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Learning to Live With Fire
"Megafire" author looks at what the California wildfires signal for national parks - and the rest of the planet
By Tracy L. Barnett Posted in Climate Change, Environment, Fire on December 7, 2018
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Recently I had the chance to sit down with Michael Kodas, the author of Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame. The context was a story about the increasingly intense fires in the American West and the impact this might have on our National Parks. 

Michael, a former firefighter in addition to being an award-winning environmental writer and now deputy director of the Center for Environmental Journalism in the University of Colorado Boulder, knows more about fire, how it works and how it’s changing than perhaps anyone else on the planet, and he’s a first-rate storyteller as well, as I was soon to discover. His insights had an urgent relevance that goes far beyond our parklands, so I decided to share the entire transcript of the interview. See the whole story here.

Tracy: I’d like to know your thoughts about the interface between fires and national parks and how that has changed. You wrote in your book Megafire about how the US Forest Service adopted its zero-tolerance policy toward wildfires after the deaths of 78 firefighters in a massive 1910 megafire in Idaho. How did that policy play out with respect to the national parks?

Michael: It’s interesting how it relates. There was a report that Starker Leopold coordinated in 1964 for the National Park Service; he was Aldo Leopold’s son and an advisor to the National Park Service, and it came to be known as the Leopold Report. It was the first real pushback against the 10 am policy, which stated the goal that any fire on US Forest Service lands should be put out by 10 am the next day.

It talked about how the forests had become incredibly unhealthy and their structure had changed, and how various species were being disadvantaged by excess fire suppression. It kind of started the conversation about the need to reintroduce fire to the national forests, but particularly to the National Park’s forests.

The National Park Service was actually pretty far ahead of other agencies in terms of dealing with wildfire, and of course because the National Park Service is a part of the Department of the Interior, and the Forest Service is a part of the Department of Agriculture, they had different missions and different philosophies. So it took the Forest Service quite some time to catch up with the Park Service as far as recognizing that most of our forests are fire dependent landscapes and need fire to be healthy, and that a lot of species, both plant and animal, are dependent on fire as well.

Bison grazing as fire spreads through nearby forest during 1988 Yellowstone fire, image taken by Jeff Henry, 1988 and retrieved from the Yellowstone Digital Slide Files archives which are all in the public domain.

The landmark Park Service wildfire situation was Yellowstone. Every forest has a fire cycle; every vegetated landscape has a fire cycle. Fire and life are completely related to one another. The Yellowstone fire in ‘88 at the time was seen as a horrible misjudgment on the part of the Park Service, and senators in Wyoming and Montana and Idaho were just calling for the head of the director of Yellowstone National Park and even gunning at the director of the Park Service for letting these fires burn. Most of them were natural wildfires and part of the Park Service’s philosophy has always been that when it’s safe both for humans and for human infrastructures, and not a situation where it could really do serious harm to communities or to resources, to let a fire burn, to let it follow its natural course. That’s what they wanted to do in Yellowstone.

And then these fires really blew up. About a third of park burned. The story back then was that this was a terrible mistake, and that the park was destroyed. The language at the time was devastation and destruction and that nothing would recover. And then, not too many years after the fires burned through, we started to recognize that that wasn’t really the case. Most of the landscape that had burned, the forests that came back and the landscapes that came back were in most cases healthier. And you were seeing vegetation that had vanished from those areas due to excess fire suppression.

It was good for many animal species in the park, and the general consensus was that Yellowstone was probably healthier 10 years after those fires burned than it was 10 years before those fires burned.

Tracy: Has Forest Service policy changed as a recognition of that?

Michael: Fire Service policy has changed to some degree, but even in the Park Service we still extinguish about 98 percent of any wildfires that start. So overall this did not move the needle very much. One of the challenges the Fire Service has had is because it’s not Park Service land so they’re not in the business of prohibiting development of the resource as a timber resource or mining or other things. And you have lots of human development around these areas so it’s very difficult to reintroduce fire in those cases.

We’ve got forests in New Mexico and Arizona that have been shown to have 40 times more vegetation than they did prior to our suppression policies in the first half of the 20th century.

We’ve also had huge amounts of development, so a Forest Service study within the last five years estimated that more than a third of US homes across the country are in a wild urban interface where homes and communities abut flammable forest landscapes.

