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Fire Season: The Policies of Identity and Suppression in the Burning Forests of the American West

by Bernard Quetchenbach

An August morning in Montana. Stepping out on the deck with a cup of coffee and the Billings Gazette, I’m ready to bask in the crisp blues and golds of the Western day. Perhaps after coffee I’ll take advantage of the morning cool and walk a few blocks to the end of 17th Street, where if I clamber up into the Rimrocks I should be able to make out in considerable detail the Beartooth Mountains seventy miles away.

But not today. Overnight, the wind has shifted, dropping a hazy scrim from distant, or not so distant, wildfires. Even the Rims are veiled.

The closest blaze—the one responsible for most of the smoke—is the Cascade Fire, which ignited a few days ago along the West Fork of Rock Creek. Probably sparked by lightning, the fire has grown rapidly, consuming a few cabins and putting a scare into the village of Red Lodge, where it licks at the edge of the Red Lodge Mountain ski resort.

Cascade Fire, one year later
One year after the Cascade Fire, near Red Lodge,

Photo by Bernard Quetchenbach.

By late August the conflagration will have burned over 10,000 acres, mostly old growth lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir. That makes the Cascade a moderate “incident,” the term of choice among government agencies. Its neighbor, the Gunbarrel Fire sprawling along the North Fork of the Shoshone River in northwestern Wyoming, will eventually cover an area six times as large, and the Dunn Mountain blaze north of Billings will surge to a perimeter of over 100,000 acres for a few windy days at the season’s end.

Set in historical context, 2008 didn’t amount to much of a fire year, and Dunn Mountain, in the big picture, was nothing special. For that matter, even the infamous 1988 Yellowstone “summer of fire” pales before the spectacular inferno that blasted through millions of acres of forestland along the Idaho-Montana border in 1910. Today, the fire-sculpted beauty of those once-blackened woods in the Bitterroot Mountains beckons hikers, recreationists, and wilderness advocates to a place now known, appropriately enough, as the Great Burn.

It’s tempting to suppose that Westerners know wildland fire as an inevitable hazard of life, much as Floridians view hurricanes or Californians accept earthquakes. But that’s not exactly the case. For more than a century, combustion has been labeled a public enemy to be apprehended and defeated through a combination of preventative measures and immediate suppression. No one but the occasional inspired cultist or mad-scientist crackpot tries to short-circuit an earthquake or put out a hurricane. Most people just batten down their belongings and get out of the way. Alone among natural disasters, wildfire has been fought.

When fire breaks out in a city, with lives, homes, and commercial buildings threatened, alarms trigger the appropriate response, a concerted effort to douse the flames. MacArthur Fellowship-winning wildfire expert and former firefighter Stephen Pyne contrasts urban hostility with the attitude of rural folk who see fire as a familiar force—a bit treacherous, but mostly useful. For Pyne, the study of wildfire is an exploration of human, as well as natural, history. In fire-adapted ecosystems such as those of the American West, burning may be inevitable regardless of human actions. But the pattern of fire, as Pyne notes in a recent issue of The American Scholar, reflects societal factors of one type or another—population shifts, ill-informed or self-serving management policy, and even, as in the case of the wildfires that roared through Greece during the summer of 2007, political protest.

The view that casts wildfire as an unmitigated “social horror” may be rooted in urban experience, as Pyne says, but people who live in forest enclaves know that wildland fire can be deadly, that more is at stake than the view I savor with my morning coffee. Danger is the simplest, and maybe the best, reason that firefighters enjoy their heroic status in the West. In Drift Smoke, former BLM fire crew foreman David Strohmaier visits memorials to his fallen comrades in places like South Canyon outside Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and Mann Gulch near Montana’s Gates of the Mountains. He could have stopped as well along the Shoshone River’s North Fork, where a roadside plaque commemorates the sacrifice of fifteen firefighters killed combating the Blackwater Fire in 1937. West of the North Fork, Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful Inn stands as a different sort of monument to firefighter resourcefulness and courage, virtues that couldn’t stop a 1988 firestorm (coincidentally named the North Fork Fire), but that did secure a cherished landmark in its path; photographs of that historic edifice dimly crouching before a sky-high wall of smoke and flames resonate as perhaps the definitive image of that momentous summer.

