A few years ago on a bright spring day, I decided to burn the dead grasses in our small hayfield. With perhaps a little too much glee, I dropped a few matches on the edge of the field. For an hour, nothing happened; I could hardly get the grass to light despite going through an entire box of matches.
But then the breeze freshened, and suddenly the fire stood up and began to move. A few minutes later, my wife and I, running with shovels in hand, could not keep up with it, let alone try to steer it. Within a half-hour, it had burned the entire field, melted a couple of plastic irrigation pipes and started toward our neighbors' fields. Fortunately, there was an overgrazed pasture in the way. There, the flames lay down again before they could do more harm.
I had just learned a basic fact of Western life: Fire rarely does what you expect it to do.
During the first half of the 20th century, the West's public-land managers—especially the U.S. Forest Service—went to war against wildfire, snuffing it out as fast as they could. But as evidence mounted that fire suppression encouraged small trees to choke forests, increasing the chances of future massive blazes, they began adopting new strategies, from mechanically thinning forests to introducing more controlled burns.
In the 1990s, the federal government devised a national fire plan that codified this ecological approach to fire. Yet two decades later, the agencies still find themselves snuffing out almost every fire as fast as possible. One reason is that land managers know they will catch public hell if they let a prescribed burn get away from them and it destroys a few houses, as happened in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas this year. Nothing douses an aggressive fire program as fast as front-page headlines of property loss and damaged lives.
Another reason is funding. While the Forest Service has an open checkbook to fight wildfires, it has very limited funds to do its own preventive work. Consequently, the thinning and burning projects that do get done are postage-stamp-sized efforts that have only a small impact on the management of the West's 277 million fire-prone acres.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell notes that his agency treated three million acres last year, while he would like to treat up to five million acres a year. Many fire experts say at least 10 million acres needs to be cut and burned each year to get on top of the problem.
And the problem is growing. This year, wildfires have scorched more than eight million acres of land, according to federal data. Enormous, uncontrolled fires as big as 500,000 acres have become more common than ever, largely driven by shifts in climate. Whether caused by lightning, arsonists or negligent campers, these mega-fires are reshaping the West's ecology.
Ironically, these gigantic fires give federal agencies a real opportunity to meet their forest restoration goals. Throughout the West, a new breed of savvy managers—trained in the post-Smokey Bear era—are learning to make use of fire whenever it makes ecological sense. They send out the troops when flames descend on towns, but stand back when wildfires thin overgrown forests in the backcountry.
Management by natural disaster is a crude philosophy. As one of the West's fire gurus, Arizona State University's Stephen Pyne, recently wrote, if managers start viewing any natural fire ignition as a career-advancement opportunity, "Fire management will consist of pulling the arm of nature's slots, buying Powerball tickets in a lightning lottery. It's a way to 'get the burn out' in the same way that clear cutting got 'the cut out.' But it isn't managing for the ecological goods and services that agencies say they are enhancing."
Yet at a time when larger fires seem inevitable and land agencies are increasingly strapped for funds, opportunism may be the only option left. As any Western farmer can tell you, steering fire is like driving a truck down a mountain with no brakes. There's a chance you'll crash and burn on the side of the road, but if you're lucky, you'll get to the bottom faster than you ever imagined.
Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the executive director of the magazine in Paonia, Colorado.