So with those forests horribly overgrown — and now we’ve got a climate signal that’s layered on top of that, where you’ve got a lot of fuel and it’s very dry and very hot — the fire’s going to behave a lot differently than it did prior to putting out all these fires. And we also have a lot of people living in them, and power lines and reservoirs and dams and all kinds of infrastructure that we feel we need to protect. So introducing fire either through prescribed burns – foresters going in and intentionally lighting a forest on fire at a time of year when they think that they can manage that fire for resource benefit — or allowing a naturally ignited wildfire to burn, and run its course, at least in some areas of a forest, is much more difficult.

Tracy: So what’s the answer at this point, do you think? Based on the current situation with generations of built-up tinder on our public lands, what do you think is the best policy for NPS and public lands managers to take with regard to fire suppression?

Michael: The reality is that most of these places are going to burn one way or another. So we can attempt to reintroduce fire at times of year when it’s moister and cooler and maybe there’s some snow on the ground, when we have a chance of managing and controlling those fires, or we can just wait for the fire ignition to come, however it’s going to come, and have it likely burn at a time of year when it’s hotter and drier and we have almost no chance of managing and controlling that fire.

I think we’re going to have to move in that direction of reintroducing fire and trying to control fire in our landscapes – thinning our woods, but that’s also difficult because many people including our Secretary of the Interior and to some degree our president have stated that logging will reduce the fire threat. Certainly a well-managed timber harvest can reduce the risk of a severe wildfire in a forest– but there’s an economic contradiction at the heart of that argument that we’ve never solved, which is the fact that the trees that a timber company needs because they’re valuable are the big trees that are pretty resistant to wildfire and make a forest more resistant to wildfire and less vulnerable to a really severe fire.

The material we really need to remove from our forests is scrub and scrappy little trees and grasses and deadfall that have no economic value, so there’s really no incentive for anyone to go in and clear that out – which means we’re going to have to pay someone to do it, and that’s going to be really expensive. If we were to take a portion of the over $3 billion that we spend in a bad fire year fighting fires and invest more of that in preparing for those fires by having prescribed burns and clearing and thinning programs and also invest a lot of that money in investing in communities and houses around these forests more hardened – so you can have fire-wise programs where more people are building with more fire resistant materials and more fire resistant building methods and techniques and building in fire breaks and a variety of things that communities can do so that when you have a fire — be it an unexpected wildfire or a controlled burn — they’re prepared for that, and we’re ready to deal with the inevitable fires that we’re going to have in the landscape.

From a philosophical sense the primary argument that Starker Leopold was making is that we need to stop thinking so much about fighting wildfires –and that’s not to say we’re not going to have to fight a lot of them that threaten us – but if we’re always thinking about fighting wildfires then we’re not investing enough in learning how to live with them. And we’re going to have to live with wildfires. It’s not what we thought a century ago; that fire in our forests was kind of like this unwanted beast we could eradicate if we just worked hard enough to hunt it down, and we could have all our forests be fire-free.

Meadow Fire in Yosemite National Park, Sept. 7, 2014. Half Dome is on the left, with a smoke plume rising from Little Yosemite Valley to its right. Yosemite National Park staff photo. Creative Commons license.

Tracy: What should travelers take into account as they’re looking at planning their vacations and wanting to check out national parks that might be in fire zones?

Michael: Well, the first thing to take into account is that humans are the primary fire starters anywhere that we live or travel. Some recent research here at the University of Colorado-Boulder out of Earthlab showed that in a 20-year period across the country, 84 percent of wildfires in one way or another were started by humans. In California, where we see these horrible fires, it’s well over 90 percent..

We don’t really consider all the ways we start fires. We think in terms of someone throwing a cigarette out of their car, or arsonists – and certainly those things start many fires, but not many as the public believes. Where we do start fires is through power lines that go down, or sparks from vehicles when they have a tire that blows out – the Carr Fire, that was so devastating last year in Northern California, was started by the wheel of a car. Hot mufflers, too. And we also start a lot of fires in the ways we recreate –people using firearms, having target practice in the woods; hunting starts a lot of fires. Obviously the poorly tended campfire starts a lot of fires. And it’s so dry and hot in Southern California that there are three reports that I’ve read now of golfers starting fires when they hit a rock with their golf club and a single spark from that golf club hitting a rock went into dry grass and started a serious wildfire – one that destroyed an apartment complex.

