Once Upon a Time With a Princess Scientist on the Fireline
I like Twitter because it expands the range of ideas I see each day. My feed is still certainly skewed toward folks that mostly agree with me and I with them, but even among this crowd it makes me think on a daily basis. Twitter can also be infuriating, but I think it’s worth it to watch conversations unfurl in front of my eyes, post to thread, replies branching out in every which way, just as an in-person conversation might. Anyway, here’s one small story of me, Twitter, and something we’ll call the “science princess.”
Some time back a post went around showing a t-shirt parents could buy for their children. It was a shirt intended for girls, intended to counteract the dominance of princesses in the market for girls clothing and toys. It said “Forget princess, I want to be a scientist!” If you google, you can find this slogan printed on t-shirts of all colors, onesies, sweatshirts. In one photo, a little girl holds a sign with the slogan at a march, perhaps the Women’s March, or the Science March. Many female scientists I know love this kind of thing immediately. Children wanting to be princesses is emblematic of wanting to grow into a role where you don’t do very much–you dress up and wait for someone to save you. It stands in contrast to an active job like scientist.
My first inclination, too, was to like the post and move on. Yes to little girl scientists who take action, no to princesses who find happy endings in marriage only. But I clicked on the replies, as one is wont to do on Twitter when there are a thousand other things to do but suddenly seeing what everyone else thought seems really important. And one poster wrote, “why can’t you be a princess AND a scientist?”
I was thinking about this recently because of a series of events in my own life a few months ago. Just after Thanksgiving, I went to a fire science conference in Orlando, Florida, (home of none other than the Disney Princesses), where I participated in my first prescribed burn. Less than a week later, I was the maid-of-honor in my sister’s wedding. I traveled directly from one to the other, packing my clothing for each event into one suitcase. For the burn, I wore the standard issue fire-resistant Nomex green pants and yellow shirt. I wore a yellow hard hat on my head, leather gloves on my hands, and on my feet–a new-old pair of leather work boots. Eight inches tall, thick soles, no steel toes, to protect my feet from heat and flames. I found the boots on e-bay, exactly what I needed, for cheap, and when they came, I was prepared for them not to fit. But they fit perfectly. It was like something out of Cinderella. A real princess story. At the burn, I put the whole thing on, held a drip torch, set the land on fire. I saw ecological restoration in action, pondered the physics of heat transfer, the wonders of engineering drip torches and pumps, saw a land transformed. I was a scientist that day, but it was a day full of magic, too.
A week later, I dressed thoughtfully again, head to toe. This time I wore a floor-length gown with a (fake) jewel-studded neckline and a full skirt, silvery and floral and twirlable. The dress had deeper pockets than most pants that I own. I had a “crown” braid in my hair, my nails were painted silver, which matched my silver shoes. I stood in support of my sister and gave a silly speech that mentioned PhDs and psychology and proteomics (and, for good measure, a few bars from Hamilton). And in between I schmoozed with friends and family in my fancy dress and talked to a lot of people about fire science, prompted by the coinciding of an event where people ask you to remind them exactly what it is that you do and the early days of the largest fire in California history. And in those moments, I was certain that you could, in fact, be both a princess and a scientist.
Regardless of what princess has meant in history, princess stories are appealing because they involve adventure, power, and usually a bit of magic. And as flawed as the Disney stories are, I’ve enjoyed watching Disney reshape the princess concept over time while maintaining their best features. The adventures have moved around the world, the power structures have shifted, and the magic remains. The Disney Princesses have long been rich characters, who think for themselves and have their own interests and stand up for themselves and others. In Beauty and the Beast, we got the book-loving Belle, and later, warrior Mulan. Many adults have tired of Frozen, or never bothered to watch, but I found it thrilling to see a movie with two flawed heroines, and one that blatantly acknowledges and questions the narratives we’ve been taught by earlier movies (“You can’t marry someone you just met!” Elsa asserts, near the beginning of the movie.”)
I’m still wary of some elements of princess culture. The princess who waits for a prince, for whom marriage is the end of the story, who won’t get dirty and try new things, we can still question that. But that may not be what princess means anymore. It’s often easier to reclaim, reinvent, and redefine than to throw words and concepts out entirely, and I think that’s happened with princesses.
As we try to bring diverse perspectives into the sciences, we should take care to ensure that we question the cultural norms in our fields and welcome everyone–regardless of what they wear or how rugged they seem. After all, the important bits of being a scientist are not too different from the best parts of princess stories: a penchant for adventure (whether for wading through swamps or libraries), the power to ask questions and plan investigations, and a sense of wonder. And of course, we can be scientists and have other roles, too, wearing different hats (or different shoes) as different situations arise.
Creating a welcoming environment is easier said than done, though. Like many ecologists and geologists, fieldwork was part of what drew me into those fields as an undergrad. I loved my geology field course in college where we hiked and camped and looked at rocks all week, then took our smelly, long unshowered selves to dinner at an El Paso restaurant where a large group of high schoolers were all dressed up and having their pre-prom dinner. I loved finding “my people” in these fields.
But getting back to the things I learn on Twitter: some time ago, there was an interaction that centered around a geoscientist who had felt excluded by all the outdoorsyness. All the hiking and camping wasn’t something they’d grown up with, and it was one more way that they were made to feel like they weren’t really welcome there. Someone pointed out that many geoscientists did important work without ever going into the field. And as fondly as I remembered that geology field trip, I had to admit that was true.
What requirement is there, really, to being a geoscientist or ecologist, besides being a person who studies the earth?
Having conversations about the delights of Carhartt work pants is nice. Having conversations about cool new ideas is nicer. Working on projects designed and executed by humans with diverse perspectives and backgrounds and hobbies and training, bringing everyone’s input into solving real problems? Even better. Let’s aim for that as our happily ever after.
A Florida Fire Story: A Visit to the Disney Wilderness Preserve
In December, I visited Orlando, FL and the nearby Disney Wilderness Preserve for the Association for Fire Ecology’s Fire Congress and a prescribed burn organized by the Student Association for Fire Ecology and The Nature Conservancy. I was eager to attend these fire events in Orlando, not because of Disney World and warm weather (though these were perks!), but because I was excited to talk about and learn about fire in the state that is arguably the birthplace of fire ecology. Because the West so frequently dominates the national discussion on fire, many people are surprised to learn that not only does Florida burn, but that the first fire ecology conference, in 1962, was held at Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee. I’d heard about Florida’s fire-maintained longleaf pine savannas, but I’d never seen one, and I was eager to learn a new fire story. Furthermore, The Nature Conservancy has been a major player in using fire as a restoration tool since those early days of fire ecology, so I’m always excited to learn more about their work.