Yellowstone ground fire near Grant Village
Ground fire in Grant Village during the 1988
Yellowstone fires.

Photo by Jeff Henry, courtesy National Park Service.

The warrior mystique associated with wildland firefighters has reached legendary levels as the number of Westerners indebted to their service grows. At Montana State University Billings, where I teach, official sanction is given to firefighters who miss the beginning of fall semester because they are still deployed on the firelines, much as accommodations are made for reservists called away for training. Such deference is not only a bow to necessity, but also a marker of nearly universal respect and appreciation. Unseemly comments to firefighters in the Billings airport may have cost Montana senator Conrad Burns crucial votes in his razor-close, and unsuccessful, 2006 re-election bid.

In Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean portrays the Hot Shots of Mann Gulch as cocky, maybe a shade arrogant, with the combination of bravado, talent, and special skill that defines heroes everywhere. Joe Fox, an elite smokejumper for nineteen years, lists heroic aspirations as the first of a series of motivating factors leading young people into the glamorous world of the fire crews. The desire to make something of oneself by staring down the wilderness is lodged deep in American history and culture. Wresting a hero’s mantle from nature at its wildest, soot-coated figures emerge from a fiery underworld like avatars of the rugged American pioneers returned to claim a fundamental national legacy: a mythic identity forged through perilous confrontation with an untamed frontier.

The early days of wildland firefighting often involved hand-to-hand combat. Modern warriors still engage fire directly from time to time, but they prefer to strike from a distance. Crews use drip torches to ignite backfires, folding a blaze into itself, corralling a starving island of combustion in a circle devoid of fuel. A more extreme technique is “burnout,” in which firefighters deliberately get it over with by setting fire to unburned areas within an established perimeter. Modern firefighting methods are not without consequences. Combined “burnback” often comprises a surprisingly high percentage of a wildfire’s total acreage. In the case of the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon, for example, one-third of the total burn zone was deliberately torched by firefighters. Such heavy-handed interventions disrupt fire-mosaic formation and delay recovery. When fire crews descend on an incident, healthy trees are felled, rivers are doused with cyanide-laced retardants, and bulldozers barrel through the forest, widening roads or creating new ones, scattering the malignant progeny of botanical invaders picked up from faraway construction sites and highways.

In Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, a 2006 essay collection edited by George Wuerthner, two reformed firefighters admit to an uneasy ambivalence about their previous careers. Joe Fox and Timothy Ingalsbee honor the courage of their peers and the military camaraderie achieved through close cooperative action in the face of shared immediate danger. But both express, if not exactly remorse then at least regret for the damage they did to the woods in the name of fire suppression, and both promote beating the war on wildfire’s swords into ploughshares. Fox projects a future in which “fire guiders” will employ the specialized knowledge and tools of the trade to steer fires away from trouble and into areas ripe for ecological restoration.

 The notion that wildfire equals wildness and that, therefore, to defeat one is to defeat the other recurs as an underlying theme in the essays gathered by Wuerthner in the massive and unabashedly pro-combustion Wildfire. Fox alludes to Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis when he muses that he and his colleagues, like Turner’s pioneers, have been complicit in destroying the very thing that gave their lives meaning. At one point, he goes so far as to compare firefighters with the obsessed whalers of Moby Dick, channeling an innate violence into a vain attempt to vanquish an uncontrolled—and therefore malevolent—force suffusing their environment. In America’s Fires, Pyne, too, connects the desire to combat wildfire with the Manifest Destiny urge to conquer the wilderness, reminding us that “[t]he national parks enlisted the cavalry to suppress fires as it would a hostile tribe,” a stance replete with the blustery can-do hubris of a turn-of-the-20th-century America immersed in Theodore Roosevelt’s blend of imperial aspirations and strenuous outdoor activity.

