Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Wallow Fire: The monster that didn't have to awaken

Stephen J. Pyne in the Arizona Republic: It's never too early to second-guess, but as the Wallow Fire continues to rake through the White Mountains like a giant grizzly paw, it's worth reviewing how such a burn could happen.

…Letting fires burn freely in the backcountry is cheap, safe and ecologically benign until, inevitably, one bolts free, rips through towns, smokes in valleys, and overruns protected places outside its designated domain. Setting prescribed burns replaces nature's fires with tamer surrogates until they fail to do the ecological work required or one slips its leash and runs amok. Large-scale landscaping - clearing, thinning, building roads, converting - can change the behavior of fires but does not eliminate them. Big fires can still ramble, and the meddling can fundamentally mar the character of the land under protection. Firefighting, or fire suppression, loses 2 to 3 percent of fires under extreme conditions. The resulting firefight is like a declaration of martial law, a means to put down a temporary insurrection; it is not a means to govern. Trying to exclude fire in naturally fire-prone places only stirs up an ecological insurgency.

Each approach fails on its own. What has a chance to work is a mixture of strategies, adjusted to particular places. Restoration takes time, patience and support from a sustaining society. Its prescriptions are political as much as ecological. Like a culture's architecture or legal system, its fire regimes reflect the choices it makes and the values on which it bases them.

…What is striking about the American style of fire is how technically robust it is and how politically dysfunctional and inept in practice so much of it has become. There are exceptions. Florida has mastered prescribed fire and created a legal framework to make it work. Southern California knows how to battle fires in the I-zone, where wildland and a city slam together. The Gila Wilderness has, over 40 painstaking years, evolved a natural fire program…

A satellite photo of the Wallow Fire on June 7, 2011

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