Environmental historian Stephen Pyne returns to the subject of his 1982 book Fire in America that earned him a MacArthur Fellowship and created the subfield of fire history. His new work appeared at an opportune moment as today’s lengthened wildfire seasons endanger the ever-increasing number of ex-urban households and wildfire suppression costs threaten to consume the entire US Forest Service budget. Between Two Fires narrates federal fire management in the United States since 1960 and builds on his earlier thesis that our understanding and interaction with wildfire is primarily a cultural and political expression of what we as a nation think of our natural environment. While engaged in researching and composing this national narrative, Pyne found that many regions he visited had their own unique history that did not quite fit into a one-volume history. Thus he began formulating a regional series of shorter books titled To the Last Smoke as “color commentaries,” to use the author’s sports analogy, for a planned nine-volume series from the University of Arizona Press. Together, these ten books represent a half-century career in wildland fire for Pyne, both as a firefighter and as the preeminent international scholar in fire history. Between Two Fires flows chronologically from 1960 when federal wildfire policy mandated suppressing every fire by 10 am the morning after its first report. The 10 am Policy reflected forestry’s view of wildfire as a wasteful by-product of human settlement that threatened the health and vitality of forest growth (Between Two Fires, p. 16). Pyne characterizes the US Forest Service at the time as a “benign hegemon” that carried over 90 percent of the firefighting load throughout the country. Additionally it housed the largest federal fire research program and enforced the 10 am Policy on state and private lands through cooperative agreements and funding incentives. By the 1970s, the Forest Service hegemony rapidly eroded. Two volumes in the geographic series To the Last Smoke chronicle emerging poles in wildfire management that developed on opposite coasts and contributed to the erosion of policy uniformity and Forest Service leadership. At the eastern end of the country, Florida emerged as the radical center of returning wildfire into ecosystems that depended on this natural change agent. Scientific knowledge of the effect and role that fire played in healthy forest ecosystems grew steadily in the twentieth century as the biological sciences involved with fire repeated the same question: was fire exclusion possible and if possible, was it desirable? (Between Two Fires, p. 18). Florida became the center where active investigations took place to test and explore wildfire’s ecological value. Nongovernment research centers led the charge, most notably the Tall Timbers center in Tallahassee, Florida, and challenged the forestry profession’s prevailing presumption of wildfire’s negative impact. Once the science became clear on fire’s beneficial role, Florida also became a center for developing and applying the techniques to reintroduce fire in a controlled way onto the landscapes. Along the West Coast around Los Angeles, homes crawled up hillsides and canyons into what became known as the “wildland–urban interface,” a clunky term to define homes interspersed among natural vegetation. As a portend of the future, wildfires dating back to the nineteenth century burned these homes with such regularity that fire officials named the phenomenon the “Southern California problem.” With so many lives and homes to protect, the Southern California problem forced fire officials into a corner where total suppression became the only response option. As more and more people moved beyond the suburban borders nationally, the former Southern California problem now challenged national fire management’s conventional wisdom and strategy for returning fire to the landscape. Together, California and Florida epitomize the two opposite poles of wildfire management—reintroduction and total exclusion. Florida represents the reintroduction of wildfire into ecosystems to improve forest health while California represents Americans’ desire to live in fire-prone areas and demand full suppression, despite the knowledge that fire exclusion would exacerbate their vulnerability to wildfire. By the 1970s, forestry science’s understanding of fire’s beneficial role in forest ecosystems evolved significantly, but the knowledge never altered the perception and policy of wildfire as bad (Between Two Fires, p. 18). Concurrent with fire science’s challenge to the status quo, other federal land agencies, particularly the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, began to assert their role in the federal fire management panoply. The Park Service acted first on the advice of a major review of its biological programs that recommended abandoning the rigid 10 am Policy in favor of a more flexible response to manage fires for their ecological benefit when possible. It took the Forest Service a full ten years to reach the same conclusion and make changes to its national fire policy, but in 1978 it officially gave fire managers leeway in how they approached a wildfire—the default remained full suppression to protect lives and property, but they could also monitor and manage a naturally caused wildfire or a prescribed burn that posed little risk to people and benefited the ecosystem. With new national policies, federal