I saw my first longleaf pine savannas just before I set one on fire, and that first day was concerned more with burning than natural history. But the next day, wind conditions made burning a no-go, so we took a tour of the preserve and witnessed the beauty of a native Florida longleaf pine savanna. The Disney Wilderness Preserve is a wonder of fire-based restoration ecology. The preserve was established in 1992 through an agreement with the Walt Disney Company, The Nature Conservancy, and other organizations and agencies. The Federal Clean Water Act and Florida’s Henderson Act require that any project that destroys wetlands compensate for that action with mitigation efforts. Often this is done by creating small, artificial wetlands near the project site, which don’t work nearly as well as the large, continuous natural wetlands that have been fragmented and destroyed. So in the late 80-early 90s, when Disney was planning to build Animal Kingdom and other expansions and about to destroy large tracts of wetland to do so, they took a different path: instead of many small artificial wetlands, they purchased 8,500 acres of a property in Kissimmee, Florida, called Walker Ranch. Disney’s agreement with TNC transferred ownership and management to the Nature Conservancy. Three-thousand additional acres were added later. You can read an in-depth history of the Preserve here.
The relative benefits of a single large or several small reserves has been long debated in conservation biology, but in this case there is little question that the 11,500 acre Disney Wilderness Preserve is a better functioning ecosystem than a series of small, artificial wetlands would have been. And one of the benefits is the ability to use fire to manage the huge portions of the reserve that are not wetlands, including the native longleaf pine savannas and Florida scrub. The longleaf pine savannas of the Preserve have now been fully restored using frequent prescribed fire by The Nature Conservancy team.
Following restoration, it now resembles what much of Florida likely looked like hundreds of years ago, before the first Europeans came to Florida, before the land was fragmented and transformed into golf courses and retirement villages and massive theme parks featuring fake trees of life and animatronic animals.
Learning about the active history of fire in Florida can be surprising, given the state’s swampy weather much of the year. But Florida has one of the highest rates of lightning strikes in the world, and all that water makes the plants very happy. They grow quickly. Those plants dry out during a brief dry season in early spring and are ready fuels when thunderstorms come again later in the spring. In the sweet spot after the season’s first lightning strikes have begun and before the new rains soak the fuels again, fires once burned vast areas of land in Florida, with these longleaf pine savannas burning every few years, a fire interval much shorter than we see in even the “frequent fire” mixed conifer forests of the West. Today at the Disney Wilderness Preserve, the Nature Conservancy burns the land every few years, mostly during the spring, to mimic this natural frequency.
On the tour, we ride in a massive green buggy on the preserve’s sandy dirt roads. All around us, lovely longleaf pines stand tall enmeshed in a low understory of palmetto. It feels like we’re driving around an African savanna, though the lone mammal we spot is the black lab pup that headed out with us that morning. Panthers have been known to cross this landscape, though, and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker thrives in the longleaf pine savanna. Our guide shows us the woodpecker boxes that the preserve staff has used to help reintroduce the bird here. Aside from the restored longleaf pine system, we also see Florida scrub (burned on a longer interval than the pine savanna), where we spot the state’s only endemic bird, the Florida scrub jay. One of our last stops is a small platform on the edge of a wetland, where we spot a congregation of baby alligators.
Our guides tell us that their preserve is so well managed using fire that when a wildfire happens today, they need to do very little to manage it. The preserve has excellent fire breaks, and the vast majority of the land has burned within the past few years, keeping fuel loads low. In the buggy, I ask our guides a question they get a lot: if there’s so much lightning in Florida, and it’s so easy to manage lightning fires now that the land has been restored, why do they continue to do prescribed fires? Why not let nature do the job now?
The answer is this: it won’t work. The lightning may still be there, but too few lightning strikes will hit the preserve to burn this area frequently enough to mimic the historical fire regime. Before this land was developed, a single lightning strike could start a fire that covered thousands of acres. The land of the Disney Wilderness Preserve could burn from a fire started well outside its modern boundary. But there is so little continuous land now. Even when it’s possible for fire to spread across the land as it is now, it’s not preferable to let them do so–there are neighborhoods and roads and theme parks covering much of that land. (Florida does sometimes see large wildfires on the scale of what we see out west–most famously the 1998 wildfires, which burned over 474,000 acres, so fire can carry under extreme conditions.) So the Disney Preserve sets the fires.
This is a really terrific example of what restoration can be–restoration at its best is not about perfectly recreating a long lost history. It’s about building healthy, resilient ecosystems that consider history, present, and future. It’s hands on. It considers the neighbors–burning on the best days for smoke management–but it still takes bold action. (An aside: at the conference, other Florida land managers told us that the neighbors are very interested in their prescribed burns–they’ll stop by in golf carts and watch the fun.)
There are places in the West, too, that are models of restoration using prescribed fire. Sequoia National Park is one such place. But at the same time, the fire stories of the West and the Southeast developed differently. There are larger stretches of public land in the West, while the Southeast is more of a patchwork of private land. Prescribed fire has enjoyed a greater degree of public awareness in the Southeast. The West has to deal with large wildfires more often. In California, our Mediterranean climate gives us a much larger proportion of the year without water.
Restoration happens on local landscapes, and we have to know our local fire stories to do it. But sometimes taking a trip and learning a new fire story helps to think about our home landscapes in new ways.
The Firelighters of Florida: On the ground at my first prescribed burn
In December, I participated in my very first prescribed burn.
For all my reading and writing about fire, I had never been part of a burn. I’d been waiting for this moment for seven years. In 2010, I had a summer job with The Nature Conservancy, based in New Paltz, NY. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has been a leader in using fire for ecosystem restoration and management for decades, so even though we were not in a fire hotspot, fire was a big focus for the New Paltz office. During that summer, TNC was running the training courses that are a prerequisite to many jobs that use fire, like wildland firefighting and many prescribed fire positions. These courses are offered by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group and include S130 (Introduction to Wildland Firefighting) and S190 (Introduction to Fire Behavior). These courses are usually supplemented by shorter FEMA courses on the National Incident Management System and a rigorous physical “pack test.” I completed the requirements at the end of the summer, and I was eager to set stuff on fire. I returned to college in Chicago, and signed up for an e-mail list that recruited locals to help with prescribed burns in the greater Chicagoland area. Unfortunately, most burns were on weekdays, when I had classes, and were difficult to access without a car, so I never participated.
In August, the Student Association for Fire Ecology announced that they would be organizing a prescribed burning opportunity in conjunction with the International Fire Congress in Orlando. I signed up right away, but my qualifications had expired, so I spent my spare hours in the fall retaking the online courses. I pulled out the leather gloves my coworker at TNC had given me, ordered a pair of leather work boots on eBay (8-inches high, no steel toe). I packed everything up alongside my conference clothes (and a maid-of-honor dress, but that’s another story!), and headed to Florida.