Aerial photo of smoke from Oregon and California wildfires, 2002
Smoke from the 2002 Biscuit Fire and other fires in
southern Oregon and northern California.

Photo courtesy NASA.

Trained in German scientific forestry and fed by an unquestioning belief in civilization’s transformative force, progressive-era bureaucrats saw chasing primitive fire from the nation’s forests as a self-evident expression of American will. Strohmaier notes that some early managers entertained visionary dreams of banishing lightning itself from the mountain skies. The U.S. Forest Service has historically defined a good forest as a productive forest with a maximum load of marketable wood and a pleasing, orderly presentation of identical conifers. A blackened mountainside has represented not renewal but failure resulting in the loss of valuable timber and valued aesthetic qualities. It’s not surprising that early foresters had little stomach for vernacular fire-use traditions. Pyne quotes Bernhard Fernow, who in 1880—six years before he was named Chief of the United States Division of Forestry—declared the rural American penchant for torching the back forty an expression of “bad habits and loose morals.” Such sentiment led the Forest Service to hide its own reliance on what would later be called prescribed burning in Southeastern pinelands. Setting the woods on fire was considered an embarrassing practice of a degenerate backwater, but foresters were at a loss for ways to maintain the longleaf pine savannas without it.

As the 20th century advanced, anti-fire crusaders found powerful allies in regional literature and in the booming entertainment industry. The central event in Montana novelist Mildred Walker’s 1941 Unless the Wind Turns is a cataclysmic mountain wildfire that threatens the lives of both vacationing dudes and locals—one of the latter known ironically only as Burns. No one in the novel would dream of letting a fire take its natural course. For Ranger Harley, as for his real-life models, a wildfire on the loose implies a kind of professional, even moral, collapse. The novel’s blaze is human-caused, but not, Walker takes pains to establish, by the responsible Mike Logan, with his incipient family and legitimate logging permit. Instead, the fire is set by an out-of-work firefighter perpetrating an act of deliberate arson for personal gain—as clear an example of betrayal of noble principles as one might want.

Silhouetting defenseless animals against hellish walls of ill-begotten apocalypse, the 1942 Disney classic Bambi brought a similar condemnation of forest fires to audiences beyond Walker’s wildest imaginings. Shortly after the film’s release, its title character was featured in fire prevention posters produced by the Forest Service. By the end of World War II, the Service, enlisting the persuasive skills of the Ad Council, had mastered the art of evoking shame, an impulse embodied in the head-wagging personage of Smokey Bear (the middle the is an unauthorized embellishment). As if to underscore Pyne’s claim that fire suppression stems from a misplaced urban animosity, the mascot was named for a New York City assistant fire chief, Smokey Joe Martin.

We all know the improbable story of Smokey Bear, a foundling who grew up to don blue jeans and a ranger hat, carry a shovel, and warn forest users to be careful with matches. In truth, the fictional Smokey was already a budding star when his living namesake was rescued from the ashes of a New Mexico wildfire in 1950. While the “real Smokey” passed his life peaceably enough in the National Zoo, his animated alter ego pursued a dizzying career. A series of posters and, later, ubiquitous public service television advertisements vaulted the faux Smokey onto the ramparts of a singular postwar Olympus established by Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hanna-Barbera and ruled by a pantheon of cartoon idols. There’s no denying Smokey’s success. The Forest Service proudly touts his trademark admonition as “one of the most famous advertising phrases in the world,” and it is variously reported that anywhere from 75 to 98 percent of American adults can complete the warning if given the “Only you...” beginning. Smokey was even declared an avatar of the “Great Sun Buddha” by the poet Gary Snyder, though Snyder’s Smokey is not exactly an exponent of conventional attitudes toward natural resources.

Yellowstone ground fire near Grant Village
Smokey the Bear public service poster
circa 1950 to 1960.

Image courtesy SmokeyBear.com.

