Los Angeles Times

Published October 20th, 2002 by Wade Graham

Just beyond the sprawling outskirts of Phoenix, the heat is 111 degrees and the rush-hour traffic shimmers like a mirage. A billboard filled with verdant pine trees beckons: ”Come to the real Arizona.” To the northeast, the landscape climbs from 1,500 feet in the Valley of the Sun to 7,000 feet along the forested Mogollon Rim, a magnet for vacation homes and retirement communities drawn by the promise of trout in cool streams and elk grazing beneath the ponderosa pines.

This day in early summer, the magnet is on fire. A stream of evacuees in pickups and RVs is heading the other way. Soon, flurries of ashes hiss against the windshield, air tankers lumber overhead toward the mountains and a thunderhead of smoke boils up from flames raging through the forest canopy 10 miles away. Arizona is suffering the largest fire in its history.

The blaze, known as the Rodeo-Chediski fire, tops the Mogollon Rim and is racing eastward. Most of the town of Overgaard and parts of Heber are quickly overrun. In the development of Pinecrest Lakes, 166 of 200 double-wide mobile homes are literally vaporized. In Bison Ranch, dozens of faux-log cabins are left twisted and smoking. Undeterred by an army of 4,500 firefighters and a squadron of air tankers, the fire surges outward along a 400-mile perimeter. To the north, it has jumped the highway in several places, making a fast run toward the high desert.

Up ahead, at 8,500 feet in the hamlet of Alpine, potentially in the path of the advancing flames, Arizona State University professor Stephen J. Pyne and his wife, Sonja, are packing up their cabin. The inferno is coming, just as he had long predicted. One of the world’s leading authorities on fire, Pyne has for years advanced the paradoxical prophecy that the greatest threat to America’s forests is not too much fire, but too little. In Pyne’s paradox, without regular, low-intensity wildfires to clear out undergrowth, the landscape will one day explode in devastating firestorms like the one nearby, fires so intense that they obliterate the forests and the creatures within them.

The Pynes’ cabin is a house with rounded wooden siding meant to look like logs, set in a sparse subdivision of similar houses carved into dense forest. Pyne greets me at the door. He is tall and lanky, with an open, bright face and a nearly constant smile. He’s younger looking than his 53 years and more relaxed than might be expected in light of his prodigious scholarly output. So far he has written 14 books, 11 of which compose a panoramic history of the world as seen through the lens of fire–an extraordinary ouevre for which he was awarded a MacArthur ”genius” fellowship in the late 1980s.

Inside, Sonja is carefully packing important items, leaving what they don’t mind losing–which she cheerfully admits includes the house itself if forced to choose between it and the ancient ponderosa pines outside. Pyne is packing too, in between telephone calls from the media. The national press this year is reporting a growing consensus that the ”fire deluge,” as Pyne and others have argued, is the unintended consequence of a century of government policy of putting out fires in the woods. What’s more, Pyne says, our attitudes toward fire ignore the historical reality that man’s role in nature has been to start fires, usually unintentionally, but almost always to healthy effect.

For nearly 100 years, Americans have been at war with wildfire, and we have been enormously successful, cutting U.S. acreage burned by 95%. But fire suppression has left the landscape loaded with fuel in the form of brush and trees. In effect, it has planted bombs in the forests. ”If you take the normal, historical rhythm of fire out, you get these kinds of horrific fires that scour out the landscape,” Pyne says. ”These are of a scale and intensity and size that are just beyond the range of what this forest can adapt to.”

A landscape some distance from the cabin illustrates his point. Under a low, leaden ceiling, a forest of black poles stands in a rolling black landscape punctuated by still-smoking stumps. White flakes of ash as big as autumn snowflakes blow lazily through the air and across the charred crust the soil has become, building low dunes against stumps and filling holes where trees had been. There is a pleasant, sweet smell of burning pine and juniper, exactly like a campfire. Every living thing has been killed, transformed into charcoal. Hiroshima in the pines–luckily with no human victims, though nationally 21 firefighters have already died this season.

