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Bureau of Land Management Office of Fire and Aviation



Guest Editorial
by Larry Hamilton, Office of Fire and Aviation, U.S. Bureau of Land Management

This Thing Called Fire:
A Quick and Fairly Accurate History of Flame in the United States

What It Is

Fire. Whether it’s a tiny flame flickering on the end of a birthday candle or a wall of flame two-hundred feet tall and a mile wide roaring through a forest, all fire is essentially the same. In simplest terms, it’s a chemical reaction, the naturally occurring companion of energy release in the form of heat and light, when oxygen combines with combustible material and a suitably high temperature, which, by the way, is a little over 600 degrees Fahrenheit for wood.

Fire is a given on planet Earth. It’s been around, the researchers say, for roughly 400 million years. We could not live without fire, and if you hold to the primitive view and think I mean we need it to cook our food and help keep us warm, think again, and conjure a bigger picture. As fire historian and author Stephen J. Pyne wrote, “The fundamental chemistry of combustion lies at the core of the living world. When it happens within a cell, it’s called respiration. When it happens outside organisms, it’s called fire. It’s that basic.”

Yes, even our bodies, with their 80-percent water content, can be seen in one sense as living, breathing, waking and walking little bonfires. Tom Robbins, in his novel Another Roadside Attraction, postulated, tongue planted firmly in cheek, that humans were invented by water for the purpose of transporting it around. Substitute “fire” for “water” in Robbins’ hypothesis and we may be hitting upon a parallel discovery.

image, A brush fire rages in the West's early summer heat.
A brush fire rages in the West's early summer heat.
Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management.

Wrestling With Fire and Mostly Getting Pinned

Humans, the researchers say, have been wrestling with fire for about 1.5 million years, and mostly losing the match. As a colleague of mine said recently, “We don’t really have that much to show for a million-plus years worth of work. It’s kind of embarrassing.”

There are several primary reasons for fire continually pinning us to the mat. Let us count a few of the ways.

First, we’ve never really recognized the lessons that fire has tried to teach us for these last million-plus years. We don’t have to look too far away and not too far back in the past to find a prime example of fire placing the symbolic dunce cap on our heads and sending us to a corner of the forest to stew about how silly we’ve been made to look.

As Americans migrated from the East to West, we took fire along with us. Fire was used as the great manipulator of the land and its vegetation, a well-known fact to Native Americans, who made use of fire to improve hunting for centuries before the westward migration began. Once immigrants started to head west, fire took on almost an industrial model as the one force that could be used to shape the land to our image.

Virtually from coast-to-coast, fire was used to clear land and make it suitable for farming, improve game conditions, clear railroad rights-of-way, incinerate logging slash and thin forests.

Occasionally, things would get out of hand, and a fire would grow to several hundred thousand acres or so, often fueled nicely by the logging debris our forbearers left behind. In 1871, the human-caused Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin burned 2,400 square miles, killed up to 1,500 people in a single afternoon and night, and still ranks as the worst natural disaster in United States’ history. More than 130 years later, people in the area still refer to the blaze simply as “the fire,” and it burned so intensely that some people fleeing from it reportedly burst into flames. Ironically, the Peshtigo Fire received scant notice at first, because it occurred on the same night that, as urban legend has it, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern that ignited the fire that leveled much of Chicago.

For better or worse, fire was so common that historian V.L. Parrington characterized this era as “The Great American Barbecue,” when it seemed every acre in our nation had just burned, was getting ready to burn, or currently was on fire. Americans raced on, fire at their beck and call, believing themselves fully capable of harnessing the power of fire.

Back to our friend Stephen Pyne: “There were free-burning fires in all regions, for every imaginable purpose, seemingly without ecological rhyme or social reason.”

History shows that almost all developing nations share one common ecological characteristic: They burn their forests. Brazil and Indonesia are two current-day examples of the phenomena. Turn back the clock 150 years ago, and the United States did the same.

image, A mountain is engulfed in smoke and flame.
A mountain is engulfed in smoke and flame.
Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management.

From Friend to Foe Almost Overnight

But one of the great rights we treasure as Americans is the right to change our minds, and that’s what the good citizenry did toward the turn of the last century, which leads to Reason Number Two in the theory of why fire has made us look rather stupid over much of the last two centuries.

Probably the one event that did most to douse the fervor for fire was “The Great Idaho Fires” of 1910, which left 85 people dead (including 78 firefighters), five million acres burned, several small towns in ashes, staggering debts, a good deal of heroism (those of you familiar with the story of Ranger Edward Pulaski, sidearm in hand, ordering his men into a mine shaft as the inescapable flames approached, know what I mean) and a pall of smoke that sullied the skies from the Rockies to Rhode Island. The public and elected officials all said “Enough!” and the fire policy of the country was turned in a new and dramatic direction in a remarkably short time. The perception of fire switched from an industrious, hardworking friend to an evil foe that must be defeated.

