The Perfect Firestorm
Yet many species not only survive big fires, they thrive because of them. Richard Hutto, director of the University of Montana Avian Science Center, says fires “are one of nature’s best-kept secrets” as a driver of greater biodiversity. The mountain bluebird, for instance, belongs to a category of “pouncers” that exploit the insect explosion in a newly burned forest. Black-backed woodpeckers are so enamored of burned areas that they exist virtually nowhere else, Hutto says. Northern hawk owls in Canada flock to fire-swept places, and in other forests, deer mice populations soar, opening the door for more raptors to move in. Morel mushrooms, those expensive delicacies, proliferate in burned areas. The huge 1988 Canyon Creek Fire in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness may have saved the Big Nell’s geranium, which was thought to be extinct but actually required a good fire to bloom again. That blaze also caused an elk boom because the regenerating landscape “put a lot of new groceries out there,” says Williams.
Ecologists know that changing conditions will benefit some species and harm others. Hutto agrees that trends seem to be pointing toward more, and bigger, fires but worries that policy makers don’t understand that the rewards may be enormous—even from big fires. The pressure to “salvage log” on public lands after a fire is misguided, he says, because “that’s where the real ecological magic begins.”
The question of what to do about megafires is a hot topic. The Fire Lab’s Jack Cohen believes fervently that fires are inevitable and ecologically important, and that we should set more of them on purpose under the right conditions to lower the risk of uncontrollable future fires.
Mark A. Finney, a research forester at the lab, illustrates what that means in practice. In his office, he points to a poster-sized satellite image on the wall, titled “Rodeo-Chediski Fire: June 21, 2002.” The infamous Arizona conflagration devoured 468,000 acres, and this photo shows the charred landscape stretching across many miles, with a few curious green patches. “The only places that are green,” Finney says, circling the sections with a laser pointer beam, “are places where there had been prescribed burns.”
Experts have also found ways to significantly cut property losses. An estimated eight million homes have been built in western U.S. fire zones since 1970, and the bulk of efforts go toward protecting homes and communities in fire-prone areas. Yet research at the Fire Lab and elsewhere shows that homes don’t have to be lost just because the forest around them is. If houses are located 100 feet from combustible materials and are built with materials like asphalt roof shingles that resist the spark of flying embers, it’s possible to save the structures even when the fires themselves are irrepressible. When it comes to most of these fires, Cohen says, “we do not have natural disasters; rather we have human disasters during natural disturbances.”
In the wake of a series of massive burns in California, some of Cohen’s findings are working their way into practice. Insurance companies are bumping their rates in fire zones, as they do in earthquake-prone areas. That may deter development, which is critical, says University of Colorado geographer Tania Schoennagel. She cites a study saying that only about 15 percent of the overlap between wild and urban areas has been turned into residential areas. But that total could grow significantly if we don’t curtail it. “Control fire risk?” asks Schoennagel. “Control development in wildlands.”
Some fire professionals advocate a bigger, faster, more efficient response: loading 747s with fire retardant, and dispatching fleets of DC-10s to bear down on spreading fires. Fire managers employ NASA satellites to figure out how fires will behave and spread, and thermal images beamed from space help them decide how to deploy resources. Weather satellites detect cold fronts moving in, which are almost always preceded by winds that can fan flames. Laser imaging helps determine distance and range as well. And advances like a fire-suppressant material made from frozen crystals of water and carbon dioxide bonded together may also prove useful in some cases. Yet despite all these tools, many fire science experts agree that when the biggest fires rage in the wrong conditions, no human force can put them out.
Clearly, enlisting more squadrons of tanker planes to drop ever-increasing amounts of retardant isn’t going to work in the long run. Neither is letting every fire burn unchecked. There’s a growing consensus that our way out of the hot woods will require a nimble approach to managing the landscape.
In addition to prescribed fires, experts increasingly agree that people can take more responsibility for living in flammable areas. Steven Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University and a prolific author on the subject, points out that Australia, for example, is “light years beyond us” in teaching communities how to protect their property by creating “defensible space” around homes—clearing trees and brush a certain radius around their structures. Changing laws to eliminate a mortgage tax deduction for second homes or charging developers the full cost of public services (like putting out rural fires) would go a long way. “Knowing that you might be called upon to protect your house should concentrate the mind wonderfully with regard to wood-shingle roofing, house-clinging shrubs, and firewood stacked under decks,” says Pyne.