More basically, we have long misdiagnosed the problem. The emphasis has been on the wildland half of the equation, not the urban one. But it makes more sense to think of homes in hazardous settings as fragments of cities — exurban enclaves and suburban fringes with forested landscaping — rather than as wildlands cluttered with two-by-fours. We know how to keep houses from burning. And we should know that if we build houses in the fire equivalent of a flood plain or a barrier island, the primary responsibility for protecting them is ours.
Regime change when it comes to wildland fire is even trickier. Prescribed, or controlled, fire is a foundational principle in the Southeast, where places such as Florida are succeeding in replacing wild fire with tame fire, but it has foundered in the West. Efforts to get ahead of the flames are meager. The largest, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona, proposes to treat up to 50,000 acres a year for 10 years by thinning and burning. As a point of comparison, the nearby 2011 Wallow fire burned 538,000 acres in one savage swipe.
America’s firescapes also have a dangerous backlog; every wildland fire put out becomes a fire put off. The land eventually combusts as it must. Some burns are severe, some benign. For reasons of cost, firefighter safety and ecological integrity, fire officers will have to work with the handful of fires — the 1 percent or so — that are doing the burning for all. Such megafires now account for more than 85 percent of costs and burned area.
Out of the legacy of such monsters, we must reconstruct more fire-resilient landscapes. But our institutional landscapes demand preparation as much our natural ones. We need the ability to move quickly when breaks in the weather occur. We can’t rely on single-site projects or approval processes tied to the lottery of bad fire years. We need torch-ready projects with approvals and funding on hand.
Yet, we have underinvested in fire for so long that the catch-up costs seem staggering. The traditional inclination is to rely on emergency interventions rather than systemic reforms; in this way, fire management resembles public health. There is ample money and will for a response when a crisis is at hand, but little for the patient labor of prevention, innoculations and general wellness. Worse, the cost of emergencies is stripping away everything else. For example, the Forest Service just took $600 million from elsewhere in its budget to pay for fighting fires this summer.
And finally, the workforce. Our attempt to suppress fire in a paramilitary fashion has unhinged landscapes and provoked fires that firefights alone cannot contain. The fire community is growing weary of throwing crews at flames in a vain and sometimes lethal attempt to battle what, under extreme conditions, cannot be controlled. It may instead opt for a hurricane model in which warnings are issued, people board up windows and clean gutters, and then leave or stay as they choose, while crews wait for the flames to blow through before returning. The fact is, you control wildland fires by controlling the countryside.
What we need as much as money is consensus about how we live in that countryside, or at least agreement about how to decide. This year’s blazes also show why the National Cohesive Strategy for fighting fires — a project set in motion by Congress to protect against bad fires, promote good ones, and assemble a workforce and the resources to do so — is both necessary and tricky. The strategy is a bold attempt to gather the federal government and volunteer fire departments, states and counties, public agencies and private landowners around the fire they all share. But they need to face one another across that fire, not stand with their backs to the flames and use them to animate some other message to special interest audiences. And then Congress needs to join them. The legislation that mandated the national strategy has already stumbled because of underfunding.
It’s probably too late to do more than flee skillfully from the fires we face today. But we can begin positioning ourselves for the ones to come.
Stephen Pyne, a historian in the school of life sciences at Arizona State University, is writing a book about the history of fire in the United States since 1960.