On Saturday evening, following a week of conference talks, we headed out to the Disney Wilderness Preserve, about 45 minutes from Orlando. There were 11 students. We got to know each other over dinner and jigsaw puzzles in the preserve dormitory. Ten graduate students, one undergrad. Nine women, two men–a highly unusual ratio for a fire-related event. Nine had been on a prescribed fire before, and many had extensive experience working with fire, both in firefighting and prescribed fire (“firelighting”, if you will). It was a formidable but friendly group. And one thing I learned quickly–people who’ve burned before love it a lot, and are really excited for newbies to share their joy.
Another thing I learned: prescribed fire involves a lot of “hurry up and wait.”
We headed to the preserve office around 9 am on Sunday. When we arrived, those of us who needed to borrow gear found flame-resistent Nomex pants and shirts and hard hats that fit (more or less), and suited up. Most of the gang had brought their own. We drank coffee in the office until the rest of the burn crew arrived.
When everybody arrived, we introduced ourselves. We were a mix of TNC Florida employees, students, and other volunteers. The whole operation was headed up Zachary Prusak, TNC Central Florida’s Conservation Director and burn boss (you can read a cool interview with Zach here). Zach handed out maps of the area we would burn and told us the fire plan: we would burn a 5-acre triangle near the dorm. He’d hoped to burn a different, larger area, but the winds would’ve blown smoke straight into a nearby neighborhood (you can see on the map below how close neighborhoods are!). We talked about a weather station that we’d need to protect (spot it near A on the map) and identified safety zones and escape routes. We discussed how we would protect the longleaf pine trees, which were more vulnerable in our December burn than they would be in a natural spring burn. Next, we assigned roles: a student, Peter would be Burn Boss as a trainee, under Zach’s supervision. Two more students, Kayla and Anjel, were Squad Boss trainees, leading squads A and B, which would work different parts of burn. Carrie was Fire Effects Monitor (FEMO), meaning she would monitor, record, and report on fire behavior and weather data throughout the burn. Each crew had an engine (a pickup rigged with pumps and hoses) and a UTV (also rigged up with hoses), and crew members in charge of the vehicles. We piled in and headed to the site.
We waited. We ate oranges. Crew A cleared fuel around the weather station. We got our first weather report from Carrie. Finally, it was the moment we’d all been waiting for: setting stuff on fire. We began with a small test fire.
Most prescribed fires use a driptorch. This is a really cool device that drips fire onto the ground. Inside the torch is a fuel mix of gasoline and diesel fuel. Attached to the top is a hose with a wick at the end. When you tip the torch toward the ground and the wick is lit, fuel runs through the hose, is ignited by the flame at the tip, and falls to the ground. If you tip the torch quickly down and then up, you can drop “dots” of fire. If you leave it pointed down as you walk, you can drip a stream of fire in a line along the ground. In the video below, you can check out the fire burning in the longleaf pine savanna. Later in the video, watch Amanda Stamper, manager of TNC’s fire program in Oregon, continue to light the fire using a driptorch.
We had about 20 people for a 5 acre burn, which is way more people than needed for a burn of that size, so there was a lot of waiting around. But as I learned the evening before, prescribed burn people love newbies, and everyone was eager to hand me a torch as soon as possible. After she started the fire, Amander Stamper (in the video above) reviewed driptorch usage with me, and then handed the torch over. Then I was up, drip torch handle in one hand, carefully tilting the torch….and just casually pouring fire on the ground. Okay, not casually–carefully, following my crew leader’s instructions. I worked my way down the road (from A to B on the map), on the edge of the burn area, dropping a “dot” every 5 or 10 feet. At the same time, experienced crew members brought drip torches into the interior of the burn area, dotting near the base of large pines to burn out the fuel beneath them before the fire could approach at higher intensity. This strategy would prevent the death of too many of the longleaf pine trees.
The flames quickly grew taller than me, up to at least 15 or 20 feet. The palmetto crackled loudly as it burned. It quickly grew too hot to stand close to the fire, though you could escape the heat upwind a few feet.
Once I reached the southern corner of the triangle of land that served as our burn area, I passed the torch on to another student volunteer, Caroline. From this point on, there was a lot of watching, waiting, and taking pictures and video. Prescribed burns are really fun, flames are entrancing when you trust that they won’t hurt you, and burning makes you feel like a badass–a Nomex-wearing badass for nature.
Once the target area had enough fire in it to burn out most of the understory fuel, we stepped back and waited for the flames to die down. Within three hours of the first flames, we were done. This small patch of land had been transformed. Dense green palmetto and other shrubs had turned to charcoal and ash, with only the skeletons of the root structure remaining (locals said they named these structures for their resemblance to the back of an alligator peeking above of the water). Some longleaf pines had burned and fallen, but most were just fine. We walked into the center and took a group photo.
At this point, it was fun to burn and cool to see the land transformed, but it wasn’t really a pretty landscape. Even though I knew that the longleaf pine savanna thrived on fire, it wasn’t obvious yet on this triangle of land what that really meant. But before long, I’d witness the power of prescribed fire on this land.
Read on for what I learned about prescribed fire in longleaf pine savannas in my next post here!
And see below for more photos of the burn!
Women of wildfire: revolution, superheroes, and the case for diversity in fire management
A year ago, I carried a fire-themed poster at the Sacramento Women’s March. “California communities for resistance and resilience,” it read. I mostly made a fire-themed poster because I am a nerd who loves fire ecology, and my research shapes the way I see the world. But it also reflects a broader truth relevant to the march: the history of fire in the United States reflects the history of this country as a whole. One part of that is the history of women in wildfire and forest management.
A few years ago I was on a plane, reading a paper on my laptop about fire on my laptop. A man in his 60s or 70s sat in the seat to my right. He noticed what I was reading and asked me about it. If I’m in a good mood, I usually enjoy talking with strangers on planes, especially about my work, so I was happy to talk. It turned out that he had been a longtime employee of the U.S. Forest Service. I forget what we talked about at first–something general about issues facing fire and forests today, most likely. But then the conversation took an abrupt turn that I didn’t anticipate, when my neighbor informed me that the Forest Service had gone downhill ever since they had started hiring more women. They’re totally unqualified, he said to my face. I was stunned that he would just say this to my face, in such a casual way, given that he knew my field. I tried to come up with a good response on the spot. I knew there were impressive women in forestry and in fire. At my very first field job related to fire, with The Nature Conservancy, I worked with a woman who fought fires when not doing monitoring fire effects on plants. She was petite, like me, and a total badass. I met female smokejumpers in Missoula during my first year of grad school.
