The enormous column of black smoke towered before me. As the Hammer Fire closed in on the backcountry workstation that I call home in the summer, fear spread from my hard hat to the soles of my fire boots.
I was on a trail-crew turned fire-crew, suited up to help protect the historic Forest Service workstation in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. Working this close to flames and smoke was a brand-new experience.
I had never been afraid of fire before. I’ve studied its role in the West and always supported using fire to reduce fuels and replenish the ecosystem. This blaze, though, was raging, and the only suppression we could do was inside a half-mile perimeter around the compound.
The fire was burning for “resource benefit,” and every nervous trail-crew worker supported that. We’ve seen the undeniable benefits of wildfire in the wilderness. But suddenly it was burning a little too close to our "home," and we weren’t certain we could hold it back.
When I read about 19 lives tragically lost while fighting a fire in Arizona or see photos of charred homes in Colorado—I can begin to understand the fear that courses through homeowners as the landscape changes in an instant. In a year of already record-breaking fires that are predicted to become yet more memorable, expensive and devastating, it’s hard to remember that these fires are raging because they were suppressed for the last 100 years. But the only way to protect future generations from years like this is to let some fires burn while still protecting homes close to forests, and work on fuels management to prevent disastrous consequences in the future.
It’s a challenging situation for homeowners and fire-management officers, but if nature has taught Westerners anything since 2000, it’s that we can’t keep stopping these fires.
The benefits of fires are always a hard sell to people who have been hurt by them, and “let it burn” is a statement sure to stir up controversy. But that approach was born when foresters finally realized, at the end of the last century, that the 90-year-old, 10am policy—to have every fire under control by 10am the day after it's reported—had created a gigantic tinderbox of fuels.
The Park Service first designated “let it burn” zones in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in 1968, and the Forest Service adopted the policy shortly afterward. The Flathead National Forest in Montana, which manages the Bob Marshall Wilderness west of the continental divide, has been using wildfire to maintain a naturally functioning forest ecosystem since 1985, and has made notable progress with the policy.
When 36 percent of Yellowstone National Park burned in 1988, however, much of the public feared the fires had “destroyed” the park. Wildland fire-use policies began to be quietly set aside due to public outcry. Today, though, it's apparent that the fires of ‘88 actually rejuvenated the Yellowstone ecosystem and prevented even bigger fires from torching the area year after year.
Nonetheless, the public remained fearful. Westerners still seemed to want every fire put out, as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the many people who built homes on the edge of national forests essentially stacked tinder for inevitable fires that will only burn hotter and faster.
Only 15 years ago, a 500-acre burn was a large fire. Now, fires hit thousands of acres in a few hours. Fear is understandable when homes are at risk, but fear won’t stop mega-fires and it won’t save homes. And sometimes it leads to the deaths of firefighters themselves.
Since the Hammer Fire in 2011, I have watched incredible—and, yes—terrifying fires that burned hundreds of acres in minutes. That is what fires do, I told myself, and it’s always a matter of when the trees will burn, not whether they will burn.
While I have always supported letting wildland fires burn to help forests, now that I have stared fire in the face, a pump in my hand and my heart in my throat, I wonder if it's possible to convince Westerners that fire can be beneficial. When fire doesn't impact things that we place value on, like homes or resources, it should be easily accepted as a natural occurrence. However, fear is irrational and impossible to argue with.
If the public’s understanding and perception of fire changes, perhaps we can let a fire go as far as it can before reaching structures, allow it to burn the understory to clean out some fuels, and let it burn in the wilderness. Perhaps we can even get used to smoky summer skies and fire camps in towns, and adopt a policy that allows some fires to do their job in less devastating ways. And we can discourage people from building homes in the wrong places.
Like it or not, fires are part of the life and death of forests; it’s our job to get used to it.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.