After the fire, comes the flood — and then another summer. In a story on Arizona Public Media, forestry and fire experts acknowledged that the wildfires that burned more than one million acres of Arizona’s forests and grasslands this summer could have been made less severe with better forest management techniques — but also that wildfires are an unavoidable part of the landscape.
“I think we have to accept that in Arizona, particularly the White Mountains, fire is inevitable,” said Stephen Pyne, a fire historian and professor at Arizona State University, in an interview that aired on Arizona Week on August 26. “As long as we keep this as public land and we want to keep it in a quasi-wild state, fire is going to happen.”
Pyne said that prescribed burning would diminish the risk for the out-of-control fires, like the Wallow Fire, which burned a state record of 538,000 acres over five weeks this summer. “Right now, instead of tame fire, we’re relying on feral fire to do that ecological work.”
Arizona’s 2011 Wallow Fire (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)
In New Mexico, a historic practice of letting natural fires burn has helped current wildfires in the Gila National Forest burn with relatively low severity, said Molly Hunter, a professor of fire ecology at Northern Arizona University. But, she acknowledged, the practice works partly because of the region’s remoteness and lack of human habitation.
It’s an interesting conundrum — how to control the forest so that it can stay wild.
In August of 2009, the Station Fire burned 240 square miles of the San Gabriel Mountains, the biggest forest fire Los Angeles had seen in over a century. My family’s home was one of thousands to be evacuated, but luckily not one of the 80 homes that burned. I remember feeling at once terrified as I watched the flames crest the ridge behind our house, and simultaneously disconnected — told you so, nature seemed to be saying. The chaparral in the mountains is supposed to burn every decade. Fire regenerates the ecosystem. There hadn’t been a fire in over a century, so the unnatural magnitude of the blaze was due to our safekeeping and the layers of thick, dry brush spread over the hillsides. Thousands of homes were evacuated, eight burned, and two firefighters died fighting the blaze.
It was clear then, and it’s clear now, how much we have to have to push back nature in order to sustain and protect the settlements we’ve constructed. The question, then, is how much to push back.
“Fire is going to happen, and in many ways its essential. It’s part of the dynamic of the ecosystem. But we have a lot of choice in what kinds of fires we have — how big, how frequent,” said Pyne.
The kinds of fires we have reflect decisions in forestry management. We can turn fire over to nature, giving it room to run. We can burn the land ourselves. We can try to exclude fire, to suppress its presence. Or, we can try to change the landscape itself. Pyne thinks it’s a little of everything. Logging and other commercial uses won’t prevent forest fires, but neither will protection at all costs. “We will have to manage fire in the state something on the model that we manage water,” he said.
Megan Kimble is noticeably more cheerful since she stopped commuting on the freeways of Los Angeles and started biking around Tucson, where she’s a student in University of Arizona’s MFA program for creative nonfiction (and a new contributor to the Terrain.org blog!). Find her at megankimble.com.