I said something like, surely there are many qualified women, and if there are not, maybe that’s because they aren’t encouraged to build up the necessary skills or to go into the entry level positions that would make them better leaders in the Forest Service. Nope, he said, women just weren’t suited to it. At this point, I gave up and put on my headphones, but he was still keen to provide me with old-timer wisdom. I would be a conservative when I was older, he insisted. I told him that most of the older folks I knew were, in fact, liberals, and that I intended to stick with it.
I later learned that this guy’s opinion on the decline of the Forest Service was not uncommon. Earlier this year, I read Stephen J. Pyne’s thick history of fire in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, Between Two Fires. The book provided some context for my seat mate’s attitude.
During the 60s and 70s, Pyne writes, there was a “fire revolution” going on alongside the environmental movement and the Civil Rights movement: ideas about wilderness and the natural role of fire caught on in the West, bringing big changes to how the men who fought fire for decades saw their profession, which had previously been entirely about battling the menace of fire and extinguishing every ember. The Forest Service began to incorporate some of the new ideas, ending the suppression-focused “10 am policy” in 1978. At the same time, the Forest Service was losing some of its power in the field due to the activities of the BLM, NPS, and other agencies and organizations. The result was a lot of early retirement by the men who felt that the Forest Service was changing too much.
Around the same time, in 1972, a Forest Service sociologist, Gene Bernardi, filed a complaint against the Forest Service, alleging sex discrimination for being refused a promotion and pay raise, based on the Equal Employment and Opportunity Act of that same year. This became a class action suit on behalf of all women in the USDA. The case was finally settled in 1979. The result was a decree that the USFS had to hire enough women to match the workforce as a whole, up to 43% women. The combined effect was a lot of new people, many of them women, at the same time as a loss of a lot of old timers.
Pyne describes the result of this history in Between Two Fires, and while I usually admire his work, the description did not sit well with me. It’s undeniable that these huge demographic shift changed the culture and priorities of the Forest Service. It’s probable that the organization did have to hire folks with less experience to meet the terms of the consent decree.
But Pyne’s description of the Forest Service post-1980 rests entirely on quotes from disgruntled old-timers. He claims that the Forest Service was “softer and gentler” thereafter and gives the overall impression that everything went downhill for the USFS. He summarizes with a quote from an old timer saying “It became a better organization to work for, but not a better organization.” Zero quotes from Bernardi herself. Zero quotes from any women involved whatsoever. Zero quotes from anyone who felt differently about the shift.He writes about it not just as a widespread perception but the truth that he himself believes. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Pyne appears to agree with the sentiment of those he quotes. After all, he was a firefighter himself in the 60s and 70s before turning into a historian.
But most of this went down decades ago. And that was just the Forest Service, though that organization remains a dominant player in the wildfire field as a whole. Where are we now?
There are certainly more women in the field than there were in the 70s.But the consent decree that resulted from the Bernardi suit expired more than 10 years ago, the field is still largely male-dominated, and there remain many barriers for women. Actual numbers vary based on job type and employer. The USFS labor force in 2006 was 38.3 % female, compared to 21.6% in 1972. According to the USFS, 27% of their foresters are women, while 15% of foresters nationally are women. But only about 12% are women in permanent fire suppression jobs.
Many women working in wildfire today don’t see their experience as particularly “soft and gentle.” Discrimination and sexual harassment have continued into recent decades. In a 2016 hearing, members of Congress heard testimony from USFS employees, including fire prevention tech Denise Rice, who described incidents of sexual harassment and assault.
In November 2017, the USFS acknowledged its systemic problem with harassment, revealing that they had “substantiated 83 cases of harassment including 1 sexual assault (that employee was removed); 34 cases of sexual harassment (employees were removed/terminated, suspended or received reprimands depending on the offense;) and 51 employees were found to have engaged in other, non-sexual harassment.” Of course, these figures only include cases that were reported in the first place and could be substantiated.
Beyond harassment, there are other barriers that come up in a male-dominated field. Many women have shown that they have the strength and skills to succeed in a variety of wildfire jobs (see a few recent profiles here and here), but training and tools designed for men can make it more difficult. For example, uniforms designed for men’s bodies may be ill-fitting, which can be unsafe in a wildland firefighting situation.
My intent here is not to demonize the USFS or any other organization as a whole: there are lots of wonderful people who work there doing great things for diversity and for fire management, and I’m lucky to know some of them. This is an issue that most institutions are dealing with.
Nonetheless, there are now a lot of exciting opportunities for women interested in careers in fire and organizations focused on addressing barriers for women in the field. The Women in Wildfire Bootcamp, founded in 2004, is going strong, and new Women’s Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (WTREX) have taken off in the past few years. 4,736 people like the Facebook page “Wildfire Women“, which serves as an online community of women in fire. These opportunities provide mentorship, a network of women in fire positions, and practical tips, like the best way to wield a chainsaw if you have a smaller body. Despite increases in women working in fire, most women still work in places where they are one of a few women or even the only one, and having access to these networks can be essential to their success.
I heard about many of these opportunities from organizers and participants at the recent Association for Fire Ecology (AFE) Fire Congress in Orlando. Fire ecology is a funny field: ecology itself has okay representation of women (41% of members of the Ecological Society of America in 2006, and many more in younger age brackets). But fire ecology attracts a lot of folks who have had some experience in wildfire fighting and management, which is more male dominated.
Still, AFE is doing alright. At the recent conference, a day-long session was devoted to inclusivity, titled “Faces within the Fire: Toward an Inclusive Culture”, and one of the “fire circle” roundtable discussions was focused on “Using Human-Centered Design to Solve Inclusion and Diversity Dilemmas in Wildland Fire”. The Fire AFEx Plenary session featured 10 speakers, and 3 were women. The departing president of the organization is a woman, and one of the three lifetime achievement winners was a woman. Obviously, these numbers aren’t at 50%, but for a field that has huge overlap with wildland firefighting, which is very male, it’s nice to see women and diversity concerns featured prominently in the program. The numbers will also likely change with time: at the Student Association for Fire Ecology-sponsored prescribed burn following the conference, 9 of 11 students participating were women, plus many of the Nature Conservancy participants who joined us.
Diversity matters. It’s an equity concern: we want all those who want to and have the potential to be successful in the field of wildland fire to be able to do so. But I’d argue that a diverse workforce is also necessary for forest management in the 21st century. There have been calls to reform forest and fire management for decades. What Stephen Pyne calls the “fire revolution” took place 50 years ago. But there has not been much change on the ground in either fire management or diversity–there’s been little enough change in management that an article in the Huffington Post this week (incidentally featuring a woman in fire) described a prescribed fire program as “revolutionary.”
The Forest Service and many of its peer institutions are still largely fire-suppression organizations dominated by white men. Are they are experienced? Sure. And experience is important, especially for safety on the fire line. But experience can also lead to entrenched patterns, institutional culture, and incentives that are hard to change. If we are serious about reforming fire management, we should support diversity in all levels of fire management.