fire management appeared poised for a major shift, but as Pyne points out, the revolution in fire management was never about science, it was more about values and how those values are expressed politically through legislation and appropriations. Implementing policy changes required a budget commitment from Congress as well as reorienting the firefighting community’s culture that viewed its mission as essential and one of the few areas where their respective agencies did not receive criticism. The decade following fire policy reform proved less than conducive to making sweeping changes. As the Reagan administration used budget austerity as its primary tool to reduce the size of the federal government, fire management became caught in the political partisanship that soon gripped Washington. The agency experienced cuts to its fire workforce, research, and prevention budgets. Because emergency funds paid for suppression, when the Forest Service suppressed fires Congress rewarded it financially, creating a perverse set of incentives to suppress fires to keep the agency afloat. This despite research’s conclusion that increased suppression added to the dangerous buildup of fuels in all landscape types that the Forest Service managed. Without funds to prevent fires, the agency quixotically began to rely on fire suppression dollars to keep the agency staffed to perform normal forest management duties (Between Two Fires, pp. 222–24). By the 1990s and 2000s, external factors conspired against fire reforms. As highlighted in the volume on California, across the country, more and more Americans built homes outside of the traditional ring of suburbs. Demographers estimated in 2000 that 38 percent of the total US population lived in areas categorized as “the wildland–urban interface” (Between Two Fires, p. 379). This put more lives and property at risk of wildfire and even greater calls for full suppression. At the same time, climate change prolonged the length of the fire season and intensified fires by drying out fuels and weakening the forest’s resistance to invasive pests. The costs to fight larger fires longer began to spike in terms of firefighter lives and budgets. Fatality fires occurred with shocking regularity. For the first time in 1994, wildland fires topped the $1 billion mark. Just twelve years later that figure doubled (Between Two Fires, p. 403). Within this context, fire leadership have revised policy several more times since the late 1990s to effect change on the ground. But as Pyne argues, policy is not where the problem lies. “The true fundamentals of fire are not scientific questions—they involved values, social norms, and cultural expectations as synthesized by politics” (Between Two Fires, p. 445). Further, “changing fire policy did not change how Americans lived on their land, which was the real driver of the fire scenes” (Between Two Fires, p. 369). As more and more people moved to wilderburbs along the suburban fringe, they put more pressure on their political representatives to protect them from wildfires. And this is where the federal fire management situation remains today—the federal government adopted a National Cohesive Strategy that seeks to “safely and effectively extinguish fire, when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a nation, live with wildland fire,” but agencies struggle to implement fire management when Congress and the public clamor for and only financially reward fire suppression. This book series, in addition to being a capstone to a remarkable career, also represents a public/private partnership designed to inform Congress and the federal wildfire management community. The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior as well as the Joint Fire Science Program provided Pyne financial support without the burden of editorial oversight or control. As proof of this independence, turn to page 392 of Between Two Fires where Pyne described the Forest Service in this way: “The agency was battered, and often instinctively cringed like a whipped dog, knowing that every gesture raised toward it would end in a slap. It was, critics and celebrants alike agreed, a shell of its former self” (Between Two Fires, pp. 392–93). Ouch! That is not the type of language typically produced in federal reports, but it was what the national fire community sought when it commissioned an outside review of how it got to where it is today. This project is also emblematic of the power and critical importance of applied history—as Pyne is fond of saying, “the fire community doesn’t need more data, it needs someone to make sense of the data.” Providing context and untangling the past into a coherent narrative is one of the hallmarks of how history can make sense of today and help chart a course for the future. This is evident when the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee invited Pyne to testify about wildfire management alongside the Chief of the Forest Service in 2015. Pyne’s scholarship and his willingness to step outside the academy and work with lawmakers and public officials tasked with addressing wicked hard problems is an example that more in the history profession should strive to emulate. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society 2017. This work is written by a US Government employee and is in the public domain in the US.
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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