Week 2 Post: Media and Wildfire

Everyone loves a good story.

What follows is a brief story about story-tellers.

Hopefully it’s good.

If you’ve ever seen media coverage of a non-event, something truly uninteresting, you may have noticed that some people just love to tell stories. One particularly dull day in news history, my local newspaper, The Register Guard, posted a story about how the local middle school janitor loves his job.

It was one of the most engaging pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered.

News persists because journalists are good storytellers, but sometimes the stories are so powerful–so terrifying–that they seem to write themselves. These stories play on our fears and our emotions. They appeal to our hearts. These are stories of life and death, disaster and heroism. These are stories of wildfire.

In the summer of 2013, 19 men gave their lives defending the dusty little town of Yarnell, Arizona. In the spring of 2000, more than 200 families in Los Alamos watched as their homes went up in smoke. In 1988, the nation’s first national park seemed engulfed in the flames of an unstoppable fire. Something about wildfire speaks to people. Whether it affects acres of beloved forest land, structures we call home, or people whom we love, the consuming nature of fire is something to be respected. The absolute power of wildfire is a spectacle, and it’s impossible to report on it without in some way conveying that. The language used by reporters in each of these stories is similar because they all cover a powerful topic. In many cases, their diction is justified.

In the summer of 2019, a lightning struck in the Malheur national forest, causing a fire to break out deep in a roadless area. After spotting the fire, managers decided to hem it in–mostly with existing roadways–and let it burn. They did, and it burned at a variety of severities, reducing fuels and leaving behind a beautiful mosaic of forested landscape. This is a beautiful story about the proper use of fire on the landscape. It tells a new story about fire, a good story. It informs people that when they smell smoke, all is not lost. It’s uplifting, reassuring, and helpful.

A Google search of media coverage for that fire yields no results.


Week 1 Post: Fire Policies Compared

In 1920, former Forest Service Chief William B. Greeley wrote an article titled,”‘Paiute Forestry’ or the Fallacy of Light Burning.” In his article, he argues against the practice of controlled burning as a solution for many issues, from fire management to timber production.

Greeley starts by talking about how fire exclusion in US forests has been hugely successful, and the few large fires that have happened were not preventable. He uses the state of European forests as an example, saying that our forests are currently on par with theirs. He describes light burning as harmful, misguided, and outdated. He describes light burning as frequent burning (every 3 or 4 years) of understory litter without harming young trees. He describes type conversion of pine forests into shrublands, and extolls the efficiency of continuous monitoring of forests for rapid fire suppression. He accuses advocates of light burning of seeking deforestation through light burning for personal gain before dismissing it entirely in favor of the current forest protection plan.

It wouldn’t be fair to dismiss Greeley as a crack-pot relic who never knew anything about forestry. He was well-educated and experienced, graduated from Yale Forest School before rising to the rank of Chief of the Forest Service (Forest History Society). What we read in his 1920 article, then, is more complicated than a tirade.

First, let’s clear up an issue with his definition. Our current mean fire return interval (MFRI) for dry/mixed conifer forests is 5-50 years (Steel 2015). That return interval would allow understory fuels to accumulate to acceptable levels where a reburn wouldn’t further damage trees or cause a large conflagration.

Later, Greeley repeatedly compares what he calls “timber mining” with forest protection. So much of forest management has to do with the objectives of the manager. Here we see Greeley in a better light. He truly wishes to protect the forests in his charge from harvesting with total disregard for the future of the forest, which likely accounts for his passion in writing this. To the best of his knowledge, light burning is thinly veiled timber mining. Now we know that light burning, or “prescribed burns” as we call them, are beneficial in numerous ways. Greeley emphasizes the importance of young trees and new growth, but we now know the danger of stands dominated by pole-sized trees. He was worried about fires getting out of hand and destroying forestland (which does happen), but his mistake was settling into acceptance of the inevitability of conflagrations like the fires of 1910 and failing to see that the forests of the golden age of logging in the west were a result of “Paiute forestry.”

We’re still seeing the results of fire exclusion, and we likely will for decades. Ironically, the very thing that he feared is happening as a result of the strategy he advocated. Forests are being wiped out by large fires and some are being converted into shrubland and grassland.