So when someone goes into a national park they need to recognize as a human in one way or another, they’re bringing sparks with them – be it through campfires or their camp stoves or their vehicles or what have you –  and being aware of that’s really important in a really flammable landscape.

On the other side of that is that since we had several very serious wildfires in Glacier National Park and I did a weeklong backpacking trip about two years ago and intentionally hiked through some very old and some newer burn zones that they had. And it could be I have a fascination with this topic, but I don’t think it’s just that. I think that those areas were really fabulously beautiful. You had better views in some cases; you could see plants and animals you wouldn’t see in a really closed-up forest.

And so the other thing to recognize when someone enters a National Park to recreate is not only do they need to be careful to not start a fire that might threaten them or others; but that natural wildfire in our parks is as beautiful as any other part of our parks. And instead of thinking of the landscape as being devastated or destroyed by these fires, they should see it as this rejuvenating force that’s actually producing very beautiful landscapes and giving them opportunities to see things and experience things that they won’t see elsewhere or experience elsewhere in the park that hasn’t burned.

Most of our vegetated landscapes and forests are fire dependent. We have lots of trees like the sequoias that are fire-dependent species. Trees with serotinous cones – these are cones that are sealed tight with wax and only release their seeds in fire that heats up that wax and the seeds want to grow in recently burned ground.

Almost all our forests need fire just as much as they need rain – they probably don’t need as much fire or as often as they need rain, but it’s a part of the life cycle of that forest and it’s actually a fabulously beautiful part of that cycle.

We’re seeing horrible devastating wildfire photos, but if you were to see a wildfire burning in its natural setting from a safe distance – you wouldn’t want to get too close, just like you wouldn’t want to get too close to, say, a waterfall – it’s actually an incredibly beautiful phenomenon. And sure, it destroys certain animals’ habitats and displaces animals, and it does things that in the short term seem really bad to us. But it also creates habitat for other animals, and creates opportunities for other species to flourish. So having an eye for that when you go to a national park – for instance going to Yellowstone and visiting some of the areas that burned in the fires in the ’80s, and seeing exactly how beautiful those areas are now that they have been rejuvenated by fire, and the species that get opportunities from that have had a couple decades to flourish – it’s actually really quite impressive.

Tracy: What do you see looking ahead for the National Parks with regard to the megafires that are becoming more common?

Michael: The thing about wildfire is that land that is managed differently will burn differently – so fires can behave differently once it crosses a border, say, between a national forest and a national park if those areas are managed differently – but otherwise, wildfire does not recognize boundaries like that. So the national parks are going to have to endure the same increase in wildfire that the rest of the nation is going to have to endure.

In 2015 for the first time since the Forest Service kept records –that’s 60 to 70 years – the U.S. had 10 million acres burn in wildfires. We certainly had years where a much higher acreage burned in the United States but that was before we crisscrossed our forests with roads and built communities and started spending billions of dollars trying to put out every wildfire. That was seen as an incredible amount of acreage burning, especially considering that the average in the 1970s was around 3 million acres. But around the same time the Forest Service came out with a study that showed that by the middle of this century we’re going to probably have twice that much land burn in a bad fire year in the United States. Now 20 million acres is pretty close to the area of the state of Maine burning in one year in the United States. So we’re going to see a lot of fire on the landscape. We’re going to see a lot more intense fires, faster fires – and the parks are going to deal with this just like everywhere else. And I think what the conundrum is for the parks now – and it’s a difficult one, and kind of fascinating to look at it as a journalist – is that they can try to protect their forests so that they can preserve them and conserve them as they are now – which is really a part of the Park Service’s mission, to protect this landscape and keep it as it is for the enjoyment of the American public – or they can embrace the fact that we’re going through this transformative process that may completely change some of these landscapes so that we may have forests that are burned and transformed by climate to the point where they become grasslands or scrublands and they aren’t forests anymore.

Do you embrace the natural process that a variety of things, including climate change, is bringing about, and embrace the fact that that landscape will be profoundly transformed? Or do you embrace the vision and idea of nature that we have about a landscape that we had since the creation of the Park Service? I think that’s going to be a really difficult thing for them to figure out, because the public and the policymakers are really going to push for keeping the park as it is now. Nobody wants to see Glacier National Park not be those spectacular peaks above really dense forests – to see maybe grasslands or scrublands below those peaks. But nature is a dynamic force and we’ve always seen long-term changes and long-term trends.

