Out of the Wild and Into the Frying Pan: an Analysis of Fire Suppression in the United States
Smokey Bears tells us that “Only you can prevent wildfires” – a seemingly innocent, noble cause in the fight between Americans and fire. Hidden within this narrative, however, is an often-untold story laden with Mismanagement, Ecology, and Oppression.
When we think about wildfires in this country, we tend to think of Smokey Bear, which presents this very cute idea of a bear that wants to prevent wildfires and that he needs your help to prevent them too. But hidden within the story of Smokey Bear are a few darker concepts which don’t get brought to light very often. And it’s a story which I’d like to share with you today.
A thunderstorm rolls across the plains in Eastern Washington, into the mountains of Northern Idaho and Montana. Lightning strikes down upon the Earth, hitting exposed ridge lines, radio towers, and mountain tops. Until eventually a bolt of lightning hits a large pine, sticking just above the canopy.
The top of the tree shatters into a thousand pieces, and all that’s left is a flaming husk of what was a living tree only seconds ago. Storm passes, And that evening a lookout perched above the valley see the white plume of smoke rise from where this fire is located. And it’s at this point that the natural cycle is interrupted by human intervention.
[Emergency Alert System tones]
[static, radio feedback]
82 is going to be a 29 code 2-
[garbled radio voices]
Resources are quickly dispatched to the fire, and on arrival they note that, while not a large fire by any means, it’s not in a wilderness area requiring that they suppress and extinguish the fire immediately. So within a few hours they accomplish that, return to base and they’re ready to fight the next one.
This is a story of risk and security. We suppress these fires because we see them as a threat to our livelihoods, our communities, and our economy. But within this broader discourse of security, three major questions arise. The first being how we’re defining the fire and the environment which it interacts with, what stories of human agency in conflict are woven within the history of fire, and the spatial focus of our fire management and policy today.
[soft guitar melody]
In this podcast, I set out to analyze all three of these questions and offer insight into the ideas often overlooked by our national wildfire discourse. I’m Jack Harte, and you’re listening to Out of the Wild and Into the Frying Pan: an analysis fire suppression in the United States.
[soft guitar melody swells and falls back]
From the beginning of Euro American dominance of Western American landscapes, fire has been separated from the environment that it’s part of. It’s seen as a threat rather than a facet of the ecosystem. So Smokey Bear, up until recently, has propagated this narrative by pushing that not only is fire something that you can prevent, but that it’s part of our duty as Americans to suppress these fires. The Forest Service thought that the idea of quote, unquote good fire was too complex for the general public, and thus left no room for nuance. In a 1953 PSA featuring Hop-Along Cassidy, which is a fictional cowboy played by William Boyd, Hop-Along begins to describe the fire which Smokey Bear was pulled out of. Describing the fires effects, not in loss of life or in existing homes destroyed, but as:
[Hop-Along’s voice:] “17,000 acres of timber wood destroyed. Timber that could’ve been used for homes and furniture.”
The focus is on the economy as at least some part of the reason for Smokey’s existence is protecting forest stands for human timber consumption. Fire is presumed to reduce the overall quantity of trees in the forest and was thus detracting from the value of it. And it’s this uniquely European manner of giving value to the land that detracts from the hidden truth about these landscapes. In most western landscapes fire is a function of the environment and has an incredibly important role in the function of that landscape. Many Western tree species are pyrophytic meaning they thrive and rely on regular low intensity burns to fulfill their full ecological role. For instance, giant sequoias, the largest tree species in the world, has exceptionally fire resistant bark. And their cones don’t activate without fire in the landscape as they require large amounts of sun and soil, which less fire resistant species of plants will control in the absence of those fires. In one study, it was found that sequoia seedlings in burn patches had an almost eleven-fold survival rate of those and unburned areas. Our exclusion of fire in Western ecosystems has led to a situation in which the majority of our existing stands were created during periods of regular burning between about 1860 and 1910, and those stands have remained relatively untouched since then. It’s this resulting homogeneous landscape that spells out disaster for the ecosystem. Increased hazard would have catastrophic fires and more tree killing insect outbreaks.
Furthermore, one study conducted by Thomas Veblen indicates a dramatic shift from grasslands and sparse woodlands to dense stands of pine during the past 80 or so years of fire exclusion. Meaning that we are seeing a large encouragement of forests in regions they would not have previously been, exposing them to unfavorable weather and growing conditions while reducing the overall biodiversity of the region. Had we not attempted to exclude fire from the environment in the first place, it’s likely that none of these drawbacks would be occurring now, and we’d be seeing more frequent but significantly less intense wildfire coupled with healthier forests, less insects, and readily defensible space for the humans which would begin to stake their claim on America’s frontier.