A new agency, with a brilliant, eager leader, decided it would take up the crusade against fire. The Forest Service, and its first chief, Gifford Pinchot, who was followed by a series of like-minded chiefs, saw fire suppression as a way to help establish a mission and an agency identity. They developed a quick-suppression strategy that would remain the backbone of fire management for more than five decades.

Some people—including at least one Secretary of the Interior—advocated “light burning;” that is, fire purposely set to keep fuels low, brush trimmed and forests unclogged. But their seemingly radical voices were drowned out by those who advocated fast control of all wildfires. The Great American Barbecue was doused.

In 1935, the Forest Service chief, the wonderfully named Ferdinand Silcox, instituted on “a continental scale” the “10 a.m. policy.” That translated simply to, if you were on a fire crew, you’d better do everything humanly possible to have the fire out by 10 a.m. the day after it was reported.

The Forest Service got some welcomed and unexpected help during the heyday of the 10 a.m. policy from Hollywood (remember Bambi and all those cuddly little creatures fleeing the forest fire?), the Japanese (who actually dropped a few, mostly harmless incendiary bombs in western Oregon during World War II), and a charred cub rescued during a fire on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico (Smokey Bear went on to become the icon of firefighting).

Infamous fires broke out, furthering the firefighting fever: The Tillamook Burn in Oregon, the Selway Fires in Montana, the Matilija Fire in southern California, which reportedly ran 15 miles in one hour. Thirteen firefighters, all but one of them smokejumpers, died in the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana.

image, A smokejumper glides toward the ground near a wildfire.
A smokeumper glides toward the ground near a wildfire.
Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management.

It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature

Firefighters became proficient at suppressing blazes. The Forest Service, later followed by other agencies, made a mark in the world of fire. The 10 a.m. policy was usually successful—depending on how success was measured. In terms of keeping fires small, it was a hit. In terms of its consequences on the environment, it’s a different story.

When fire was taken out of the ecological equation, it set off a domino effect on natural resources. Forests became clogged with debris, species composition changed (a fancy way of saying more desirable plants were replaced with less desirable plants), watersheds were damaged and wildlife habitat altered. Fire, which shaped most of the ecological landscape in the West, was not allowed to play its natural cleansing and healing role. And nature has a way of exacting revenge, a lesson we all had reinforced three decades ago in a margarine commercial, when a queenly personage intoned, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

The price, in part, came in a series of disastrous wildfires. The most notorious occurred in and around Yellowstone National Park in 1988, which shocked the American public. One lesson we learned is that the public didn’t watch the nightly news and see towering flames within spitting distance of the Old Faithful Lodge and not have a deep gut reaction. It became clear that we had a fuels problem that was leading to a bigger, more complicated fire problem.

It was nature’s payback for slicing fire out of the ecosystem.

A Leap Forward: More Friendly Fire

Those quiet voices advocating the natural role of fire increased in number and volume. This time, they were heard. Fire policy in America was about to take a great leap, and most people today agree that it was a jump in the right direction.

In 1995, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, with concurrence from other agencies, announced a general policy that would, among other steps, help restore fire to its proper role in the environment. That would be accomplished, in part, by three steps:

  • Having a fire plan in place for every federal acre, so that managers would know beforehand how fire and resources fit together on any particular piece of ground.
  • Allowing some fires to burn, when they fulfill their natural ecological role.
  • Increasing the use of prescribed fire.

In a document called Federal Wildland Fire Management: Policy and Program Review, you’ll find this statement, which is kind of a nifty summary of the whole new approach: “Wildland fire, as a critical natural process, must be reintroduced into the ecosystem. This will be accomplished across agency boundaries and will be based on the best science available.”

The new, or at least renewed, thrust of fire management has been continued with strong support from almost every quarter: The Bush Administration, which has promoted and refined the policy through the National Fire Plan and the Healthy Forests Initiative; state agencies and organizations; Native American interests; local governments; and the wildland fire community itself. Fire policy and practice in America is headed in the right direction, and we have the chance to land on the razor-thin balance point where fire performs its natural ecological role, helps to promote forest and rangeland health, all without repeats of Peshtigo-like events.

Now, a kind word needs to be spoken about those who preceded us in the effort to understand and manage wildland fire. It’s pretty easy to beat up on fire managers from days gone by and their gung-ho attitude about quick and total suppression, and I’ve read too many stories and listened to a few too many speeches where just that was done. But remember this: What they did was demanded by the public and supported by elected officials. Further, suppressing fire seemed the ecologically and economically sound thing to do. And as I mentioned before, these men and women became highly adept at fire suppression, and we stand on their shoulders today when the decision is made to put out a fire. Many of our current tools, techniques and strategies were developed in those times. We owe them respect, not our disdain. They simply did what they believed to be right.

image, Working on a fireline beside a small fire.
Working on a fireline beside a small fire.
Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management.

The Rest is Easy, Yes?

Now, if you’re still with me in this, you may be thinking something like: “Okay, Larry, sounds like we’ve about got this one mailed off. We went through the era where fire was used like some huge industrial tool to clear the land and shape it to our needs, then we went through the ‘all-fire-is-bad’ stage and got it out of our systems, so the rest is easy and we’re done making mistakes. Right?”