The guy I sat next to on the plane a few years ago felt so confident that his opinions on women in fire and forestry were obvious truths about women’s and men’s abilities. Confident enough to say it to my face. This was the way the world of fire was, and that’s all. We all hold some unquestioned assumptions like this.
I recently came across a superhero that I’d never heard of before, a heroine from the Golden Age of comics*. Her name? Wildfire, alter ego Carol Vance Martin. She first appeared in 1941, one of the first female superheroes, now mostly lost to history. She survives a forest fire as a child, and can thereafter put fires out but also control fire and use it for good. I couldn’t help but think of her at the SAFE Prescribed burn last month, as more experienced women in fire planned our approach, showed me how to use the drip torch, and gleefully encouraged me to set the land on fire (for restoration, I promise!).
We love to talk about change in terms of revolution–the fire revolution, the sexual revolution. As if these things can change overnight, or in a single decade. But even major events like the end of the 10 am policy and the consent decree from the Bernardi suit are just steps in a slow crawl of a revolution. So let’s keep working for policy change, for representation, for better treatment of the land and the people who live there. Perhaps we can bring back Wildfire as our mascot: a woman in fire, using fire to do good.
*Today, comic book readership is male-dominated, but in Wildfire’s era, comics were popular with the masses, and a 1944 survey showed that 91% of girls read comics, and there’s some evidence that girls read more comics than boys back then. A comics retailer reportedly stated in 2006 that girls’ brains weren’t wired for comics. How wrong our assumptions can be.
The case of the ‘pyromaniac’ birds: what the Australian firehawks tell us about evidence and anecdote
There’s a new fire ecology-related paper getting press recently, and it’s based on a pretty cool idea: that some birds in Australia, collectively described as “firehawks”, hang out near bushfires, pick up burning sticks, and spread the fire to flush out prey. In Australia, this is a very old idea among indigenous peoples, who have long shared stories of this behavior. The authors of the paper set out to collect and synthesize narrative accounts of the “fire-spreading” behavior from both indigenous and non-indigenous people, and their results are pretty compelling. The accounts are detailed and consistent. But is it enough to conclude that the firehawks are acting with intention? Are we dealing with arsonist, pyromaniac birds, as some headlines claim?
Let me be clear upfront: I really like this paper. I think it’s compelling and interesting and new, and honest and clear about what the current evidence does and does not tell us about these birds and their relationship with fire. All quotes I’ve seen from the authors are similarly careful.
This paper is also notable because of its acknowledgement and use of indigenous ecological knowledge (IEK) (commonly called traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in the US). In this paper, they set out to understand and make known a phenomenon that has long been discussed among indigenous groups in Australia.They also seem to take a lot of care in the way they use this information and information gleaned from interviews with indigenous people. It’s a difficult line to walk: many indigenous people do not trust Western scientists with their traditional knowledge, and for good reason (though there are also indigenous people who are excited to share, and others who are themselves scientists).
The authors also make a strong case for why this is important: fire spreading birds could be causing unexpected difficulties in fire management in flammable Australia.
There are 20 narrative accounts, and the examples are detailed, fascinating, and honestly, pretty convincing.But there are no experiments, no photos or videos, and the article does not claim, without a doubt, that fire hawks are spreading fires intentionally. They frame their own paper as a first step, an early exploration of a reported phenomenon. Yet most of the headlines frame it as a done deal.
The Nature Conservancy blog headlines their piece “Australian ‘Firehawk’ Raptors Intentionally Spread Wildfires,” and early in the article state that the paper “confirms long-held Aboriginal knowledge.” Another article described the paper, too, as one that “confirms aboriginal legends” (it also uses the phrase “arsonist birds”).
There are some really fun headlines, too. “Australian fires are being set by legendary pyromaniacal raptors” reads one. “Proof Australia is the most dangerous place on Earth? Our birds are deliberately starting fires”, subheadline “A scary new study has revealed some native birds are burning their prey alive. How?”. This last one is from a blog on a website for older Australians, called Aged Care 101, so it’s not exactly a highly respected news source, but you can see how the story moves through the news.
Nerdist has a more skeptical article, using phrases like “reportedly,” “if real,” and closing the article by asking readers whether they are convinced or not. I think the best article comes from Wired, with “If There’s a Fire Down Below, Do You See a Firehawk up Above?” The headline is a lot less catchy than the others, even the more measured Nerdist one, which is unfortunate because it’s such a good article. What’s great about this article is that it expresses some skepticism, but also provides details on the interviews that demonstrate why they are so compelling and discusses the use of narratives as evidence in sociological studies. This is meaningful, it says, but we still need more evidence.
The whole thing brings up interesting questions of what evidence “counts” in modern science. When it comes down to it, the new paper is a compilation of anecdotes. And there’s a quote popular with skeptics and scientists alike that goes “the plural of anecdote is not data.” But it turns out that this was actually a misquote! And my investigation of the misquote shows that many people have questioned its usefulness, particularly in social science fields. Nate Silver has an eloquent treatment, writing: “Data does not have a virgin birth. It comes to us from somewhere. Someone set up a procedure to collect and record it. Sometimes this person is a scientist, but she also could be a journalist.”
In ecology and its sister sciences, we have historically valued what you might call “personal accounts.” We call these anecdotes natural history. Isn’t much of Darwin’s writing a personal narrative? In recent years, there’s been a lot of worry about the devaluing of natural history–the transformation of Botany departments into Plant Sciences, the lack of training in the “ologies,” the elevation of experiment and genetics above all. Those laments make a good case for the value of natural history: the experimental ecology has to rest on something, come from some base of knowledge. And so it is with narrative evidence, and with the firehawks. Narratives, even if they are the plural of anecdotes, are still a valuable type of evidence.
But it’s still early days, and there’s a lot more to learn about this phenomenon. And so many ideas in science are like this, somewhere in the middle, with only one or two pieces of evidence to make the case, or have conflicting pieces of evidence. Some ideas will make it to the pile of evidence stage, but most won’t, especially for obscure topics. And what do we do with the information in the meantime, when there could be real, practical implications, like for fire management?
Well, you take what we do know, consider what we don’t know, and believe what you will. It doesn’t make you a bad scientist or even a bad skeptic to believe in the firehawks if you find the narrative evidence convincing. In a case like considering the firehawks in fire management, where there is little risk and possible benefit, we should go ahead and do so. It’s also okay to reserve judgment if you don’t think the evidence is convincing. What’s important is understanding where the evidence comes from, what its limitations are, and a willingness to change your mind given future research.
The lead author on the firehawk paper, Mark Bonta, seems convinced that the ethnographic research is sufficiently clear to show that the behavior is intentional. But he also thinks field research is necessary, and that’s the next step. As for me? I’m pretty convinced. But I also really look forward to the results of the field experiments.