Ultimately, the White Mountain Apache reservation, where the Rodeo-Chediski fire started, is the hardest hit. Of the acreage burned, two-thirds is reservation land. Timber is the among the top three sources of income on the reservation, which has 60% unemployment. The fire claimed 12 years of their harvest, worth perhaps $241 million and 400 jobs at the two mills. According to the Forest Service, the forest will take at least 100 years to return to what it was.

The news reports of this fire bring a parade of government officials repeating Pyne’s scenario like a mantra: There is too much fuel in the woods. But beyond that, the discussion quickly dissolves into a cacophony of old arguments, with the same antagonists drawing the same battle lines that have frustrated Pyne for years–environmentalists versus loggers arguing about U.S. forest policy, neither of them seeing the bigger picture.

In this fire season, Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl blames ”radical environmentalists. They would rather the forests burn than to see sensible forest management,” which to him means thinning out the forests by logging and burning the debris left behind.

Arizona Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull, who keeps a second home in Pinetop-Lakeside, rails: ”The policies that are coming from the East Coast, that are coming from the environmentalists, that say we don’t need to log, we don’t need to thin our forests, are absolutely ridiculous. Nobody on the East Coast knows how to manage these fires, and I for one have had it.”

On CNN’s “Crossfire,” conservative co-host Robert Novak taunts Kieran Suckling, director of the Arizona-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity: ”You have created a holocaust, haven’t you?”

Suckling’s reply: ”What’s wrong with these forests is they’ve been managed exclusively for timber industry profits for a hundred years. The old fire-resistant trees have been cut down and shipped to the timber mills and the fires have been suppressed because they were viewed to be dangerous to the timber industry . . . . I’ll tell you what’s happening right now in Arizona. The Forest Service is not focusing its thinning projects around the urban areas that are threatened. Instead, they’re off cutting down old growth trees in the wilderness, 30, 40, 50 miles from the nearest home.”

Pyne has heard it all before. ”I see the same sort of distressing political polarization” as in past seasons, he says. ”Nobody is willing to deal with the fire problem as a fire problem. They want to use it for something else.” That ”something else” is a series of agendas that beg a central question: How can we keep our forests and wildlife healthy?

For the logging lobby, fire is a disaster, eating up a valuable resource, ”standing board feet,” as trees are called. The industry’s approach is to ”go in and cut it out–which doesn’t solve the problem at all,” Pyne says, because it takes the largest trees and leaves behind smaller trees and other highly flammable material.

For the angry politicians, fire is the enemy, threatening the homeland–or at least its second homes. It’s the same view that guided the era of vigorous fire suppression and it leads back to the same precipice, Pyne says.

Environmentalists concede the need for logging and controlled burning to protect communities, but bridle at allowing either in the backcountry. They also see fires set by humans as unnatural. The Sierra Club’s policy is typical: in wilderness, ”fire should be managed primarily by the forces of nature.”

The flaw in that reasoning is a point that underlies much of Pyne’s research. Pyne insists that fire is not, in any useful sense, simply natural. The most common natural source of fire is lightning, but many landscapes in North America see little of it. Instead, for more than 10,000 years, when human hunters first came into North America, many fires, perhaps most of them, were set by people. Even in places with abundant lightning, like Arizona, the forests are also unmistakably shaped by ”anthropogenic” fire, which in Pyne’s lexicon, means fire started by people.

”The issue is that we need to start thinking seriously about is how fire belongs here,” he says. ”And we have to accept that we are the creature that has to make those decisions. It’s our ecological task. Other animals knock over trees, dig holes in the ground, eat plants, but we’re the fire creature, we’re the one creature that does that. It’s not enough to just turn it over to nature. If we can’t get fire right, we might as well resign from the Great Chain of Being, as far as I’m concerned.”

