Our nation’s forests are in crisis. Wildfire. I suspect few are unaware of this situation, which seems to grow more intense every summer. Our forests are old and packed full of fuel, ready to light up in an instant. So ready, in fact, that sparks flying off a flat tire were enough to ignite what became the Carr fire, a catastrophe that consumed more than 229,000 acres, 1,600 structures, and $158 million.
Last week 22,000 government personnel were devoted to the fire-fighting effort. I was one of them. Several agencies work together to provide people and resources, some permanent and some temporary, like me, for what is loosely termed an emergency. With about 100 large wildfires currently burning across the US, contributing to a count of more than 46,000 for the season so far, resources and people are stretched thin. They work long hours, some for months at a time, with few days off. At the point of physical exhaustion, they search deep inside for resolve to continue. They find it, in reserves long-programmed in the human genetic code, a remnant of the perseverance needed when the struggle to survive was an aspect of daily life.
For me, the initial excitement of participating in this massive forest-rescue effort induced an opioid-like high that lasted several days, eventually transforming into exhaustion. I found a rhythm in 12-hour night shifts dictated by details and updates from the previous day’s fires. Night after night, my adept counterpart from the BLM and I carefully combed each fire’s report for information on growth and impending threats to people and infrastructure. By 5:30 am, we compiled the relevant numbers and key phrases into a quantitative, narrative report that summarized the day’s fire activity across the US. As we left for bed at dawn, the day shift arrived, ready to review the report. Experts in fire management, they made decisions on how and where to distribute limited resources and personnel. By the end of the day, fire reports flood in, and the process begins again. This was my world for only 14 days. For others, and for the fire-ravaged landscape, the rhythm continues until winter, when cold and precipitation put an official end to fire season.
In the literal sense of the Forest Service mission, we care for the land and serve people by fighting wildfire. Fire is by far the greediest program. It overshadows others, many of which are sustainable approaches to manage forested land. Fire itself, of course, is not the enemy. We are. We leveled the continent’s trees when we settled and expanded, then refused to let fire reset forest ecosystems for nearly a century. Now, as a result, we’re in a perpetual state of emergency. I saw the solution communicated best on a bumper sticker; it said “use fire to fight fire”. Prescribed fire is an offensive move that we can’t quite seem to use effectively…maybe because we’re constantly on the defense?
We’re fighting a dragon that we created. Can we win?