Big Bad Fire and Other Stories
Sequence of a slurry bomber dropping retardant
on Blodgett Fire,
August 1, 2000. Photo: Bruce Weide
Devastation! Ravage! Death! Devouring! Destruction! Waste! Monstrous!
Not so long ago, we heard these words used to describe the wolf.
This summer, newspapers, television, radio stations (even public
radio), and politicians, as well as ourselves, friends and neighbors
used these same words to describe the fires that burned in the Bitterroot
Valley and throughout the West.
there a link between our feelings about wolves and wildfire? Yes.
They’re both apex predators and neither respects the artificial
property rights of humans. They’re wild. They cull the weak and
the sick (and sometimes the strong and healthy if an unlucky individual
is in the wrong place at the wrong time). Predators and fire are
instruments of change. Humans, like most other species, innately
favor the status quo—it’s safer, it’s known and even if things aren’t
currently great, at least we’ll survive if things stay the same.
Our instincts for basic survival, coupled with our drive to establish
territory, prompt us, without need for thought, to protect what
is "ours" and avoid change.
Forest Service fire poster from 1942. Wild Sentry Archive
reinforce these instinctive feelings. Wolves and wildfire share
common ground in that stories portray them as villains. Smokey the
Bear and Bambi convey the message that fire is evil and cruel,
just as stories like the Three Little Pigs and Little
Red Riding Hood perpetuate the same message about wolves.
what do we do with these apex predators, these wild things that
thwart our desires and eat our property? Historically we’ve tamed
them and then worked to annihilate their wild ancestors. Dogs, our
most faithful servants, are the direct descendants of wild, uncontrollable
wolves. Fire, harnessed in our furnaces and cars, serves our purposes
and makes our lives more comfortable. However, the ingenuity and
cleverness that allowed us to tame nature has not been coupled with
the wisdom to recognize the danger that lurks in eradicating wildness.
like wolves, are a part of the landscape, they are a keystone component—an
influential force that shapes what they feed upon.
so beautifully wrote in The Kingdom, "I do not think
it possible to truly understand even one leg muscle of one elk in
the absence of wolves. Not a single leap of a single deer, nor any
traverse of any mountain goat across a winterbound cliff wall. The
size and endurance of hoofed beasts on this continent; their speed,
coordination, and quicksilver reactions, their social structure
and communication abilities—wolves sang these things into their
present form." In less eloquent words, wild ungulates, without
wolves, would evolve into cattle.
in World Fire, Stephen J. Pyne wrote, "Marine life pumped
the atmosphere with oxygen, and terrestrial life stocked the continents
with carbon fuels. Fire and life have fused biotically ever since,
a relationship aptly symbolized by the ponderosa pine, germinated
in fire’s ashes, pruned by fire’s heat, fed by fire’s liberated
nutrients, and perhaps consumed by fire’s final flame… The elimination
of fire in the world will not save the planet from destruction but
only abolish the regeneration that it once promised should follow."
a century has passed since Aldo Leopold pointed out that we have
a moral obligation to protect and nurture native species as well
as the landscapes and natural processes that shaped these species.
The majority of us have recognized the first obligation, as exemplified
by the passage of the Endangered Species Act. The latter, which
he labeled as the need for a land ethic, is still poorly understood
by most citizens. Few of us are capable of looking at a landscape
and recognizing it as a living entity, let alone whether or not
it’s sick or healthy. Nor do we understand that the land’s health
depends on accepting and allowing phenomena such as fire, which
from our limited view-point seem to appear catastrophic.
said, "In wildness [not wilderness] is the salvation of the
world." Leopold wrote, "Too much safety yields only danger
in the long run." When we tame wildness, either by reining
it in or conquering it, we run the almost certain risk of harming
West is a fire landscape. To be certain, fire will come. And the
longer fire is repressed, in a vain effort to maintain what in realistic
terms is a false sense of safety, the more intense it will burn.
For example, 80 years of aggressive fire suppression resulted in
forests with unnaturally high numbers of small evergreen trees and
brushy plants. Combine that fuel load with an abnormally hot, dry
summer and add lightning (lightning strikes the earth over 300,000
times/hour) or a careless human or sunlight through a piece of broken
glass and you’ve got a fire that burns more intensely than it normally
would. The fires this summer consumed ancient pines that survived
dozens of earlier fires—fires that nurtured them in a time before
we, in our finite wisdom, decided to extinguish the flames.
the same time, attempting to replace fire’s role through logging
is doomed to failure. Human hunters selecting for the healthiest
and fittest individuals in a prey population do not mimic the essential
role of wolves who take the weak, sick, and young. Likewise, commercial
logging selects for large trees, which are the most fire resistant—this
also removes the protective canopy that holds moisture in, leaves
highly combustible slash (limbs, tree tops and dead brush), and
churns up the soil removing its cover which accelerates drying.