You can look back at the Yellowstone fire and you can see where they had to really consider that – do we try to put out these fires as quickly as possible and have these forests remain as people have seen them and as they think they should be, as nature has had them over the past century? Or do we allow them to burn, and transform that landscape into something new that is actually the natural process, but does not conform with the public’s vision of what that landscape should be?

Fireweed and other flowers quickly grow after Yellowstone fire, image taken by Jim Peaco, 1988 and retrieved from the Yellowstone Digital Slide Files archives which are all in the public domain.

Tracy: Are there other parks that come to mind as being at risk for drastic transformation?

Michael: I think the parks that will be most quickly transformed are going to be the ones in parts of the country like the Southwest – Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, here in Colorado to some degree, that are anticipated to have the most rapid impacts of climate. Certainly parts of Alaska, where the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Those are going to be transformed really quickly. The vast forests of Alaska have had some really huge fires. And to some degree landscape transforming fires. Particularly when you add to that the permafrost melting, and things like that – they are ones to watch.

I think we’ll also see it in the East, particularly in the Southeast – we had almost exactly two years ago a pretty devastating fire that burned in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Pigeon Forge. Easterners and people east of the Mississippi like to think of wildfires as this exotic western problem – but it’s not. We’re going to see transforming wildfires in the East as well. And certainly fires like that, that burn in the winter, are an example of that. The Great Smoky Mountains are going to see fires that are going to change them.

Here in Boulder, Colo., I’m about an hour from Rocky Mountain National Park, and we’ve seen some serious fires there. One of the most fascinating ones – not one that really changed the park in a way that a visitor would notice, but it certainly happened in a way that fire scientists and firefighters noticed – which was that they had a fire ignite in October of 2012 – and bear in mind this is the most alpine park in the contiguous United States – a 14,000-foot peak at the heart of it, and lots of terrain above 10,000 feet, around 12,000 feet – and that’s where this fire ignited. It was a poorly kept campfire that started a fire very high in the park, and it was very difficult for firefighters to get to in October. And it made a major run in December. When the snows finally came in December it smoldered under the snows and then reignited in the spring when the snows melted off and it wasn’t really put out until June. So that’s a wildfire burning straight through the winter in one of the coldest, highest, snowiest parks in the nation. So we’re going to see more things like that, that are completely out of keeping with the historic fire patterns that we’ve seen in some of our parks.

I don’t want to predict disaster – I’m better at looking at trends that call for change and transformation – but we’re certainly going to see fires like the ones we’ve been seeing in California burning in our national parks. They are very dense forests; there’s a lot of fuel, and as we start to experience hotter and drier conditions, that’s one of the ways climate change most rapidly affects fire. When you see a snow-capped peak above … you’re effectively looking at a trickle reservoir that as the spring comes on and that snow starts melting, it’s constantly putting moisture into the forest below it to keep that forest from burning. When we have what we’ve seen for the last several years in the West, where we’ve had snow seasons that are weaker, they start later and because the temperatures are hotter, the snow melts off earlier in the season, that expands the season for those forests in these mountainous areas to burn. And we have a lot of mountain parks, like Rocky Mountain and Glacier.

Climate has been measured to have expanded the US fire season by about 78 days, and that’s largely through the fact that the snow’s coming later and melting off a lot sooner, leaving a lot of these forests including mountain parks available to burn at different times of year.

Back when I fought fires in the ’80s a huge portion of the wildland firefighters were college students, because you’d work through the summers, you’d make incredible money, you’d be living in a tent somewhere where there was nowhere to spend the money, so it was a great way of saving up for college. When you have fires starting in October, and burning through the winter, that workforce isn’t available – and neither are most of the planes, helicopters, bulldozers and other resources that have been warehoused. It’s just too expensive to keep available for the infrequent but possibly very damaging winter wildfire. It puts a huge cost and logistical difficulty on the park. In the case of that fire in Rocky Mountain National Park, they brought their hotshot crew that had just been furloughed and they just had to call whoever was available, cobble some crews together – and then, you cannot have them camp out, like wildland firefighters normally do, because you’re in Rocky Mountain National Park, and winter’s coming up. So they have to put them up in motels; so it’s suddenly really expensive and logistically difficult to deal with the fire.

The Rim Fire of 2013 that burned into Yosemite National Park and started in Stanislaus National Park – was started by a hunter. We’ve seen a number of serious wildfires started by hunters who either managed their campfire poorly or got lost and then created a signal fire to get help, and it’s the signal fire they lose control of.