Well, not really. As we all have heard quoted many times, cartoonist Walt Kelly in the comic strip Pogo nailed it with the statement, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

It’s a tricky proposition to reintroduce fire to Western ecosystems, turning back the clock to when fire was allowed to burn as nature intended it. One challenge is to figure out just what the natural fire regime was. Another is to determine the delicate balance between fire and fuels. Another challenge is to learn more about how different kinds of fuels burn. There are also many questions about fire behavior that need to be addressed. The list goes on and on.

But the main problem is probably that, where once fire was free to roam wherever it was driven, we now have obstacles in the way—namely, people and their homes.

We call these places where fire and people mix the “wildland-urban interface,” which is a fairly awful term, even by government standards, but it nonetheless stuck a few years back. Let’s just call it “WUI” (pronounced WOOEY), which is what all of us in the fire community do anyway.

We don’t have any firm estimates of how much more severe the problem of constructing cabins, homes, sheds and commercial buildings in areas prone to wildfire is now compared with a few years ago, but there’s no doubt the number has risen several-fold in the last two decades, and represents what is now probably the number one wildland fire issue.

If you want proof of that, just look at what’s happened in southern California recently, and all those homes—at last count, more than 3,600—and any doubts you have about the seriousness of building in fire-prone areas should evaporate.

So what are the problems associated with WUI?

Well, it makes our jobs more difficult. While federal wildland firefighters are not structural firefighters, we often try to protect homes when fire is burning in a neighborhood. That takes valuable resources away from fighting the fire for setting up structure protection.

Next, buildings burning in the WUI, to a large extent, is an avoidable problem. People flock to the outdoors and build homes there because they love the greenery, the scenery, the feeling of being far from the city. What they may not realize is that fire is indiscriminate: it doesn’t matter if it’s burning trees or shrubs, or homes or outbuildings. To a fire, fuel is fuel. Sometimes, a wood home with wood shingles, a nice wood deck, firewood stacked neatly against a wall, a propane tank adjacent to the garage, and shrubs and needles several inches deep surrounding the house, is a greater “fuel load” than the forest itself. Fires love to burn in concentrated fuel loads.

A real life horror story: In 2000, near Los Alamos, New Mexico, a resident had the kind of home described just above, complete with pine trees growing through holes in her deck. Advised that her home was a disaster waiting to happen, she told the discouraged fire prevention expert, “I’d rather my home burn that cut down one of these beautiful trees.” She pretty much got her wish. When a fire swept through her neighborhood, her home and the beautiful trees all went up in smoke.

So we have a huge educational effort ahead of us. We need to unite with fire departments, insurance companies, county planning and zoning commissions, local elected leaders, and many others to preach the message about how to provide what we call “defensible space” around your property. If this part of my message has really got your attention, I suggest that you visit the Firewise Website at www.firewise.gov and learn how you and your community can be better prepared to withstand fire.

Defensible space isn’t the entire answer. Some homes in California that were reduced to ashes and bricks were considered defensible, but the fires were just too large and hot. Nothing could have slowed them. But in many cases, having a swath of space around a home, and taking the other steps to make a home “firewise,” could have made a difference.

image, Red and singed trees in the wake of a wildland fire.
Red and singed trees in the wake of a wildland fire.
Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management.

A Simple Chemical Reaction

So in the end, has fire changed much in the 200 years or so that we’ve been trying to harness it, work with it, fear it, ignore it, and/or suppress it in this country?

The answer is “yes,” and the answer is “no.”

Earth is a fire planet. Life cannot continue without it. We’ll continue to see fire, some wanted and good, some unwanted and causing great harm. That won’t change.

What we hope will change is our knowledge and understanding of fire’s intricacies, its true role in nature, and find the speck of space on a pinhead that represents where fire is delicately balanced in our society today. There are some amazing research efforts taking place that we hope will allow us to work with fire with more understanding and intelligence and wisdom than ever before.

We know that fire cannot be isolated. Fire is a factor in healthy ecosystems, just as water, soil, vegetation and other components are. Fire needs to be included in the holistic view of how all resources and influences interact within the great mix.

A word of caution. My career in natural resources goes back almost three decades. A lesson I’ve learned is that a single approach never works. Be aware that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to any of our complex problems in nature. Simplistic “solutions” are doomed, especially when the focus is on something as volatile and complex as fire, mixed in with a lot of human interference. We never again want to underestimate fire. Fire never has responded well to management by slogan, whether it’s “let it burn” (which, by the way, never was federal policy) or “put ‘em all out” or something in between.

Even with the all the scrutiny and stepped-up research, will we ever completely understand and control fire? Not likely.

And that’s probably okay. Part of what brings us back again and again to the subject is the depth of mystery surrounding this simple, common little chemical reaction, vital to life itself, even part of life itself, that we call fire.

For more information about wildland fire, visit the National Interagency Fire Center's Website at www.nifc.gov.


Larry Hamilton is the director of the Bureau of Land Management's Office of Fire and Aviation in Boise, Idaho.
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