Playing with fire

After a week of writing in the Sierra Nevada mountains, we had to come up with an epiphany—a personal essay about something we’ve learned or realized on Semester in the West. We spent all of today reading them out loud to each other, and it’s been fantastically interesting to hear what everyone’s been thinking about. Here’s mine.

Playing With Fire

In Wallowa County, I saw a forest that wasn’t a forest. A century of fire suppression had created a dense understory, with Grand Fir shrubs blanketing the floor and threatening to overshadow the pines. With nature left to its own devices, lightning strikes would have reduced the green brush to ash, nourishing the soil and triggering a release of seeds from the seratenous cones of the lodgepole pines. In the forest, devastation gives way to new life. Nature is a phoenix, constantly being reborn and reinvented after each blaze.

Humans, naturally, are uncomfortable with fires. Fires leave charred landscapes in their wake, interrupting our serene nature walks with the intrusion of death. More often than not, people who claim to love nature means that they love lush riparian vegetation or snow-covered alpine slopes. Fires burning out of control threaten safety and aesthetics. We want the wild, yes, but we want it safe for RVs, families, wheelchairs, God and scenic photos.

The Forest Service has come to recognize fire is needed, but also knows that uncontrolled, it poses a danger to human communities. Current policy in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is to suppress all fires immediately unless they’re in a wilderness area. Forest management includes fuel removal and prescribed burns designed to mimic the effects of natural fires.

I saw several forests that had been treated to reduce fire danger during our stay in Wallowa County. Although they looked healthy, they concept of “managing” nature makes me uneasy. Past attempts to control nature and make it “better” have included hunting wolves to extinction in the lower 48 and building enough dams on the Columbia to make salmon passage nearly impossible. Underlying management is the assumption that we understand how ecosystems function, even though our knowledge is a process, constantly being changed, revised, updated and contradicted. Current strategies focus on restoring balance to the natural world rather than exploiting it for human use, changing us from blind destroyers to benevolent engineers. Though this outlook is an improvement, it relies on the unspoken assumption that we are separate from, different than and above nature. We have the power to bend natural forces to our will. We can put out fires, dam rivers, kill off and then reintroduce wolves. We are gods, and trees, bison, rivers, salmon and wolves are mere mortals.

Practically speaking, letting fires run their course is impossible. There is too much wood to let it all burn, too many people living nearby to risk a full-scale forest fire. Humans have sought to change nature and bend it to our will as long as we have existed, and controlling fire is no exception. But I see a separation in our current management that troubles me. A farmer, rancher or homesteader putting out a forest fire does so for immediate personal reasons—their entire livelihood will be reduced to ashes unless they act. They live with nature, aware of its destructive potential, but also know that it sustains them. The Forest Service putting out all fires as a matter of policy strikes me less as an act of self-preservation and more as a capitulation to the timber industry, which would rather not lose valuable board-feet, and to tourists, who would rather not see charred plant skeletons during their sojourns in Eden.

In the natural world, beauty and destruction dance dangerously around each other, opposing forces that could not exist independently. There are no snow-covered mountains without crevasses and avalanches. The sleek fur of a wolf is nourished by the blood and bone marrow of elk, slaughtered out of necessity and with indifference. The healthy forests which support thousands of reptiles, insects, shrubs, mammals and trees would cease to exist without fire. We cannot have one without the other. A farmer understands that the rains which nourish his crops today can bring floods which destroy his house tomorrow. A city dweller who backpacks during summer weekends may not understand that the blackened trees he sees are necessary to sustain the green forest he finds so beautiful.

Forested lands are managed for multiple uses, including timber, mining, grazing and recreation. I would ask only that habitat be added to this list, as an equal consideration. Natural communities have a right to exist, a right which must be weighed against the rights people claim to cut down trees, suppress fires and otherwise control nature for their own benefit. A healthy, functioning ecosystem includes periodic fires; if we suppress all fires, we deny trees the opportunity to thrive and animals the chance to live in a balanced ecosystem.

I do not believe fires should never be put out. People living in and near forests are understandably concerned about their homes, property and livelihood. However, people need to be realistic about the risks inherent in living by forests before they build vacation homes in the middle of wild areas. Fires can and do happen. Firefighters should not be expected to risk their lives for a house which was unwisely placed in an at-risk area, or for the future profit a private timber corporation hopes to make off of public lands. Some fires may need to be put out for public safety, but others can and should be left to burn.


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