Forests need fires to germinate the seeds of many plants, to cycle nutrients and to create the mosaic of open spaces that underpin diversity. Many animals cannot survive without berries, grasses and other vegetation that flourish in sunny meadows where tall trees have been burned away. In the Banff National Park region of the northern Rocky Mountains, he continues, ”The big, charismatic creatures–bears, bighorn sheep, elk–are all dependent on fire-created landscapes. But there’s almost no lightning-caused fires in there. If we choose to stand aside and let nature do it, we’re going to eliminate all these animals.”

While the squabbling continues, the danger rises. By government estimates, the U.S. needs to reduce fuel on 70 million to 80 million acres; right now it is managing to deal with 2 million acres per year. The record-breaking fire season of 2002 is just one more hot summer in a ratcheting national bonfire. By mid-August, Oregon and Colorado had joined Arizona in suffering the worst fires in their history.

Forests need fires to germinate the seeds of many plants, to cycle nutrients and to create the mosaic of open spaces that underpin diversity. Many animals cannot survive without berries, grasses and other vegetation that flourish in sunny meadows where tall trees have been burned away. In the Banff National Park region of the northern Rocky Mountains, he continues, ”The big, charismatic creatures–bears, bighorn sheep, elk–are all dependent on fire-created landscapes. But there’s almost no lightning-caused fires in there. If we choose to stand aside and let nature do it, we’re going to eliminate all these animals.”

While the squabbling continues, the danger rises. By government estimates, the U.S. needs to reduce fuel on 70 million to 80 million acres; right now it is managing to deal with 2 million acres per year. The record-breaking fire season of 2002 is just one more hot summer in a ratcheting national bonfire. By mid-August, Oregon and Colorado had joined Arizona in suffering the worst fires in their history.

 

The week after his high school graduation in 1967, Pyne went to Grand Canyon National Park to take a job as a summer laborer. Instead he was offered a place on a five-man North Rim fire crew. Eighteen years old, living away from home for the first time, he fell in love in the classic coming-of-age sense: ”We were living on the rim of the Grand Canyon and getting paid for it: clearing the fire roads, cutting the limbs off trees, digging out of the mud,” and hiking all over the backcountry to find the source of smoke reported by lookouts. ”You become very sensitized to the landscape around you, to the things that matter: how the seasons come and where the winds are; to soil; to duff, because that’s where fire persists. You’re going to have to mop it up, you’re going to spend hours, days, at the wrong end of a shovel spading over smoking pine needles.

”It wasn’t just fighting fires, it was also the place. The rituals of your life were defined by the rhythms of fire and the geography of fire and the character of fire, and had there been no fire, there would have been no reason for the Park Service ever to send anybody out there. We got to go where most tourists didn’t. I didn’t ever want to leave.”

Most seasonal firefighters stay for two or three summers. Pyne stayed for 15, between college terms at Stanford University and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. He met Sonja at the North Rim and married her there five years later. (Long-term focus is one of his hallmarks. One summer he ordered pancakes, bacon and cantaloupe for breakfast 105 mornings in a row.)

With his PhD in hand but without an academic post in the lean job market of the late 1970s, still supporting himself as a seasonal firefighter, Pyne decided as a last gambit to combine his love of fire with history. The resulting book, ”Fire in America,” published in 1982, became an instant classic in the new field of environmental history and won him the MacArthur in 1988. The award funded a five-year peregrination to all five continents, where he did the research that underpins his five-volume ”Cycle of Fire,” the fire histories of America, Australia, the World, Antarctica (a place distinguished by the absence of fire), and what is acknowledged to be his masterpiece, ”Vestal Fire,” a fire history of Europe and European colonialism, published in 1997. His most recent book, “Year of the Fires,” while not part of the MacArthur series, touches on familiar territory in addressing government policy on firefighting before and after the year 1910, when a wave of wildfires threatened to consume the Western United States.