Some of the largest and hottest fires this summer burned through
heavily roaded and logged lands. But you can look into the specifics
of this issue for yourself. Our purpose here is to set you thinking
about the similarities between wolves and wildfire.
As wild fire advanced toward our home this summer, it became apparent
that it would take far more enlightened people than us to step aside,
allow the fire to burn our place, and view the charred remains as
a beneficial component to a healthy forest. Faced with the impending
destruction of our home, we wanted the fire doused, put out, the sooner
the better... we empathized with the rancher who, following the loss
of a cow, demands that the offending wolf be killed. But there’s a
difference between protection of personal property and wanting all
fires and all wolves destroyed. Those of us who live adjacent to our
nation’s dwindling patches of wild lands have an obligation to educate
ourselves and take steps to protect our property in ways that will
not preclude wolves, fire and other natural processes from sculpting
the land and wildlife as they always have. Then if, despite our best
efforts, our property is destroyed, we need to take responsibility
for where we’ve chosen to live and carry out an occupation.
Forest Service fire poster. Wild Sentry Archive
role of government, working as an advocate for its citizens, is
to make sure that the needs or desires of a few individuals do not
dictate how our public lands are managed. In order for the government
to accomplish this, the public must be informed and educated about
what our lands need to remain healthy. A first step is to stop using
words like ‘devastating’ and ‘destroy’ when describing how predators
or fire affect the land. A wolf may destroy a rancher’s cow or a
fire may devastate a neighborhood but fire does not devastate a
forest any more than wolves destroy elk herds. It is awful or terrible
when a fire consumes a home or a wolf kills a beloved pet. It is
not awful or terrible when fire sweeps through a stand of trees
or a wolf pack kills a moose. The land and its native inhabitants
are adapted to fire and predation. Diverse and healthy ecosystem
are impossible without them.
we must learn to feel empathy for forests that lack fire, to see
those blankets of solid green for what they are: sick. Perhaps it
would help if we worked toward developing the same feelings of abhorrence
and sorrow when ecological processes are thwarted that many feel
when faced with inhumane treatment of animals. While it seems silly
to think about feeling sorry for a wildfire choked in a fire line’s
noose, it’s not so hard to emphasize with the plight of a trapped
wolf. Yet from an ecological point-of-view, both are similar. Most
of us now recognize that too many elk or deer in an area leads to
starvation. They need a predator that eliminates weak adults, as
well as the overabundance of young born each year. (Ungulates give
birth to an incredible number of young in order to compensate for
predation—it’s called predator swamping). But how many of us walk
through a forest crowded with spindly saplings reaching up into
the branches of a few huge trees and realize that this forest is
as sick as a starving herd of elk? Regular fires in the low elevations
of western forests eliminate thick stands of young, weak trees whose
branches create ladders for fires to climb up into the large healthy
trees. Fire also recycles their nutrients to feed and maintain the
few young trees that survive, along with the well-spaced mature
we must begin telling new stories about fire and its effects. Instead
of Smokey, the orphaned bear cub, let’s tell the story of Ashley,
the homeless black-backed woodpecker who depends on burned trees
to nest and feed. By eliminating wildfire we doom Ashley and other
black-backed woodpeckers to death and extinction as surely as a
poisoning campaign exterminates wolves. Or what about mountain bluebirds
who thrive in burned forests and whose populations ebb and flow
with the fire cycles? The burned trees that many of us are anxious
to salvage so they don’t go to "waste" are assumed wasted
only because we know no other stories. Just as the bones and meat
of a deer left after a wolf pack has eaten its fill provides critical
protein for kit foxes, ravens, and others, a host of creatures view
burned snags as home and larder. Let’s tell their stories. What
about Crackle the Clark’s Nutcracker who is busily caching seeds
in the scorched areas above our house? Those seeds are available
because fire’s heat opened pinecones. Crackle chose the intensely
burned areas because snow melts quicker there, allowing him access
to the food he stored. He won’t find all those seeds, some of which
will sprout and grow. Without intending to, Crackle is replanting
a new forest. Perhaps if more people knew Crackle’s story, we would
not be in such a hurry to replant burned areas with nursery seedlings
that may not be as genetically adapted to survive on a particular
hillside as the future seedlings now being replanted by Crackle
and his kin.
of us, if we’re honest, are much like Garth who, in Wayne’s World,
uttered, "We fear change." But there’s an old saying,
"The only constant is change." Wildness exists beyond
our control and remains in a constant state of change. Wolves and
fire are but two characters in a never ending and always changing
story. Scientists like Aldo Leopold are the prophets and visionaries
who provided rational explanations of how the tooth of the wolf
sculpts the sinew and bone of the stately elk and how the tongue
of flame breathes new life into the forest and nourishes the land.
Now it is time for the storytellers to transform facts about fire
into stories, stories that quell ancient fears and inspire understanding.
A generation may pass before we truly believe the stories and begin
to see the land as a living entity. But there’s no time like the
present to start.