Wildfire News Roundup, August 9, 2017
What’s Burning Right Now?
The biggest burn in the news right now are the fires in British Columbia, Canada. In British Columbia, 146 fires are burning, with 28 starting on Monday and Tuesday of this week. The running total acreage for the BC fires this summer is over 600,000 acres. The smoke from these fires is reaching Seattle and Portland, leading to laments on climate change from Lindy West (see below) and a rather ridiculous “Blame Canada” campaign from the neighbors to the South.
The most surprising fires of the week are in Greenland. The peat in Greenland is on fire. It’s an unlikely place to burn as an ice covered island, but the permafrost has been melting. Though fires have occurred there before, this one appears to be the largest on record.
As always, California burns.The Detwiler Fire near Yosemite is 98% contained now, currently the second largest CA fire of the season at 81,826 acres. The Modoc July Complex in the northern part of the state is 40% contained at 80,365 acres. In Southern California, the Whittier Fire, near Santa Barbara, has been burning for a month. It is now 87% contained at 18, 430 acres.
In Montana, the Sapphire Complex southeast of Missoula is 33,000 acres. In Oregon, the Cinder Butte Fire has reached 52,000 acres.
Outside of North America, large fires have recently burned across Southern France and other Mediterranean countries.
Ecology Article of the Week: What Does “Cutting Edge” Mean, Anyway?
All of the fire scientists I know are discussing this article this week. And not favorably. The article claims to feature “cutting edge” fire science; many fire scientists would agree that the argument here (that fires are good, that things would change if the public just realized that, that we should just let everything burn) is straight out of the 1960s, not the 2010s. See my brief commentary on Twitter here.
Talk About Fire: Commentary on Fire and Climate Change From Lindy West
Op-Ed contributor Lindy West has an interesting op-ed in the NYT today. She writes beautifully about the smoky skies in Seattle and wonders if this is the future under climate change. She acknowledges that she does not know whether this particular event is due to climate change–but she knows that the future could look like this, and that’s enough to worry about it. Smoke is a thorny issue for fire scientists who want more fire on the ground. It’s true that smoky skies were once more common in the west–it’s our past as well as our future. But just because large fires and smoke are in our past does not mean that nothing has changed or that the fires we see can’t be a sign of things to come.
Fire in the Leaked Climate Report
Lindy West doesn’t know whether the current BC fires are due to climate change. But the Climate Science Special Report, prepared by federal agencies, covers wildfire in Chapter 8. Overall, the report states (page 349) that there is low to medium confidence in a human-caused climate change contribution to wildfire activity in the western United States. However, this is not actually very surprising and does not mean (as Roger Pielke suggests here ) that the fire activity we are seeing is not climate change related–just that the information used in preparing the report do not reveal a very strong signal for the climate-fire relationship. This is largely because it’s hard to disentangle climate and forest management as drivers of fire activity. The report details studies that do find a strong climate-fire link, especially for western forests, but the evidence does not yet cross the threshold for high confidence for this report.
And Some Belated Media….
Finally: I just stumbled across a new climate change themed podcast, Degrees of Change. A June episode focused on fire. Have a listen here.
How I Learned to (briefly) Stop Worrying About Wildfire and Love the Lichen
When you’re working on a PhD, you spend a lot of time focused on one topic. I’ve managed to broaden my work a bit to suit my interests–some of my research is plant-focused evolutionary ecology, some is a foray into social science, but for the most part all of the projects are about wildfire. Grad students are encouraged to keep their eyes on the prize: completing the dissertation and the PhD and building a career. So when the opportunity came up to take Lichenology this past quarter, I was conflicted. I knew little of lichens, other than that they were symbiotic arrangement between a fungus and a photosynthetic partner and that they grew on trees and rocks. But I’m a sucker for learning something cool that few people know much about. The instructor was a new postdoc friend with infectious enthusiasm. On the other hand, I also want to graduate next year, and I’m trying to be better at saying “no” to things–even the cool things.
But I had a very smart professor in college, who taught mammalogy and conservation biology. He taught ecology via the Socratic method, made us get up and move our limbs around to understand how mammals and reptiles moved differently, took us on camping trips, and peppered his lectures with life lessons about science. One day he told us a story–here’s how I remember it: Anthropologists working in a museum were puzzled by some primate skulls in a pit, with two holes on each skull. Was this some kind of strange burial ritual? Two floors up, mammalogists were studying big cats, but the two departments didn’t interact often. Finally, they happened to discuss their work, leading to the hypothesis that a large cat was biting the heads off the primates and due to the topography of the area, the skulls dropped and rolled into the pit. Now, I’ve tried to figure out where this story came from in the years since. Maybe I have the details wrong, maybe it was just an allegory. But the moral of the story stuck with me: talk to people outside of your study area, your department, your field–venture out and you may get some new insight into what you’ve been studying all along.
So now, five years into my PhD, with an ever growing to-do list, I said to hell with it and took Lichenology. And it was fantastic. Each week this spring, I learned things that were completely new. I learned the parts of a lichen, the different growth forms, the messiness of lichen taxonomy, the improbability of lichen sexual reproduction, how birds and insects and humans use lichens, how to collect a lichen, key it out, take a slice of an apothecium to reveal its tiny spores under the microscope. It was refreshing. I became part of a special new club of the enlichened.
Of course, I was still on a day to day basis part of the fire ecology club. So it was natural that I do a final project for lichenology related to wildfire in chaparral. There’s not a lot of research out there about lichens and wildfire or lichens in chaparral, but relative to something like plants, there’s just not a lot of lichen stuff at all. That can be frustrating–but it’s also exciting. Working on a PhD means trying to come up with an original idea, and most of us find at one point or another, years into the process, that someone is doing or has done something strikingly close to what we are doing, and somehow you missed that paper. With lichens, there is so much uncharted territory.
But the thing about lichens is that they’ve been there all along, even when we don’t think to notice them. They tell new stories and the same stories about our home ecosystems all at once. Hanging out on trees or rocks or shrubs or soils–they can reveal hidden truths about our environments or reflect the patterns that we’ve long seen.
And so it went with the lichens of chaparral. My reading on chaparral lichens brought me quite quickly to familiar systems: The Santa Monica Mountains (SMMs) and Santa Cruz Island. Though lichens have been collected from a variety of places that include chaparral vegetation, the most complete survey of a chaparral-dominated region and discussion of lichen diversity in this particular system comes from work in the Santa Monicas. A lichenologist by the name of Hasse built an extensive lichen collection in the region in the late 1800s. A century later, Kerry Knudsen, coming to lichenology as a second career, took on the task of cataloging the modern state of lichens of this region–the Santa Monicas, the Channel Islands, and other parts of Southern California (see a terrific article on Knudsen and his explorations of Santa Cruz Island here).
