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Commentaries, otherwise unpublished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.



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