More recently, Smokey has become an unwitting agent of dissent, to the point where the government has intervened to stop wildfire-policy protesters from impersonating the beloved moralist; the Forest Service website reminds readers that Smokey’s slogan is “protected by federal law.” Lest Smokey devolve into a symbol of outdated and destructive policies, the Service has grudgingly modernized his message; he still advocates for wildfire prevention while accepting in principle the developing consensus among scientists and land managers that fire must be accepted as part of wildland ecology. But the New Smokey hasn’t quieted the critics. Armed for Bear, Wildfire essayist Andy Kerr unkindly advances the muddle of conflicting, incoherent statements recently issued in Smokey’s name as evidence that the sexagenarian spokesman—“quite old for a bear”—may be suffering from dementia.

Convincing historical evidence shows that wildfires, sometimes extensive, are par for the course in many Western ecosystems. Even the conflagrations that seared about a third of Yellowstone Park in 1988 fit into a historic pattern of large-scale pine burnoffs every 200 to 400 years. But, research notwithstanding, something seems to have changed. Summer after hot summer—more precisely, according to Pyne, every other summer—the big fires return, reducing more and more green places where people once went to fish or camp in the shade of mountain conifers to charred meadows punctuated with blackened spars of the standing dead—haunts for black-backed woodpeckers and mountain bluebirds to be sure, but maybe not so inviting for moose, trout, or trout fishermen. Pyne, who has devoted much of his career to defending fire as a useful and fundamentally ordinary natural force, acknowledges that we seem to have entered a time of epochal megafires.

Of course, part of our apocalyptic perception of contemporary wildfires is just that, a matter of perception. Blazes that once would have raged deep in the woods are now lapping at the edges of the ever-expanding network of second homes, ski resorts, and vacation lodges that have sprung up in what has become known as the “wildland-urban interface.” A fire that threatens dwellings and businesses is not as easily accepted as one that, far from human habitations, embodies the titanic forces that people go to the wilderness to find. Moreover, a spectacular inferno towering over a cowering resort community makes just the sort of story that crisis-seeking media home in on. The sudden migration of poorly briefed reporters to the edges of still-smoldering blowups, where, posed strategically, they quote total perimeter measurements—inaccurately—as acreage “destroyed” and perhaps rummage in the rubble of a mountain cabin to pick up a child’s toy, has become a familiar fire-season ritual in its own right.

Fearing the wrath of the evening news, government bureaucrats respond with ostentatious displays of firefighting technology. Deployment of manpower and heavy machinery looks like muscular response; destructiveness passes for purposeful action. According to Ingalsbee, retardant “photo-drops” staged for the benefit of television cameras are “routinely scoffed at by firefighters” as costly and futile “political shows.” Accountability of the gotcha variety leads inevitably to decisions aimed at heading off blame while satisfying an unholy array of political and commercial agendas. Though he cautions against conspiracy theories, Ingalsbee is clearly uneasy about the degree to which forest managers declare martial law during fire emergencies, a power that holds what might amount to irresistible temptation. Wildfire makes a perfect smoke screen for circumventing environmental regulations without public scrutiny. Once subjected to intentional burnback, previously off-limits ecologically sensitive lands can be put up for salvage logging sales, with timber conveniently felled along bulldozed firelines as if with that purpose in mind.

In some cases, agency policies may actually increase the size and likelihood of property-damaging wildfires. Fire ecologists and environmental advocates maintain that the recent spate of major blazes in the West is in part an artifact of ill-advised intervention in natural ecosystem processes. Stand-replacing lodgepole-style crown fires of the sort that have recently raged through Southwestern ponderosas, for example, were rare in the open parklike stands that, tended by frequent low-intensity burns, flourished in the days before the federal government brought fire suppression to Arizona and New Mexico. An unintended consequence of the contentious political atmosphere wafting through Western forests is that even wildland fire’s most ardent backers end up reinforcing Smokey Bear’s contention that flames rising from the woods must be someone’s fault. Wuerthner’s book, after all, is subtitled A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

Regrowth two years after the Cascade Fire
Two years after the Cascade Fire at the West
Fork of Rock Creek, Montana, 2010.