By ”treating fire as a larger cultural force,” putting it at the center of the narrative, Pyne has uncovered an analytical tool of surprising scope and power. In his work, fire is paradoxically both natural and cultural, acting like a Promethean ur-species, sometimes competing with, sometimes domesticated by, people. Nature gave us fire in the form of lightning, and we took it and altered it, making it the fire in the hearth of civilization and the engine that, by clearing land, helped create agriculture and allow its expansion into inhospitable zones. It is embedded in every society and landscape–as the biology of every continent except Antarctica has been, to some extent, fashioned by human fire use. In Australia, for example, Pyne argues convincingly that fire-stick-wielding aborigines literally created the landscape by favoring the fire-loving eucalyptus over other species.

Arizona is no exception. It has the highest incidence of fire caused by lightning in America and a long history of human occupation. Nowhere is this combination more keenly felt than in the ponderosa pinelands, where periodic fires fed by thick grasses left larger trees standing but cleaned out smaller trees and brush. Burned often enough, ponderosa forests can be largely fireproof. But when Euro-American settlement began 150 years ago, overgrazing soon stripped the grasses and bouts of logging cut out the old growth trees. Firefighting, believed to protect the resource, instead eliminated the janitor. Smaller trees grew into dense thickets, transpiring scarce water through their leaves so that springs and creeks dried up.

Bruce Babbitt, former Arizona governor and Interior Department secretary, says that when he was growing up, he could look out from his bedroom window in Flagstaff at the San Francisco Peaks, the 12,600-foot dormant volcano that looms over the city, ”and watch the change of the seasons across the mountain. You could see all these large parks, which were obviously originally cleared by fire, and across the years you could see them gradually closing in. In the area where we used to go skiing, you could actually watch the aspen forests, fire-generated, disappear, crowded out by fir trees.”

At the peak of the Rodeo-Chediski fire, I leave the Pynes to their packing and drive to Show Low, a town of 7,700 named for the Wild West card game by which a ranchhand won the land, now evacuated and serving as the base for the firefighting effort. I’m looking for Jim Paxon, a district ranger in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico and Forest Service spokesman on the fire.

It is eerily calm. Police cruisers and military units in Humvees patrol empty streets under a milky orange sun filtered through a light fall of ash. On the playing fields at the high school, swarms of blue crew tents are massed like jellyfish in a green sea. Parking lots stretching two blocks are jammed with TV satellite trucks. Five times daily, Paxon appears before TV cameras to announce the numbers of acres burned, of homes ”saved” and of those afforded no salvation. A Texan with a thick mustache and a laconic drawl, Paxon is the very definition of a grizzled veteran: since 1969, he has worked on some of the biggest wildfires in American history, and has seen the bodies of scores of firefighters taken out of the mountains.

”I’m a prescribed burner,” he tells me. ”Some of my own peers call me a pyromaniac. I burned 86,000 acres in the last four years in my little bitty district”–the Black Range, 560,000 acres of ponderosa and pinyon-juniper pine woodlands within the national forest. He can quantify the results: ”Where I’ve burned, I’ve got creeks that have been dry for 15, 20 years that are flowing water year round now.” Some areas of pinyon-juniper forest that have been thinned are yielding about 700 pounds per acre of grass, he says. “I can show you a biological desert, where there’s 400 juniper trees an acre, and you’re getting 200 pounds of forage [grass] an acre. I can show you where we burned and there’s 1,200 pounds.

”I take some of these old ranchers, in their 70s and 80s, and I walk ’em through blue grama grass that’s brushing their crotch, and they’ve never seen that.”

Paxon is the first to admit that his is a rare situation. His district is mostly wilderness in a near-empty quarter of a sparsely populated state, 50 miles from the closest thing to a city–Truth or Consequences, N.M., named after the game show. Successes like this do not constitute a nationwide model.

Paxon was also lead information officer on the May 2000 ”Los Alamos” fire in New Mexico, a prescribed fire at Bandelier National Monument that turned out of its intended track and blew toward the town of Los Alamos and the nearby national laboratory, where nuclear materials are kept. Conditions in Upper Frijoles Canyon, the target of the fuel-reduction burn, were probably too moist for burning, according to Pyne’s post mortem, while conditions in the ponderosas around Los Alamos were superb for a firestorm.

