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The Firefight

Steve PyneSteve Pyne is a fire historian, professor at Arizona State University, and the author of over 20 books, including "Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires." We asked him to join the conversation about privatized firefighting raised in this week's segment "Fire, Inc."

The firefight is the great set-piece of American fire management. It seems so obvious: Control the bad fires before you introduce good ones. Seize the battlefield. The drama is overpowering, a moral equivalent of war; exciting, potentially lethal, inextinguishably telegenic. For some seven decades the U.S. threw everything it had into the fight against fire. It won far more battles than it surrendered, and in the end it lost the war.

In truth, fire’s suppression began on the western public lands with overgrazing in the 1870s and the abolition of aboriginal burning. The first stripped out the fine surface fuels that carry fire, and the latter, a source of ignition that had kept fire constantly simmering. Not until the early 20th century did active firefighting become organized. Then, led by the U.S. Forest Service, it scaled up. During the New Deal, a bold “experiment on a continental scale” that aspired to end the fire menace once and for all led to the 1935 10 AM policy, which stipulated a single standard for every fire: control by 10 AM the morning following its report. Destroy every small fire and you prevent all the big ones.

That assault only created an ecological insurgency that has steadily worsened, and over the past couple of decades of western drought has become uncontainable. Like a declaration of martial law, the firefight is a means to put down a temporary bout of environmental unrest; it is not a means by which to govern. The outcome has been more fuels on the land, more savage fires, more damages and dangers, and more expensive efforts at suppression. Agency doubts surfaced during the 1994 season, and became public as the 2000 fires revisited the Northern Rockies and the fire-storied landscapes of the Big Blowup of 1910.

Worse, the suppression strategy has never coped, even intellectually, with the conundrum of the big fire or big fire season. However elaborate, the temporary demands of a major eruption of fires across a region will overwhelm the ability to hit and hold every fire while it is small. Yet once a burn becomes big, the initial-attack strategy behind suppression collapses. Besides, high-intensity fires are exactly what certain biotas crave. At some point, probably when the country has burned through whatever monies it can borrow, the spectacle will lose its attractions, and suppression will become what it should have been from the start: a means to assist the other strategies.

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