In these writings about lichens there is a familiar story to fire ecologists, especially those who have studied chaparral. Here’s the argument: lichen diversity has declined significantly in the SMMs due to shortening fire return intervals over the past century, a change driven almost exclusively by human population growth and one that stands in contrast to Sierra forests, where fire intervals have lengthened due to fire suppression. The Santa Monica Mountains, just north of Los Angeles, have exemplified this change and perhaps experienced some of the greatest shifts in fire frequencies (the SMMs have also been a focus for research on the grass-fire cycle, where frequent fires drive a shift from chaparral to non-native grassland, in turn further reducing fire intervals). In contrast, lichen diversity on isolated Santa Cruz Island is excellent–fires are rare out there.
In my own research, I have used this very comparison–I have spent long hours of fieldwork in the Santa Monicas and on Santa Cruz Island studying big pod ceanothus (Ceanothus megacarpus) and its response to the island-mainland contrast in fire intervals. The lichens living the same dynamic had never caught my eye before.
Given my background reading, I set out to see if I could provide any insight at all to this discussion by searching for lichens in the chaparral at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, our local reserve that burned at high severity in 2015 . My survey was quick and casual–less than a pilot study, even–but I had novelty on my side (and, perhaps, against me). Because, you see, not only is there little work on lichens and fire and chaparral–there’s relatively little research about chaparral in Northern California at all. Most of the time, chaparral is synonymous with Southern California. It’s true that chaparral covers more area in the South. Further north, the attention goes to the forests, and the huge stretches of chaparral that cover the Coast Ranges and the Sierra foothills get less attention, even though some of the largest fires in the northern part of the state burned through chaparral, such as the 70,000 acre Rocky Fire of 2015 in Lake County. As in Southern California, fires in the chaparral here are almost exclusively human-caused and appear to be more frequent than they once were, though the data on this are not as good as in Southern California.
So there I was, off to study lichens in the chaparral of Northern California. My survey took me up to the top of the ridge at Stebbins Cold Canyon, first through a section where the ridge top path was burned severely on both sides and then where the path served as a boundary between burned and unburned. For the first part of the trail, the number of lichens was approximately zero. Expanses of chamise skeletons, nearly all perfectly black and devoid of lichens, survivors or colonizers. In a 5 mile walk (not all of it chaparral-dominated), I found one tiny yellow Candelaria on a charred skeleton. Any other lichens in the burn perimeter were shrubs that burned at lower severity or not at all (sometimes in rocky fire refuges) or on rocks. It was easy to see how too much fire could threaten lichen diversity.
But across the path, so close to the fire but unburned for 28 years, I found hints of the high lichen diversity of so-called old-growth chaparral. These shrubs, mostly chamise but also toyon, manzanita, ceanothus, and scrub oak, were not quite so old to be dubbed “old-growth,” but many had at least 10 species of macrolichens easily identifiable to my eye on two months of lichen training. How long did it take them to grow there? Would there be many more yet if that patch survived another decade or two? What even were the odds that it would remain unburned another decade or two? There have been fires very close by every year for the past four years, bordering one another, burning some patches of land twice over.
The land here is adapted to dramatic change, we say. Chaparral is a fire-prone landscape, and always has been, we say. This is true. But just as the climate is changing faster than ever, the fire clock in chaparral moves more quickly now, as more and more of us live and play in this land, and as our hottest days become hotter. And the lichens that make up the background of our most loved places, whether we see them or not, are shaped by accelerating change alongside the tall trees and furry felines. Don’t forget to shift your focus every now and then.
Can we use Christmas trees for fire management?
Over the past week, I’ve been talking trees with my friends and colleagues. But not any trees: Christmas trees. The question on the table: what is the environmental impact of a Christmas tree, real or artificial?
The whole thing began when a friend, a big plant lover, urged others via Facebook not to buy a real tree in order to respect the environment. Many comments followed. A mutual friend, knowing that I’d done some reading on this topic before, asked me to share some of the sources I’d found on the topic.
A lot of environmentalists assume that an artificial tree is the right choice: it’s reusable, and it doesn’t require cutting down a living tree every year only to stick it in your house for a couple of weeks until it dies. But the evidence says that this isn’t necessarily true–indeed, multiple sources, including a thorough “Life Cycle Assessment” by an environmental consulting firm, say that natural trees are actually the better choice: most Christmas trees are grown on farms, where young trees are planted annually to replace the ones that are cut down, while artificial trees are made of environmentally harmful PVC and are usually transported from China.
Others argue that the artificial vs. natural debate doesn’t matter much at all–no matter which tree you pick, the carbon footprint is far less than an average person’s footprint for a single day. And if you do want to minimize impact, details like where your tree comes from, tree farm practices, how many years you reuse your artificial tree, etc. are probably the more important choices. There are creative, earth-friendly options on both sides: a live tree that can be planted in your yard, for example, or a fake tree made from unconventional recycled materials. (The “greenest” tree I ever had growing up was definitely when we cut off the top ten feet of a Norway spruce that had toppled over in our backyard during a storm.)
And so I compiled all of this into an e-mail, finishing it off with something like “I support natural trees, assuming you’re not randomly going into the forest and randomly chopping down a tree, which few people do anyway.”
And then it occurred to me that I was perhaps missing the forest for the trees. I live in California. I care about wildfires and fire management. And one of the main strategies for managing forests for wildfire in California? Thinning small trees to reduce fuel load.
Thinning forests is controversial (really a topic for another post)–and it’s not as cost-effective or ecologically beneficial as getting real fire on the ground. But there’s no smoke, it’s precise, and has support from many interests. In any case, it’s one of the strategies we have, and one that we’ll need to continue to use as part of our forest management toolbox.
So here’s the holiday question of the day: in California, is the environmentally-friendly, fire-friendly choice to cut your Christmas tree from a forest rather than a farm?
The small trees that serve as ladder fuels (fuels that carry a fire from the forest floor to the treetops) would be pretty good Christmas trees. Many such trees are small enough to fit in your house, and they are shade-tolerant species that have the Christmas tree look, like red and white fir.
I’m not the first one to have the idea of using Christmas trees for fire management, but it’s not an idea that shows up often in real vs. artificial debates, which tend to focus on the tree’s carbon footprint. Here is one really good article on this idea, from UC Cooperative Extension Forestry, which provides lots of useful information on cutting your own tree in California.
But is cutting a Christmas tree for forest management really a good or practical idea?Individuals cutting single trees on a small scale probably won’t have much effect on fire behavior. On a larger scale, there may be more cost-effective uses for the products of thinning than Christmas trees. And as is the case with artificial and farmed trees, there are so many factors involved in choosing a tree that it would be hard to argue that cutting a tree is a better choice than anything else, even in California.