Photo by Bernard Quetchenbach.

Out-of-context land-use patterns and misguided government actions, unfortunate and foolish as they are, seem predictable examples of human folly. We can, we might believe, do better. It will take some time—maybe a century or two—for a more moderate fire regime to reassert itself in mismanaged woods. But forests have always embodied the future as well as the present, just as planting a tree in the backyard is a measure of commitment to descendants we’ll never see.

A whole new level of anxiety is ramped up by the emerging specter of global climate change. Perhaps the effects of witless human tinkering are already spiraling out of control, a Mann Gulch blowup writ large across the landscape. With the interior West becoming warmer and dryer—a trend that climate models predict will continue—how confident can we be that burns will regenerate? University of Arizona climatologist Tom Swetnam speculates that as much as half of Western forests are likely to undergo wholesale conversion either to other kinds of forests or to something else entirely. In a chronically parched West, fire crews may find themselves protecting more than property, more even than human life; by default, future firefighters might take the point in a desperate battle to rescue entire disappearing ecosystems, or at least to slow the rate of change enough to give whatever new environment takes shape a shot at being something more than sere hills of ragged cheatgrass.

Ultimately, though, our intentions may not matter. Our war against wildfire, despite its impressive technology and the money and manpower marshaled to the cause, isn’t going well on the front lines. A lot of knowledgeable people say it can’t. Maybe, in fact, it shouldn’t. If we think of other world-sculpting forces, our interventions have often been ineffective or downright destructive. “Flood-control” dams move floods around, but rivers still overflow their banks. Diking and channelizing salt-marsh bayous paves the way for catastrophic hurricanes. Perhaps it’s time to give up the fight and accept wildland fires as simply part of the world we live in, a Rocky Mountain equivalent of hurricanes or floods. We might be able to make them worse, but we can’t make them go away. As the West gets hotter and dryer, wildfires, even the big stand-replacing infernos that threaten our homes and recreation areas, may be essential to the land’s attempts to readjust to new circumstances. Shaping ecosystems in response to changing environmental conditions is what wildland fire does best. Today’s landscapes are in part the legacy of wildfire past.

Ingalsbee believes he speaks for rank-and-file firefighters when he calls himself a “pyromantic,” asserting that the men and women most endangered by wildfire “are drawn to the job not because they hate fire, but because they love it.” He contrasts “socially conditioned” pyrophobia with humankind’s more fundamental pyrophilia, “a natural attraction and love of fire,” biological in origin, rooted in our evolutionary inheritance. Combustion’s domestication has long been seen as a defining step in the development of our species. We are, simply put, the animals with fire.

Making peace with wildfire, though, will not be easy. In addition to city-bred prejudice, there’s all that mythology to overcome. In Kokadjo, Maine, where forests equate to centuries of livelihoods and recreation, there’s a sign that reads “This is God’s Country. Why set it on fire and make it look like Hell?” The mountain of Dante’s Purgatory offers forgiveness in the form of purifying flames, but fire is punishment—evidence of guilt—even there. Anyway, the sign doesn’t say “Why set it on fire and make it look like Purgatory.” Leave all hope behind, ye who enter. Thousands of years of brimstone will not easily be swept away. Perhaps we’ll need evolved fire guiders to lead us, pioneer fashion, to a new accommodation with this natural force.


Bernard Quetchenbach's essays have appeared in magazines including Ascent, Isotope, and Newport Review. His poetry collection The Hermit's Place is forthcoming from Wild Leaf Press. He is from Rochester, New York, and lives in Billings, Montana.
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The Association for Fire Ecology

Asscoiated Press National Wildfire Tracker (with Integrated Photo Gallery)

Fire and Aviation Management, U.S. Forest Service

Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE)

SmokeyBear.com: Get Your Smokey On ~ Only You Can Prevent Wildfires

U.S. Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program

Western Fire Ecology Center

West Wide Wildfire Risk Assessment (Western Forestry Leadership Association)

Wildfire Photo Gallery (National Geographic)

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