In spite of intensive firefighting efforts, the blaze was unstoppable, burning 42,849 acres, 235 homes and part of the lab itself. In its wake, prescribed burning fell under a cloud of smoke. Its record is, on the whole, good: In the last few decades, less than 3% of controlled burns have become uncontrollable–exactly the same percentage as the number of unintentional wildfires that defeat suppression efforts. But the exceptions make the perception. Some of the worst fires of the past 20 years have been escapes, Pyne says. Seven have killed firefighters; one burned a small town in Michigan to the ground.

Burning remains an art, not a science–one with innumerable variables that must line up for success, and a steep price for failure. Of those prescribed burns that are attempted, many end in failure–fizzling out, going the wrong way when the wind shifts or just not burning hot enough, singeing trees enough to kill them but not fell them, leaving standing deadwood that is more flammable than live trees. The burning also creates smoke, which few people associate with a wholesome weekend in the mountains.

”Urban people,” Pyne says, ”the only fire they see is a disaster–the car is burning, there was an accident, the house is burning, they see it on TV, it’s a crisis.” In their cabins in the pines, they can’t see the ”large fuels,” in firefighter parlance, for the trees. It’s tough to get them to cut down the trees that brush against their wood-shake roofs; it’s even harder to persuade them to welcome prescribed fire into the nearby woods.

Burning programs nationwide are routinely stifled by complaints about drifting smoke. The White Mountain Apache tribe, historically among the most aggressive controlled burners in the country, has seen its program severely curtailed when smoke sinks down into smog-choked Phoenix, pushing it into violation of clean-air statutes. In 1996, a fire closed Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport for three days to all but instrument landings.

Against that backdrop, advocates of prescribed burning have had to give ground to those who see a greater role for chainsaws in bringing the forests back into balance.

The nation unquestionably needs to find a way to put fire back into the landscape, on a huge scale. But how? It’s a riddle Pyne has struggled with for most of his career.

Back at the Pynes’ cabin, I ask if burning alone can restore the tangled ponderosa forest in which the house sits. ”No,” he replies. ”And I say that reluctantly. Twenty years ago, I would have said, ‘Yeah we took fire out, now what we need to do is just put it back in.’ But I think we’ve learned to our pain that it is not a reversible process. You can’t put fire back in the same way you took it out. It turns out to be very complicated. It’s like introducing a lost species: you can’t take wolves and dump them into Arrowhead Mall and expect that they’re going to behave as they would have 200 years ago. You can’t dump fire into some of these landscapes and expect that fire is going to dissolve all the ills out there.”

There is consensus that forest ”treatment” must involve a combination of cutting and burning. Smaller trees would be cut down and, along with other debris from the forest floor, either ground up or burned after the snow falls. In a given forest, the process might have to be repeated, and it might take several years.

Pyne cautions against any universal prescription. ”Right now it’s all slashing and burning, it’s all shoving biomass around, it’s all an engineering problem: we take out so much fuel, we kindle so many fires, or we suppress so many.”

Instead, the recipe must be tailored to the habitat. What works in a ponderosa pine forest won’t apply to a coastal Douglas fir forest, a lodgepole pine forest, a pinyon-juniper forest or chaparral. It will differ on north-facing slopes and south-facing slopes. And, to top Pyne’s paradox with another, he points out that, in some high-altitude forests, periodic ”stand-replacing” fires that strip away every living thing are ecologically normal and necessary. Thinning would only deprive them of the fuel they require.

”We’re talking about boutique burning,” Pyne says. ”Site specific, knowledge-intensive, time-intensive, and hugely expensive.”

The greatest barrier to free-burning fire is the growing phalanx of homes being built in fire-prone environments. Houses in the woods form the most bitterly contended front in the fire wars: the ”wildland/urban interface.” Now resources have to be committed to saving structures, at great cost and risk to firefighters trained and equipped to fight for territory, not lives or property. ”Suddenly the firefighter is even more compromised. Do you save the houses or the trees?” Pyne asks.

