intellectual civility and a cultural humility. It didn't need to upgrade its science-informed policy. It needed a poet.

The chief was proposing a world that would not have Nixon on the roof or Libby in his shelter. That was not a dishonorable ambition, just a utopian one. Until then FMOs on the ground would glance at the science as codified in decision support systems and play with new gadgets, but they would act as conditions permitted. They would try to respond in a way that was more than the sum of the parts that sent fire through the land. They couldn't hope to master fire. They could hope to listen better to what the fire was telling them, and if they were lucky as well as good, they could hope to stay ahead of the flames.

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