Sheltering in Place

Released last spring, Sara Jensen and Guy McPherson’s book, Living with Fire: Fire Ecology and Policy for the 21st Century, seemed prescient about 2008’s record blazes. After over 2,000 fires were ignited by lightning strikes on June 20, satellite photos showed smoke covering nearly the whole of Northern California; Mendocino County alone suffered 129 fires in less than an hour. Firemen visited each fire, if only by air, and then fought those that threatened homes or power lines. Other blazes were left to burn until already-weary firemen could get to them, and some, in remote, steep terrain, smoldered until winter rains snuffed them out. Butte County lost nearly 60,000 acres, Shasta and Trinity counties combined for 86,500 acres, while Mendocino County suffered 53,300 acres burned.

Yet at a roundup meeting held in Mendocino County’s Laytonville in July, fire officials seemed almost ebullient, explaining that the fires had swept through grasses and scrub but damaged few large trees. In fact, said the officials, you couldn’t ask for better fires; decades’-worth of overgrowth burned in days. The end result sounds a lot like what Jensen and McPherson advocate in Living with Fire. Don’t fight wildfires; instead let them burn out scrub, dead wood, and undergrowth, saving older trees and returning fire-prone habitat to what it is meant to be.

The two write that during the past decades of fire suppression, we have aimed to defeat fire, not live with it. Humans have a healthy fear of fire, and elected officials and fire marshals find it popular—or mandatory—to adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards blazes on wildlands and parks. Rather than accepting the reality of living in the West, where fires have burned for millennia and vegetation and animals have adapted to fire’s successive and certain return, we allow property owners to build in wildlands and on the borders of national and state parks and then assume the obligation of protecting that private property at astounding costs, including the lives of firefighters.

Living with Fire lays out the downside of fire prevention policies. The two authors argue that firefighters’ lives must come first, not protection of private property. Fifteen lives were lost fighting the lightning fires, and the fight cost well over $210 million. Much of that money was spent protecting private homes and businesses. That figure doesn’t include the work that remained to clean up the effort of fighting the fires. Fighting fires has a drastic impact on the land, far more than the effects of periodic fires sweeping through. Diesel spills and chemical bombardment leave contamination behind, while bulldozing roads and firebreaks creates erosion and sediment in creeks and rivers.

McPherson and Jensen favor a more sensible approach, especially in these years of drought and economic stress—learn to live with periodic fires. Remodel your house to make it as nonflammable as possible, and follow the hundred-foot thinning rules, removing most trees and vegetation over four feet tall within 35 feet of your home. In the outer 65 feet, you eliminate grass, weeds, and dead wood, replacing it with natives and drought-tolerant species. The inner circle is irrigated, creating succulent, hard-to-burn growth, while the outer 65 feet is mostly dry, at least after the natives get established.

Guy McPherson is professor of natural resources and ecology at the University of Arizona. Sara Jensen (recently married, now Sara O’Brien) works as a private lands conservation associate for Defenders of Wildlife. I interviewed her at her home in Portland, Oregon.

How did you become interested in fire and fire management?
I wrote my MA thesis at the University of Arizona on similar material. One chapter is adapted from my thesis. Guy McPherson was my master’s advisor, and he had written material, some too political for him to publish. Guy suggested we write a book together, but it didn’t fit together as easily as we thought it would. I rewrote it with Guy’s help.

Guy likes to lead with the political side. We toned it down a little bit. To have the science taken seriously we had to make sure we weren’t being unnecessarily idealistic in the writing. It’s easy to make enemies with this topic.

What would you do if you could institute three policy changes?
I would want to see a huge national campaign on thinning brush and small trees around your house and a call to shelter in place during fires. You reduce the flammability of your home by having a nonflammable roof, using appropriate building materials, not keeping your woodpile or propane tank next to your house. And you clear the area around your house. As long as houses are more flammable than forests, we’re not going to make advances in dealing with forest fires.

Then we need a broader campaign to educate people about fire. We’ve come a long way in the past few years, but we need to do more to help people develop a tolerance for fire. And I’d like to see them leave the wilderness and roadless areas alone. I have more sympathy for the thinning argument living in Oregon than I did when I was in Arizona. But I still think thinning is not a landscape-scale solution. We’re not going to thin the eastern side of Oregon and reintroduce fire. In the vast majority of American landscapes on public land, you’re going to have to reintroduce fire. The cost of fighting fires and the damage from fighting them is just too great to bear. You’d want to see those areas treated with fire or more or less left alone.

Guy and I and another colleague wrote an article about the environmental impacts of fire suppression. Once you start thinking about it, it’s overwhelming—scooping water out of wetlands, using diesel around creeks and rivers, road cuts.

If I’m going to be an idealist, I think we need a new governance structure to deal with long-term problems. Fire suppression seems to work on the same time scale as elections and budgets. We need a structure that deals with long-term planning and solutions. All agencies struggle with this problem. They work on a budget year, and you’ve gotta spend the money or not. It’s really constraining in terms of reintroducing fire. It’s crazy to spend all this money to put fires out.

