Learning to Let Fire Burn

Photo by MSO Smokejumper Jon Marshall (www.marshallstudio.com)

Earlier this summer, the city of Prescott lost nineteen elite firefighters at the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were found in their fire shelters, emergency tents meant to be deployed as an absolute last resort. I didn’t know any of them personally, yet having spent the last several months immersed in firefighting culture at the Smokejumper Visitors Center, I was especially heartbroken by the news of their deaths. After giving my tours, I would sit behind the desk and stare at the mock fire shelter on display across the room. The one in our visitor center looked like a one-person foil tent with a plastic window revealing a cardboard cutout of a firefighter tucked inside. The shelter is a combination of aluminum, silicon, and fiberglass, and is designed to protect its inhabitant by trapping breathable air and deflecting radiant heat. The shelter’s training manual describes use as “entrapment” and is candid about what it might feel like in the event of a flame front: Entrapment can be extremely frightening and may lead to panic … During the fire’s peak, the noise will be deafening…Leaving a shelter too soon can expose your lungs to superheated air or dense smoke. Typical entrapments have lasted from 10 to longer than 90 minutes. Since 1977, fire shelters have saved the lives of over 300 firefighters. Some of their testimonies are published in the manual. As I read through them, I couldn’t stop imagining the terrible fates of the nineteen Granite Mountain hotshots.

At first, I couldn’t justify the tragedy. These firefighters lost their lives for what? To protect a couple of structures? If this is the terrible cost, surely we must reevaluate how we approach wildland fires. When it comes to hurricanes and earthquakes, we work to implement preventative measures beforehand to minimize damage, and if things take a turn for the worse we get everyone out of harm’s way. We accept that Mother Nature will wreak havoc on our homes and don’t send individuals out as some kind of front-line defense against the natural disaster. Furthermore, if we decide to evacuate, we don’t expect others to risk their lives trying to save the property we abandon. So why do we respond differently when it comes to wildfire? I posed this question to a group of visitors on my tour today. I asked whether they’d be more upset to hear about twenty firefighters who died trying to protect homes or a huge wildfire being left to burn itself out. Many agreed that it would be awful to hear about the deaths, but infuriating to discover that nothing was being done to contain a fire. “If we don’t suppress that fire, we’re putting the lives of so many others at risk,” exclaimed a tall, red-haired woman. I then reminded my group that fire was a vital component to preserving an ecosystem’s functionality. Everyone nodded reluctantly; we can all recall that basic fact from grade school biology class. So if there were plenty of time to evacuate nearby communities, would it be okay to let the fire burn? “Of course not! Thousands of homes will be lost unnecessarily. Fire might be beneficial for nature, but it offers no benefit for our homes and businesses.” Good point, but I pressed on. “All right then. What about fires that are threatening just a few structures, like country homes and vacation cabins in the middle of the forest?” A beat passed before anyone answered. Finally, a young man offered a proposition: “We should do what we can to protect those homes but not at the expense of human lives. If a country home catches fire, well, that is the risk the owner took to build it where he or she wanted to.” The system my group advocated appeared sound in theory, but reality is not so straightforward. Whether you are a country homeowner or a city dweller, your choice to stake a livelihood in this dry Western front bears a comparable amount of risk. And with finite resources, who is to say one home is more entitled to protection than another? What’s more, beyond national forests and wilderness areas the border between civilization and rugged brush land gets pretty fuzzy. It is more complex than simply saying ‘this fire can burn naturally and that fire cannot.’

The conundrum is trifold and deeply interconnected; we should allow Nature the benefit of fire, but how can that happen when people refuse to live with the reality that they are the encroachers, and not the other way around? As a result, public opinion is that wildfire shouldn’t burn and that suppression is the best tactic to pursue. The logic is simple but naive. As in the case of the Granite Mountain hotshots, wildland firefighters are often put in unnecessary and potentially fatal situations all to save replaceable property and equipment. However, I believe a balance can exist. Just as a coastal resident will build their house on stilts and invest in storm shutters, people who live in fire prone areas should put in the extra effort to “proof” their properties as well. This means keeping a green and tidied lawn, clearing dead brush and thinning trees, and storing firewood at least 30 feet from any flammable structure. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to invest in home insurance. Wildland firefighters also play a part in implementing preventative measures. Very often during the winter and spring months, they travel around the country carrying out prescribed burns. Crews are able to calculate risk in a low-stress environment and, under ideal conditions, manually burn an encumbered area one plot at a time. This practice prevents the land from blowing up when lightning strikes during the summer months. Lastly, and most importantly, general public opinion about fire needs to change. Smokey Bear’s mantra is suited to educating the public on campfire negligence and arson, but we must also learn to discern the difference between good and bad fire. Naturally occurring fire is absolutely vital for this environment to flourish. And though it sounds a bit counterintuitive, taking care that Nature gets her vitamins — even at the expense of some human luxury and convenience— is the surest way we can take care of ourselves.