Brenda Cooper

Backing into Eden Chapter 20: Fire.

Somewhere around a dozen years ago, I was sitting in a bar in Eastern Washington. It could have been Lake Chelan or Yakima. I really don’t remember. But I do remember meeting two cowboys. Real cowboys (we still have them in the west). They weren’t talking about herds of cows over their beers.  They were talking about fires. I still remember the older of the two describing a fire he’d worked the previous season where the ground had been torched so thoroughly and with so much heat that the the grass wouldn’t re-seed. They explained to me how they had to bring in bales of hay and scatter the hay across acres and acres of seared ground in order to restore the badly-needed grass. Without it, the burnt hills would have washed away during the winter.

I asked him why that fire was so bad.

Wildfire

Now, recall that this man is not a Seattle-area liberal. He’s wearing jeans worn smooth by saddle-leather on the inside of the thighs, he’s chewing tobacco, and if he doesn’t have a gun on him, he almost certainly has one in his truck. He says, “It’s climate change.”

At this point, I was just becoming interested in the topic, and I wanted to know how he came to that conclusion.

“Why, it’s pine beetles. Now that the winters are warmer, they’ve taken to infesting trees that they didn’t used to bother. The trees die, and a forest of dead trees makes a hot fire.”

How did he know it was about climate change? He’d spent every year working the same large farm. He knew change when he saw it, and he knew the difference between a bad year and change that settles in and stays.

I suppose part of why I remember that conversation so clearly is because my son is a wildland firefighter. A fire hot enough to sear the seed from the ground is frightening. It could sear people easily, and take houses and farms.

Multiple recent studies have backed up the cowboys’ story. A Seattle Times article from May of this year reported on the National Climate Assessment. The article said, “Warmer and drier conditions are already blamed for insect infestations and an increase in the number and ferocity of wildfires across the West since the 1970s. By 2080, the amount of forestland that burns every year in the Northwest is expected to quadruple, to 2 million acres.” Just last month, the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, suggested that the extreme wildfires that his state has experienced recently are caused by climate change. In 2013, Super-hot fires raced through Tasmania and New South Wales, Australia, fueled by the hottest and longest heat wave on record.  Valparaiso, Chile, was almost completely razed by wind-whipped forest fire earlier this year.

Climate change is not the only cause of fire activity. Many ecosystems such as our own in the Pacific Northwest, and California chaparral, benefit from regular fires. The cycle of burn/renewal can be disrupted when we fight wildfire so effectively that fuel builds up. Conscious fire management is going to be very important as we work toward a sustainable world.

  • We already occasionally do controlled burns today; it may become the norm to burn through wild lands regularly.  On purpose.  We’ll have accurate enough weather forecasts to be sure the weather helps instead of hurts, and we may even be able to control the weather.  Once more, this will take a different approach to land management and ownership.
  • We’ll have far better tools for firefighting. Technology such as drones and robotic firefighters will have become more widely used. While this may give us extra muscle in a firefight, in reality we may benefit the most from more information. Knowing where and how a fire is likely to spread can provide a lot of information about how – and whether – to fight it.
  • We may use the tools of genetic engineering to design plants that are more fire resistant, perhaps planting these at the wildland/urban boundary or as urban street trees. I couldn’t find any evidence that this is considered feasible yet, but genetic engineering is still in its dangerous infancy and will mature quite a bit over the next few decades.

Fire has always been with us, and without it much of modern human life might not have been possible. Our close relationship with fire has not historically extended to wildfire, but in the more controlled and gardened world of our future we may have to become masters of wildfire, both to adopt healthy wildfire as our friend and to mange the incidence of fire so hot that the seeds are seared from the soil.

We will also be grateful for our firefighters.  This picture was a found object on my bike ride in Bend, Oregon, just a few days ago.  This is a place that knows the danger of fire.

As always, here are some links:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-27033206

Wikipedia article on the Tasmanian bushfires

Forest fires and warming planet could accelerate deforestation in Amazon, Science News, April 15th, 2014, by Brooks Hays

Climate Change Increasing Massive Wildfires in the West, USA Today, April 19th, 2014, by Doyle Rice.