Also involved in this narrative is a story of power. Smokey’s the PR department for a regime of fire management based in Euro-American supremacy. Some of the first laws introduced in Western legislature specifically banned indigenous culture and burning practices. Prior to this injunction, indigenous peoples of the West US fire in conjunction with the land for centuries to reduce pests, increase plant productivity, and most importantly to carry on spiritual and ancestral practices. In this elimination of indigenous burning practices, as well as most indigenous practices, was seen in most Western nations but namely the United States and Canada. Part of the reason for stifling indigenous fire management practices was a fundamental difference in perception of fire. For many indigenous peoples, fire represents a spiritual relationship between themselves and the Universe: one which is given and taken by both parties.
The Europeans, however, had become removed from the environment in which they resided. Seeing fire is something to be controlled, a sign of civilization and man’s power over our natural world. With such a stark difference in perspective, it’s no wonder that when the Europeans came to power, they saw indigenous fire practices as something to be stifled rather than embraced. This was an incredibly dangerous worldview to enforce on those living on the wetlands of the American West as the ecosystems and lore from which Euro-Americans came from demanded a radically different role for fire than the landscapes in which they were colonizing.
This difference in opinion, coupled with the power dynamics between Euro-Americans and indigenous people, led to the historical demise of indigenous fire management through the implementation of land management bureaucracy, a crackdown on indigenous rights, and an outright ban on indigenous fire.
Nikolakis’ research on indigenous fire management in academia has found that still today only about 1.5% of studies in the field of wildfire management take an indigenous approach. Should those who were in charge of and successfully manage Western landscapes prior to European arrival be given a larger subject of discourse than 1.5%? Absolutely. And it’s laughable to think that the fastest way out of this gigantic fuel load, this match box we’ve created, is by continuing to shun and ignore indigenous practices and ideas, which is yet another display of European power being exerted on the indigenous peoples of America.
Wildfire management and suppression have an incredibly important spatial effect on the ecosystems in which they occur. One large fire can reset an entire forest in the same way that a healthy fire can eliminate the fuel load that creates that same destructive mega-fire. Part of our spatial focus also depends on the distinction between- between three different types of land: what we call the wilderness, forest, and the wildand urban interface. Th- now the distinction between wilderness and forest is arbitrary. We’ve set aside certain areas as designated wilderness where we don’t fight fires as aggressively and we prohibit motorized vehicles and road construction.
The wildland urban interface, however, presents a separate challenge. How do we manage wildfires in nature if we’re continually building our homes and businesses deeper and deeper into our fuel-loaded forest? Humans have been living in and around forests for millennia. But as of recently, the amount of people living in these Western, pyrophytic landscapes has skyrocketed. Between 1990 and 2010, 14 million new homes were built in areas in or along wildlands and almost 41% increase in wildland urban interface. This spatial component embodies a new, unnecessary threat to human life and property, which is exacerbated further by the immense fuel load in our wildlands. This fuel load, combined with federal firefighting personnel leaving in droves due to low pay, hard conditions, and poor work life balance, reduces the ability of our systems of fire management being able to protect vulnerable homes and businesses in the future.
As fuel loads increase and personnel decrease, can we still protect these 14 million+ homes which had been built in these areas, let alone nearby cities and communities which we don’t define as part of the interface? These are some of the hidden spatial components of wildfire management, and it’s something which a lot of Americans are going to have to start to reason with and deal with in their day-to-day lives going forward.
[pleasant, idyllic music]
[Hop-Along’s voice:] “Smokey the Bear. A living reminder to all of us today of the need to protect our forests and wildlife for the good of all those who follow us in the future.”
That was Hop-Along Cassidy, a famous country western actor from around the time that Smokey was created, advocating for Smokey Bear and what he can do for the future of America. But now we’re living in Smokey’s future, and we have an increasingly degraded ecosystem which results in worse fires and a propagation of the systems of oppression that got us in this mess in the first place. So now the only question left to answer is: where do we go from here? Thanks for listening. I’m Jack Harte, and this has been Out of the Wild and Into the Frying Pan.
“Fire Auto – car on fire” by florianreichelt is in the Public Domain, CC0
“Thunderstorm lightning strike” by foad is in the Public Domain, CC0
“Thunderstorm.wav” by test_sound is licensed under CC BY 4.0
“D_G_C.wav” by ValentinSosnitskiy is licensed under CC BY 4.0
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