Three million acres burning, smoky skies blotting out the sun, businesses closed as people stayed indoors to escape wind-driven emissions from a thousand small fires.
No, not last week – last century, when the Big Burn blew up across parts of Idaho, Washington and Montana on Aug. 20-21, 1910. Four small towns wiped out, 92 deaths documented, many more injured. Smoke-choked communities along the future route of Interstate 90 all the way to its terminus in Boston.
This year, 337,948 acres have been burned to date in Idaho, Washington and Montana, according to the National Interagency Fire Service update Friday. That is 10 percent the size of the Big Burn, but we’re sure this “new normal” is a sign of anthropogenic climate change and the end of the world as we know it.
And it is. We judge normal by the experience of one lifetime, and anything challenging our comfortable paradigms ends the world as we know it. August skies were clear when we were children, therefore August skies should always be clear.
Humans managing forests and grasslands with fire was the old normal, according to University of Colorado professor of Omer C. Stewart, who worked at the intersection of anthropology, fire ecology, range management and forestry. His studies over a lifetime convinced him that indigenous fire was “the deciding factor in determining the types of vegetation covering about a fourth of the globe” and challenged the popular paradigm defining wilderness as the absence of human impact. Stewart died in 1991, before seeing his 1950s era manuscript resurrected and reprinted in 2002 under the title “Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness.”
Before European contact, North Americans had only fire as a tool for forest management. Immigrants brought domesticated animals, but disrupted the pattern of regular small fires. Then new technology brought timber harvest and modern forestry practices. The catch phrase “Log It, Graze It, or Watch It Burn” isn’t a threat, it’s a summary of the three management tools available for healthy forests.
We aren’t using the tools effectively. Science by single discipline rarely takes a holistic look at the interplay of ecosystem processes. What works for troubleshooting something as complicated as a car does not work for complex systems. Any system with biological components is complex, with unexpected, unplanned and unknown emergent properties. Remove the battery from the engine and predictably the car sits in the driveway. Remove fire (or grazing or logging) from the forest and nature moves in with something else. Sometimes that something else is catastrophic fire.
It takes an intersectional approach to study the science behind using the tools, but scientists are too often trapped in their own paradigms. It’s the problem Stewart faced in seeking a publisher for his manuscript describing Native Americans as the first foresters. As an anthropologist collecting information from indigenous people in the 1930s in California, he was fascinated by Pomo elders describing how “the Indians had intentionally set fire to all the fields and forests to keep the brush down” and make it easier to travel, hunt and gather food. It started him on a lifetime of study outside of his anthropological silo to better understand the human factor in the landscape.
Ah, the human factor. Fire is a problematic tool for a non-nomadic society. We draw lines and declare this part wildland, that part urban, and what’s left over the Wildland Urban Interface zone. Moving everyone into cities to eliminate the WUI is a pipe dream. And as the residents of Redding, California, discovered this summer, even a city can be a WUI. Using fire as a tool in the WUI has hazards denser than the smoke blocking the sun.
More important is the carbon footprint of wildfire. Whether you sing along with the anthropogenic climate change choir or point to more complex causes, putting less carbon in the air from flaming forests and rangeland conserves resources as well as making it easier to breathe. A 2015 report to the Washington Legislature requested by Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, concluded that wildfire represents 13 to 50 percent of Washingtonians’ total annual carbon emissions.
You’d think there’d be a chorus of progressive demands for more grazing, thinning and logging on public lands. Probably shouldn’t hold your breath.
Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at email@example.com.