We need every tool to fight today’s fires

By Stephen Pyne

We know now that the largest recorded fire in New Mexico history was started by an escaped “prescribed burn,” or rather by two. The Hermit’s Peak fire bolted away on April 6 when unexpectedly gusty winds blew sparks beyond control lines.

Then the Calf Canyon fire raced off on April 9 when similar winds fanned embers in burn piles first kindled in January. The two fires soon merged. Together, as of June 12, they have scorched 320,333 acres, with two-thirds of the fire perimeter regarded as contained. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s reaction was to insist that federal agencies reconsider their policy on spring burns. The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Randy Moore, responded by announcing a halt on prescribed burning for a 90-day review period.

Inevitably, the blowups invited comparison to the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico that began as a prescribed burn, then blew out of Bandelier National Monument and into Los Alamos. It was the largest chronicled fire in the state’s history — until now.

Prescribed fire is not likely to be challenged in principle. Recognition seems widespread that controlled burning is a legitimate source of good fire that can reduce the threat from areas likely to burn. States from Florida to California have even reformed liability law to encourage burning on private lands. 

The real threat to fire management is death by a thousand cuts, each breakdown leading to shutdowns, each partisan group extracting a concession, that together so encumber the practice that it can’t be implemented. There is always something that can cause a prescribed burn to be shuttered. There is no equivalent mechanism to make up the loss. 

It’s not news that the Western fire scene has become complicated. The early 20th century days, when one response — extinguish by 10 am the next morning — was adequate are long past. It was a marvelous administrative stroke: No confusion, no compromise, one size fits all.

But it made the fire scene worse by encouraging ecological rot and an incendiary buildup of fuels. The change in policy was clear and necessary: Fire is inevitable, and we need to manage it.     

Today, all aspects of landscape fire are plural. Fire control does not mean one thing; it embraces many strategies. It might refer to protecting towns or sage grouse habitat. It can resemble urban firefighting, or for reasons of safety, cost and environmental health, it could mean containing fires within broad borders. 

It varies from extinguishing an abandoned campfire to herding mega-fires rolling over the Continental Divide. It might involve bulldozing around municipal watersheds, or working-with-nature firelines in wilderness.  It might mean setting emergency backfires that can resemble a prescribed fire done under urgent conditions..

So, also, with prescribed burning. It might mean burning logging slash or piled cuttings from thinning operations. Or it might refer to broadcast burns that range freely over areas from an acre to a landscape. It can mean burning to improve forage in tallgrass prairie, to prune pine savannas, or to promote habitat for Karner blue butterflies.

Wildfire acts as an all-spectrum ecological catalyst. Good prescribed burns will do the same thing.

The choice isn’t between one strategy or the other; it’s selecting from a variety of techniques that work in particular settings and seasons. We need them all, not least because each strategy by itself can fail.

Fires escape initial suppression at a rate of 2-3 percent. Prescribed fires escape at a rate of 1.5 percent for the National Park Service, or less than 1 percent according to Forest Service records. Managing naturally caused fires has a similar rate of failure. When an escape occurs, however, its destructiveness makes news.

Those figures are not likely to drop. We can’t control the setting of a wildland fire as we can a blowtorch. All we can do is juggle strategies so that each strategy’s strengths fill the others’ weaknesses.

The 2000 blowout in New Mexico made prescribed burning more difficult but led to a National Fire Plan. Twenty years later, the fire scene has grown bigger, meaner, tougher. The Hermits Peak fire will likely end up an order of magnitude larger than Cerro Grande. 

Inevitably, our future holds a lot of fire. The goal is always to find and employ the right mix of fire for the land.

Steve Pyne is a contributor to Writers on the Range, Writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a fire historian, urban farmer and author of The Pyrocene.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

06/20/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
06/20/2022 Wildfire Today Twin Falls ID
06/20/2022 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
06/20/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
06/21/2022 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
06/21/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
06/21/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
06/21/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
06/22/2022 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
06/23/2022 Denver Post Denver CO
06/23/2022 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
06/23/2022 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
06/23/2022 Delta County Independent Delta CO
06/22/2022 Park Record Park City UT
06/23/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
06/24/2022 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
06/22/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
06/22/2022 Rio Blanco Herald Times Meeker CO
06/25/2022 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
06/25/2022 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
06/27/2022 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
06/25/2022 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
06/28/2022 Colorado Springs Tribune Colorado Springs CO
06/28/2022 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
06/28/2022 Sublette Examiner Pinedale WY
06/29/2022 Curry Coastal Pilot Brookings OR
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Linda Healow
5 months ago

Has the author see the film Elemental? Good current science. What was thought to work in the past has changed with additional study. Add climate change (extreme drought, extreme temps) along with WUI and traditional fire science must be updated. Forest ‘treatment’ has become an avenue for logging old growth. Defensible space is a crucial concept, perhaps the only answer to preserving homes in wildland fires.

Buzz Burrell
5 months ago

I certainly, and most others would readily agree that prescribed burns should remain an important tool in forest management, in spite of the overt errors with catastrophic consequences in NM. Other than that, the rest of the article rambled on with generalities, and didn’t list “every tool” that could be used.

Let’s start with this: “Fighting Fire” is a stupid, outdated concept that rarely works. Yup, if you want some results, let’s re-frame how we even discuss wildfires. Does anyone discuss “fighting tornadoes” or “fighting earthquakes”? It’s almost the same thing.

I was on a Hot Shot crew, which was sort of fun and a decent way for guys (at that time) to make money and not get a real job, but our hard work had minimal effect on a fire that wanted to run. It’s mostly god that puts out forest fires.

So let’s get real, and create laws that require mitigation and prevention. I’m no fan of big government, but in this case regulations will certainly help, because otherwise we’re all paying to “fight” fire and then rebuild structures that were built in the WUI and subsequently incinerated.

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