Perhaps fires like those this season will spur a keener awareness of the risks of building in fire-prone regions, and changes in attitudes and legal and financial incentives will follow. As Babbitt says, ”Living in the forest is dangerous, and ironically, in most of these areas there are no building codes at all. The governor and all the politicians are busy blaming everybody, but they seem to be unable to turn to the communities themselves and say, ‘You have a responsibility, and it’s about time to enact some building codes and to take some simple precautions.’ We still haven’t learned that lesson.”

Even in Los Alamos, Paxon says, people still resist providing buffer zones between the forest and their homes. Within four months of the fires there, some homeowners sought permission to build to within five feet of the national forest boundary. The existing setback was 15 feet. The city denied the request. The fire had burned 20% of Los Alamos, Paxon notes, yet among those in the other 80% were people who thought: “It’ll never happen to me.See, the big fire’s already come.”

In California, an explosive hillside intermix is a traditional form of urbanism, and it has shown a discouraging pattern. When a neighborhood burns in Malibu or Berkeley, the owners rebuild, generally with insurance and disaster relief money, building bigger and more expensive houses. Property values rise, the area becomes more desirable, and more houses are built even higher on the slopes. Eventually, another fire torches the neighborhood, and the insurance and relief payments, being larger, cover the cost of rebuilding even bigger structures, and so on. So far, no limit to this perverse cycle has been reached.

The federal land management agencies spent their entire fire-suppression budgets this year by mid-July. The Forest Service drained half of its reserve on just five fires. To continue the effort through the fire season, the agencies will have to ask for at least $1 billion in emergency appropriations–money the White House is loath to grant during a budget crunch and an election year, but which influential members of Congress are loath to deny constituents.

After the disastrous 2000 season, the Clinton administration secured passage of the National Fire Plan, with $2 billion in funding for mitigation efforts, including fuel reduction. To date, fewer than half of the national forest fire plans required by the legislation have been prepared–hence, little progress has been made. The money is regarded as just a down payment on a fuel-reduction bill that is expected to reach $12 billion over a decade.

By the end of August, the national burn tally exceeded 6.2 million acres–double the mark last summer, surpassing the year-to-date burn tally for the devastating 2000 fire season, the worst ever recorded. Various governments spent $1.6 billion fighting those fires, calling out 30,000 firefighters.

Pointing to these numbers, the Bush administration is pushing Congress to exempt 10 million acres from environmental laws to clear the way for “treatment”–mostly by for-profit logging, not burning. Environmentalists counter that the White House is using the fires as a smoke screen for letting loggers back into the wilderness, setting back decades of environmental gains.

Pyne is not optimistic. ”You’re going to see some change around the houses. Congress is tired of having houses burning on TV,” he says. Some national parks and monuments will have a form of preventive treatment, including prescribed fires. But the vast expanses of generic public lands, the 50% of the West owned by federal agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, remain in danger of catastrophic fires and, in their wake, cascading biological shifts that no one can predict.

”It’s hard to justify billions of dollars and years and years of effort to try and prevent it from burning under extreme conditions,” Pyne says. ”The likely scenario is they’d rather spend $12 billion on prescription drugs. We’ve just put them aside until we tackle those other issues, but fire isn’t waiting and fire is going to chew those lands up.”

Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire eventually destroyed 467 structures and blackened 468,638 acres. Its eastward advance, toward the Pynes’ cabin, was stopped by an Apache fire crew working day and night in a last-ditch effort along a fire line that had been cleared two years before in a controlled burn. The earlier fire had successfully removed enough undergrowth and small trees that the new fire was deprived of fuel. When it hit the line, the inferno ”just lay down and died,” says Rick Lupe, a 24-year firefighting veteran and head of the Apache crew. The Pynes’ cabin was spared.

The same thing happened to Colorado’s Hayman fire. After joining with the Arizona fire, it, too, ran into a previous prescribed burn and died.

The lessons seemed clear.

As I left the cabin, Sonja gave me two gifts: a bag of cookies and a sack of ponderosa pine cones she had soaked in paraffin to make foolproof firestarters for the fireplace.