What we talk about when we talk about fire, Part 2

In Part 1 of my introduction to this blog, I discussed broadly some ideas relating to science communication and hinted at a divide between the way we talk about wildfire in the popular media and the way it’s discussed within the fire science community. In the former, it’s mainly smoke, structures, and suppression. Smokey Bear is still relatively popular. For the latter, hip topics (judging by the Large Wildland Fires Conference that I attended this past May) include resilience, climate change, fuel treatments and forest management, invasive species, and critiques of Smokey. In Part 2 of the introduction, I aim to illustrate this divide with an anecdote from the past year.

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View from inside a hollowed out stump.

This story involves the Rim Fire. The Rim Fire, which started in August 2013, burned over 250,000 acres in and adjacent to the western side of Yosemite National Park. It is the third largest fire on record in California history. The Rim Fire was a pretty big deal. You can read more about it here, here, and here. Last May, I had the opportunity to check out parts of the burn area firsthand. A friend, Jan, was scoping out field sites and needed someone to go along, so we donned our hard hats and backpacks and headed to Yosemite. We entered the park through the Stanislaus National Forest, and as a result our first stop was the Forest Service office, where we sorted out permits and gate keys. The office was full of information about the Rim Fire. But Smokey Bear was everywhere–you could buy Smokey jar openers and foam balls featuring Smokey’s face to stick on your car antenna. The message on the Smokey paraphernalia was as it has been since his early days: “Prevent Wildfires.” I’d like to talk more about Smokey at a later date–but for now, I’ll just suggest that Smokey’s message isn’t very nuanced and translates to many people as “Wildfire = Bad.” When the woman at the desk heard where we were headed, she said something along the lines of, “It’s a real shame you have to see [the park] like this!”

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Dancing trees!

But it wasn’t a real shame. It was, in fact, completely awesome. The forest had been transformed into a kind of natural modern art museum: fifty foot blackened snags connected only to the earth by three inches of wood, balancing like a game of Jenga, hollowed out stumps that you could climb inside and examine the jagged edges reaching towards the sky, pieces of tree bark scattered across the ground like puzzle pieces emptied from a box flipped upside down, a hundred foot pine with a hollowed out base with a cut out that looked quite like a heart, small trees whose branches bent and leaned as if they were characters frozen in motion. Jan said it looked like they were dancing.

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Snags reaching towards the sky.

Our boots squished into ashy soil on some slopes and slipped over deep piles of pine needles on others. And there, only eight months after the fire, between the downed logs and among the dancing branches, were tiny tree seedlings sprouting fresh needles, grasses and shrubs glowing green in the sunshine, and purple flowers blooming through the ash. Far from being a forest lost or destroyed, as the newspapers would have you believe, it was a forest in action, like I’d never seen one before. I wished everyone I knew could see it too, but a post-fire forest is dangerous due to falling trees, and I knew tourist hikes weren’t going to be happening there any time soon.

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Balancing like a Jenga game.

The Rim Fire was a big, severe fire, and I don’t mean to suggest that we should just accept such fires as the status quo just because they can be beautiful. Although there is some evidence that severe fires are not new, there is also evidence that the frequency of such fires has increased, whether due to hotter, drier conditions and longer fire seasons, fire suppression history, or a combination. These fires do threaten homes and livelihoods and they do impair air quality. They can lead to erosion and flooding, and habitats can be destroyed even as others are created. And though I saw regrowth happening, forests can have difficulty recovering from severe fires when the heat is too much for seeds stored in the soil or cones. When a fire is big, colonizers from outside the fire perimeter are just too far away.

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Forest regrowth at the Rim Fire.

In order to deal with fires on our landscapes, in our National Parks and near our homes, we need to accept that fire is a part of our forests (and shrublands and grasslands) whether we like it or not. If we want to protect houses, we need to talk about defensible space. If we want to reduce severity, we need to talk about how we can put more funds into research and forest management and less into suppression while still keeping communities safe. If we care about air quality, we need to discuss the best way to manage smoke from prescribed fires. If we care about firefighters’ lives, we need to talk about whether it’s worth putting them at risk to protect structures. But all of these conversations require acknowledging that fire plays a complex role in our ecosystems and our society and that wildfire is not simply a terrible thing to be prevented at all costs or a tragedy that destroys our forests.

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A heart carved by fire.

Upcoming topics to look out for: the King Fire in the news, musings on fire ecology education, and more. If you have an idea for a topic, an article that you thought was great or terrible, or want to write a post yourself, please comment below.

P.S. While I’ve got you, be sure to check out Capital Public Radio’s recent multimedia piece called “California Burning.” Very cool, and touches on a wide variety of fire related topics, from fire behavior in shrublands and forests to home insurance concerns and defensible space. Featuring UC Davis’s own Malcolm North!

One thought on “What we talk about when we talk about fire, Part 2

  1. Pingback: In the Black & Green at Stebbins Reserve | What We Talk About When We Talk About Fire

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