The wildfires of tomorrow will be like nothing we’ve ever seen. But the debates they’ll spark have already been raging for more than a century...
“The forests staggered, rocked, exploded and then shriveled under the holocaust,” Betty Goodwin Spencer, an Idaho historian, recalled of the blaze. “Great red balls of fire rolled up the mountainsides. Crown fires, from 1 to 10 miles wide, streaked with yellow and purple and scarlet, raced through treetops 150 feet from the ground. Bloated bubbles of gas burst murderously into forked and greedy flames. You can’t outrun wind and fire that are traveling 70 miles an hour.”
They all eventually fell unconscious as the inferno sucked the oxygen from the cave. Five never woke up. One survivor, finding Pulaski lying limp at the front of the shaft, announced that he was dead. “Like hell he is” was his now-legendary response.
Today the ranger’s name rings out at every wildfire. The pulaski, a combination axe and hoe that he invented after the ordeal, is the most common tool in the battle against forest fires, so even firefighters who don’t know his story shout out his name on the fire line. The ranger’s legacy looms larger in the philosophy of firefighting that followed the blowup in the Bitterroots. Firefighters on the ground saw their efforts against the Big Blowup as a “complete failure.” The fire killed at least 78 of the men fighting it, reduced much of Wallace, Idaho to ash, and torched parts of half a dozen other towns. Mining camps, farms, and more than 3 million acres of timber burned.
But the fledgling Forest Service, just five years old and already hated in much of the West, chose to focus on the firefighters’ heroic stand, rather than the futility of the battle. The American philosopher William James wrote of extinguishing wildfires as “the moral equivalent of war,” suggesting that American youth be conscripted into an “army enlisted against nature.” One of humanity’s greatest allies was suddenly one of America’s most reviled enemies.
Too many trees...
By the time I was on the fire line in 2003, many foresters and firefighters believed that the blazes we couldn’t stop had grown out of the ones that we did. Their message, in fact, became almost as codified into the western mythology of the twenty-first century as those of Pulaski and Smokey Bear during the twentieth: Putting out all those fires but leaving behind the wood, grass, and scrub that otherwise would have burned overloaded our forests with fuel that was driving increasingly explosive fires.
Forests in Colorado’s Front Range have missed three, four, or five fire cycles that would have thinned them during the past century, Mike Battaglia, a young, slender researcher with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, told me as we headed into the woods above Fort Collins. “A forest, it’s like a lawn,” he said. “You have to cut your lawn every week.” In the ponderosas, fires were effectively the forests’ lawn mowers, hedge clippers, and branch loppers. During the decades when the nation’s firefighters put out every wildfire, the government had effectively fired nature’s gardening crew.
After 100 years of the Forest Service extinguishing the ground fires, some forests in Arizona have 40 times their natural load of trees: An acre that historically had 20 ponderosa pines is now crowded with 800 to 1,200. Ponderosa forests above Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, and Boulder that historically had fewer than 100 trees per acre now have upwards of 500. But just 16 percent of Colorado's forests below about 9,000 feet, where ponderosas are the dominant species, had increased fire severity due to fires extinguished in the past leading to overly thick growth. Most of the higher-elevation forests usually only burn every 100 to 300 years, so the nation’s century of fire suppression could only have interrupted their natural fire cycle once, if at all.
When ranchers filled the West with cattle and sheep, the animals grazed down the grasses that carried the mellow ground fires that had thinned many ponderosa forests. Miners tramped the land around their claims to bare soil, with much the same effect. With nothing left to carry fire on the forest floor, trees that would have burned when they were small instead survived and crowded in. As the forests grew denser and darker, they provided a more hospitable environment for Douglas firs, which normally prefer north-facing slopes that are cooler and moister, but in this case followed the shade provided by the thickening stands. Mountain mahogany, Gambel oak, and juniper, which ignite easily and burn fast, pushed in beneath the pines and firs.
Eventually a forest that once had trunks spaced hundreds of feet apart was filled with trees standing shoulder to shoulder, all of them fighting to get enough sun, food, and water. Undergrowth, fallen needles and leaves, and dead wood gathered around their feet. Diseases and pests such as the mountain pine beetle spread through crowded forests like the plague. Dwarf mistletoe infested many boughs, causing witches’ brooms of dry bristles that burned like haystacks.
“A forest, it’s like a lawn. You have to cut your lawn every week.”
—Mike Mattaglia, U.S. Forest Service
Playing with fire...
In 1963 A. Starker Leopold oversaw a report on wildlife management for the National Park Service that called for reintroducing wildfire to federal woodlands. The son of naturalist Aldo Leopold, he grew up with conservation and wildfire. Starker’s report urged the Park Service to allow natural fires that didn’t threaten development to run their course, and to set fires—prescribed burns—to thin the most overgrown forests. To many at the time, his ideas were the ravings of a madman.
In 1995, the “Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review” noted the need to put fire back on the land to correct what had become known as the “fire deficit” in the nation’s woodlands. “The task before us—reintroducing fire—is both urgent and enormous,” the report said. “Conditions on millions of acres of wildlands increase the probability of large, intense fires beyond any scale yet witnessed. These severe fires will in turn increase the risk to humans, to property, and to the land [with] which our social and economic well-being is so intimately intertwined.”