I work almost exclusively on climate change now, and a lot of the problems and solutions are the same: trying to figure out how to make natural systems and social systems interact without colliding. The sticking points are the same.

Environmentalists are often charged with bringing frivolous lawsuits to prevent clearing out underbrush.
It’s hard to judge if that’s been the case. I work for an environmental group now, and Defenders of Wildlife has been pro-thinning in dry forests. There are some appropriate places for thinning. But I appreciate the fear: the common attitude is that if you give them an inch they’ll take a mile. And often that’s been true. I can understand the tendency to say we’re going to draw a line in the sand.

Who benefits from the Healthy Forests initiative? [The Healthy Forests Restoration Act, passed in December 2003, allows thinning and fuel reduction in federal lands and national parks. Environmentalists feared that smaller trees and brush would be ignored in favor of marketable timber, leaving behind logging roads, slash from timber cuts, and diesel contamination.]
I was kind of baffled by that. I’d be really curious to see who, if anyone, took advantage of those categorical exclusions. I think I know who it was designed to benefit, but the implementation of policy doesn’t always play out. If it was designed to open public forests back up to logging, I don’t know that it succeeded in that either. The timber industry is still struggling with small-diameter wood. So I don’t know if it really made any impact at all.

How do the roadless areas factor into abandoning fire suppression?
I wouldn’t want to limit it to wilderness or roadless areas. We’ve set aside large areas of land with the intention that they’re natural areas for posterity. I don’t see the reason to manage those lands for any private group besides the general public. There’s no reason to manage for oil companies, timber companies, or people who live along the edges and don’t want to deal with fire. What’s funny is that people have become more risk-averse. Or perhaps it’s that people have become less able to judge risk. You can’t get more risky than to build your house on the edge of a stocked forest. People’s attitude towards government agencies is that of a customer. They expect to be protected and given what they want. An attitude towards fire is that the government wouldn’t let me build here if it wasn’t safe. The government has played into that perception with its agencies to ensure food safety and to demand that people wear seatbelts, for instance. Now it seems that people have an inability to assess or cope with risk. It’s not clear to me what caused that.

Can you predict how global warming could impact fires?
Tony Westerling did a study in 2007 that showed a strong correlation between climate change and wildfire in the West. They clearly showed that on top of human mismanagement and fire suppression, there was a clear indication that climate change is making fire more frequent or more intense. What happens is that the fire season becomes longer; there are more fire-prone times. Plus a higher amount of carbon dioxide causes more plant productivity, so the forest is more loaded. Overall at least in Western US, it’s pretty clear that the fire picture is going to get more extreme. Some parts of the country may actually be wetter.

How does wildlife cope with fire?
Some cope very well. There’s an iconic photo of two deer standing in a creek as fire rages around them. A lot of wildlife can flee, a lot can cope. Of course, plants and smaller animals are not mobile. But we know that almost all of these species evolved with fire. Pretty much everything in northern America evolved with some level of fire. From that perspective, the problem is landscape fragmentation. A system that had a number of methods of coping with periodic fires just doesn’t have those options. I’d like to be able to tell people not to worry about wildlife, but realistically speaking, with species that are on the edge anyway, we can’t say that. I wouldn’t want to say that wildlife is not endangered, but you have to take the broad view. You’re not going to do species any favor by changing out their ecosystem. Fire is a key part of nutrient cycling—it defines the edge of sagebrush and juniper ecosystems. Where fire is excluded, now it’s juniper. [Because of fire suppression, juniper has encroached into meadows and clearings.] There’s no easy answer.

The California fires were expensive in terms of money, lives, and energy lost. As the global economy changes and energy prices go out of sight, we may not have the money to fight fires. What can we do to minimize the losses?
We won’t have the money to do this. If you were interviewing Guy, he’d say we won’t have the oil to do this. The answer is to make communities fire-safe and not try to make a whole ecosystem fire-safe. When you look at it like that, it’s hard to believe people do it any other way. It’s politically easy to try to suppress fire on public lands. Fire managers themselves are becoming smarter about dealing with defensible space. They’ve gotta do this in the context of political pressure and an angry public. It’s going to be a message that takes a long time to get out to people.

Have you cleared around your new house?
(Laughs) It’s pretty cleared, meadows in all directions. We have a little bit of shrub around the house. But it brings up an interesting point. Will we as homeowners be able to say, “I’m not going to clear around my house, and I don’t expect you to defend it either?” We need a whole new way of thinking about how to deal with private property and public agencies. For people with small properties, the solution is to have fire-safe houses. I was really encouraged when I was in Arizona. Some districts were starting to come up with cooperative agreements with the Bureau of Land Management and private ranchers on doing joint burns. It actually made it possible to burn large swaths of fire-dependent ecosystems. Once you get all the neighbors on board, the insurers on board, you could burn hundreds of acres, even thousands of acres. That gives me a lot of hope. It’s very encouraging.

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