Ignited by a hunter’s illegal campfire near the Rim of the World Vista in Stanislaus National Forest on Aug. 17, 2013, the Rim Fire ultimately burned for three months, consuming 257,314 acres of trees and $127 million taxpayer dollars. It also provided a dramatic case study in fire ecology, as discussed in this Ecological Society of America article contrasting the differences between the fire management policies of the U.S. Forest Service and the Park Service. U.S. Forest Service photo.

Tracy: Are you concerned at all that these megafires have the potential to destroy habitat and reduce biodiversity in the long run?

Michael: It does concern me. It doesn’t concern me in the way that most people are concerned by it – I mean certainly fire can be bad for some species. What I think the public doesn’t recognize is that we have a lot of species that are actually dependent on fire – and dependent on severe fire, really intense fire. So when you have a fire burn in an area it leaves behind what firefighters call a fire mosaic – and that’s the mix of lightly burned land, moderately burned land, severely burned land, and even in the most serious fire – even what we’re seeing in California, because fire is so dynamic and really fickle. There will be pockets that are not burned at all. Untouched — even in severely burned areas. For an ecosystem to be healthy it needs a mix of those things. Even severely burned fire has species that are dependent on it. And one excellent example of that is the black-backed woodpecker. The black-backed woodpecker fell into pretty sharp decline due to all the fires we were putting out. That’s where they get their food; they nest in or near them. They need those severely burned forests.

There’s a researcher named Dick Hutto at the University of Montana who has done a lot of research on this. And he can take you to a forest where they managed to put the fire out, and show you that there are no black-backed woodpeckers left, and then take you take you into the middle of a severely burned forest and play a recording of a black-backed woodpecker and get a callback. So what we need is not to worry so much that really serious wildfires are going to be hard on the biodiversity or on certain species, but that not having the right mix of severities of wildfire and the fire mosaic left behind by our fires is what’s really going to be hard on the species that are dependent on it. There are species that are dependent on land that’s not burned, there are species that really need land that’s moderately burned, and there are actually lots of species that are totally dependent on severely burned land. So what we really want is to have the right fire mosaic after the fire.

Another place you’ll see that is more in the East, where we’ve actually put out so many of the fires and closed up the forest so much that we’ve turned some of these forests into what they call asbestos forests, where you can’t get them to burn because it’s too dark and humid and moist. They’ve documented how lots of species left those forests because they’re too tight, they don’t have as much biodiversity.

A good example of this is Florida and in lower Georgia and the lower Carolinas, where they have longleaf pine forests. And through the beginning of the 20th century, from the late 1800s into the 20th century, they extinguished all the fires in the long-leaf pine forests; they really pushed on the Native tribes and the local people to quit burning. And the forests closed up, and the bobwhite quail fell into steep decline, because they need longleaf pine forests with very widely spaced trees. They want fire to burn through really regularly to keep the grasslands wide and parklike.

And there were a number of species that fell into decline as the forests closed up, but the bobwhite quail was the most interesting, because the bobwhite was a very popular game species. And a lot of wealthy hunters from the Northeast would go down to the Southeast every year to hunt bobwhite quail and noticed that weren’t that many quail anymore. And it was actually the hunters and some forestry organizations that started a research station called Tall Timbers that started studying what’s the frequency of burns that we need in these forests. And they’ve reintroduced fire into a lot of these forests and the bobwhite quail came back. So it was really the wealthy hunters who wanted to hunt those birds that brought fire back into those forests – because the birds needed the fire, and the hunters needed the birds.

Tracy: I have so many more questions, but I know you need to go. Before I let you go, do you have any last thoughts?

Michael: I guess the thing that keeps coming back to me is —  Love Smokey the Bear to death — but he wasn’t quite right. This zero tolerance policy we’ve had over the last century has really kind of painted us into a corner, and we are really going to have to start thinking less about fighting fire and more about learning how to live with fire; and also recognizing that there are a lot of things out there that can only live with the right amount and the right type of fire.

Featured image: Carr Fire off Hwy 299 and Carr Powerhouse Rd, Whiskeytown (Shasta County) is now 48,312 acres and 5% contained. Unified Command: @CALFIRESHU and Whiskeytown National Park. Creative Commons License, July 27, 2018.


California fires climate change Leopold Report megafires Michael Kodas National Parks Starker Leopold

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