But the reintroduction of fire hasn’t gone quite as planned. The excess timber and the warming and drying climate have made even carefully planned burns difficult to manage. And during the century in which the nation attempted to exclude fire from forests, they filled with homes. The woodlands that were most overgrown were often those closest to communities, where past fires were most aggressively snuffed. But those are also, of course, where the greatest resistance to prescribed burns and thinning projects lie.
After the Big Blowup of 1910 inspired America to try to extinguish every wildfire in the country, foresters in the 2010s were finding that many of the nation’s efforts to put fire back into every forest were just as misguided. Colorado’s Front Range, for example, includes not just fire-starved ponderosa pine forests, but a much larger proportion of high country forests dominated by lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and spruce forests, arid mesas of piñons and junipers, and even ponderosas mixed with other conifers higher in the mountains. Many of them always had big, intense wildfires. So the lesson isn’t to stop thinning and burning the woods, but to focus those treatments where they will do the most good — overgrown ponderosa forests adjacent to homes and other development.
4 times more homes burned in U.S. wildfires in the 2010s than in the 1990s
Humans don’t want intense blazes near their homes, but other plants and animals depend on them. Even the biggest and hottest fires leave pockets of slightly burnt or unburnt vegetation. Foresters refer to that pattern of lower- and higher-intensity burns as a “mosaic.” The right mix leads to a healthier forest with a variety of habitats for animals, more diverse vegetation, and a cleaner and more efficient watershed. In moderately burnt areas, seedlings can grow faster than they would have if the fire had not come through at all, while areas cooked by high-intensity fires may not show green for years.
“Snag forests”—remnants of severe fires in which only a few burnt trunks still stand—are a critical habitat for many species. Black-backed woodpeckers, for instance, are dependent on the charred trees in intensely burnt forests for their nests and the insects they eat. In the Northwest, reductions in the number of severely burnt forests over the past century led to declines in the woodpecker’s population.
While judicious logging and grazing can reduce the amount of fuel available to burn in the forests, they can also increase fire activity. Timber interests prefer to harvest large trees, which are more profitable, but these are the very trees that make forests resilient to wildfire. Small trees and brush, the removal of which improves the health and lowers the flammability of the forests, hold little value. Debris from logging activities, known as slash, can fuel fires if it isn’t cleaned up properly. New logging roads allow more people into the woods, which leads to more campfires, more sparks from vehicles, and more flashes from firearms to ignite blazes.
“There will be an increasing polarization of this debate,” Crystal Kolden, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Idaho who focuses on wildfire, told me. “Science suggests that we should let more of these fires burn.” But the terror that large wildfires inspire, she said, allows profit to trump science.
A warmer, drier west...
Similarly, in 2015, Alaska had its hottest May in 91 years. The next month 1.8 million acres burned there in just 12 days, nearly twice the previous record for acres burned over an entire June. Some 320 fires burned across the state, charring nearly half a million acres in a single day.
While the increasing acreage in flames was scary, what was actually burning was just as frightening, if less dramatic. In addition to vast evergreen forests, the fires burned deep into tundra and permafrost, which hold about twice the amount of carbon as is already in the atmosphere, as well as huge stores of methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas. One study showed that 60 percent of the climate-warming gases released in a large Alaska fire came not from burning trees and vegetation, but from the combustion of organic material in the soil.
With the wildfires themselves adding huge amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and thus warming the climate, they’ll likely drive even more fires.
Fighting tomorrow's fires...
While the recent deaths of firefighters in wildland fires—like the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013 or the 53 who have succumbed since then—trimmed a few branches from that tangled tree of legends, it could save lives and homes in the future. Cutting down that towering tree altogether, however, will require America to see past the fantasies inspired by the dancing flames.
Excerpted from MEGAFIRE: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame by Michael Kodas. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Kodas. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Header: Pike National Forest near Bailey, Colorado. Photograph by Milehightraveler via Getty Images
The East Peak Fire near La Veta, CO in June 2013. Photograph by Capt. Darin Overstreet / Colorado Air National Guard / JFHQ-CO (Released)
An Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter performs a water drop on the East Peak Fire. Photograph by Capt. Darin Overstreet / U.S. Air Force (Released)
A prescribed burn of grazing land in Niobrara, Nebraska. Photograph by Michael Kodas
A firefighter uses a drip torch to ignite a blaze. Photograph by Michael Kodas
Firefighters set fires to burn away red cedar and other trees. Photograph by Michael Kodas
Standing trees left behind by the King Fire in El Dorado County, CA in 2014. Photograph by Michael Kodas
Timber felled after the King Fire. Photograph by Michael Kodas
Footer: The High Park Fire outside Fort Collins, CO in 2012. Photograph by Michael Kodas
ABOUT THE contributor
Michael Kodas is the associate director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, an award-winning photojournalist and reporter, and author of the best-selling book High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
ABOUT THE book
In Megafire, a world-renowned journalist and forest fire expert travels to the most dangerous and remote wildernesses around the globe, as well as to the backyards of people faced with these environmental disasters, to look at the heart of this phenomenon and witness firsthand the heroic efforts of the firefighters and scientists racing against time to stop it—or at least to tame these deadly flames.