So what’s the takeaway? Here are a few:
- Always consider the forest AND the trees–individual trees can only thrive in a healthy ecosystem.
- Think about your local environmental context when you choose a tree, or when purchasing other environmental resources. Choosing a tree in California may be different than doing so in New York.
- When deciding what is “environmentally-friendly”, think beyond carbon footprint (carbon is definitely important, but there are other considerations, like wildlife habitat and wildfire).
Any thoughts from the audience? If you live near forests where thinning takes place, have you considered getting your Christmas tree this way?
Happy holidays from Talk About Fire!
P.S. Speaking of fire, if you have a live tree, make sure to keep it watered, turn the lights off when you’re not around, and avoid real candles and other fire hazards. We don’t want to move the fire from the forest to your home! Other tips here.
Letting Fires Burn: Paper Policy and Public Opinion (Part 2)
Last week, I discussed institutional barriers and incentive structures that make it difficult to get fire on the ground in the form of managed wildfire or prescribed burning. I argued that these disincentives can work in a feedback loop with public opinions to keep the suppression-dominated status quo in place. Now it’s time to discuss public opinions: in a 2015 paper in Nature, North and colleagues argued that public support for fire management reform could help propel change. The argument is that public opinion will drive policy, and the implication is that good science and education can help shape public opinion.
Where do public opinions about fire come from, anyway? There’s a sense in much writing about fire that the natural state of things is for people to fear fire, and the idea of fire can be a positive natural process or a tool for ecosystem management is some kind of novelty.
But for the United States, this isn’t really true. Indigenous groups here and abroad have had long histories of using fire as a tool to shape the landscape, and many settlers picked up these techniques and supported what was then called ‘light burning’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fire wasn’t eliminated from many North American forests based on ‘public opinion’–it was eliminated by policies that made indigenous burning and ‘light burning’ illegal, and by the implementation of widespread fire suppression by the early Forest Service, a then-new organization looking for purpose (see Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn or the PBS documentary of the same name for a good history). The ‘public opinion’ that ‘fire is bad’ came top-down.
So the ‘fire is bad’ narrative wasn’t originally the default position. But when the fire community talks about changing public opinion today, it’s usually based on an assumption that people today think fire is bad and scary, and policy will change if only people learn that fire can be natural and good. The strategy is to continue to persuade people that prescribed burning and managed fire are good and total fire suppression is a mistake.
In order to make their case, fire researchers and educators like to point to scientific evidence that demonstrates the benefits of fire. For example, a recent article reported new results in wildfire research: a study in Yosemite found that forests that had had neither fire suppression nor prescribed fire over the past 40 years–just managed wildfire–were more resilient to fire. This was interesting, but not really a surprise. Researchers in the fire science community have been researching the effects of different fire regimes and fuel treatments for decades. What did surprise me was a quote from one of our author heroes of fire management reform, Scott Stephens, who said, “I think [the paper] has the potential to change the conversation about wildfire management.”
Does a single paper really have the potential to change the conversation? We’ve been making the same arguments since the 60s, yet so little has changed in terms of fire policy.
Talking about the benefits of fire might be a good strategy to get public support for forest fire reform. But does public support for reform in general matter, or does this just result in the same old paper policies of the kind that have been on the books for decades?
I’m starting to think that this isn’t the right strategy to make change happen, for two reasons. First of all, I’m no longer convinced that the general public desperately needs a lesson on the benefits of wildfire. Second, I’m skeptical that more evidence or education focused on the benefits of fire will lead to any kind of radical policy change.
In my (ongoing) research, I have asked hikers to describe their perceptions of wildfire in the United States. By far, the most frequent words that they use are “natural” and “necessary.” Many people think that public attitudes are a primary barrier to implementing prescribed fire; recent research suggests that this isn’t really true.
This lines up with what I have observed in casual conversations and on social media. Nearly every article on wildfire I read mentions the downsides of fire suppression and touts the benefits of planned or managed fire, whether or not it applies to the particular wildfires in question. There are even children’s picture books about fire ecology.
I’m sure that there are still many people who associate wildland fire with destruction only. Most people don’t read the New York Times, attend ranger talks at National Parks, or have the advantage of attending a fire ecology field trip. My hikers might be a skewed sample–many live in a university town, and all have made the choice to spend a day out on the trail. But for many audiences–including policymakers and many residents of fire-prone landscapes–the message has stuck.
Here are some things that a large portion of the public will agree with:
- The United States has a wildfire problem that needs addressing.
- Wildfire can be a natural part of ecosystems, and fire suppression has contributed to (1), at least in some areas.
- Prescribed burning is a good tool for hazard reduction and ecosystem management.
Here are some things that most of the public (at least in the United States) will not agree with or acknowledge:
- Our default should be to stop suppressing wildfires, especially in beautiful natural areas such as National Parks.
- Smoke is to be expected in fire-prone areas, and I am willing to have smoky skies if it means mitigation of catastrophic fires in the future.
- It is primarily my responsibility to protect myself and my home during a fire.
Too much of changing public opinion is focused on things that the public already agrees with. We should keep doing research and keep talking to people about the costs and benefits of putting more fire on the ground, but this is not enough to drive major policy changes. If it were, we’d see more fire on the ground today, given the many papers and knowledgeable citizens already out there. Instead, I see endless Twitter posts from CalFIRE reporting that another 50 acre fire is already 90% contained (these fires are far, far more common than fires like the Soberanes Fire, which burned for months before reaching this level of containment). We’d hear more about fire managers than the hundreds of firefighters ‘battling’ fires.
Environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne has argued that the fire-friendly policies of the 60s and 70s became rare in practice due to a combination of the national politics of the 1980s and the 1988 Yellowstone Fires. Pro-fire rhetoric couldn’t stand up to the scale of the destruction of beloved vistas in Yellowstone. In addition, as time has passed, populations have grown in fire-prone regions, concerns about air quality have grown, and climate change has thrown a wrench into everything, simultaneously increasing urgency and uncertainty in fire management.
We accept the idea that something needs to change in fire management. We accept the idea of more fire on the ground, at least in theory. But when it comes time to put these ideas into action, in the places where we live and work and play, Americans don’t really want fire on the ground. It sounds great if it’s happening somewhere else. But if there’s a real chance that people and homes and places we love could be at risk, we still want firefighters to come put fires out as soon as possible. We believe in prescribed fire where it’s appropriate, but not when the smoke is going to keep us inside or block our views. Personal and political reasoning often trump science, and short term interests usually outweigh long term goals.
There’s a comparison to be made here to efforts to reach the public on climate change and evolution. Now, there aren’t really any ‘wildfire deniers’ that I know of, but in other respects they are similar situations. Many researchers in these fields assume that more research and more explaining the facts will lead to change, but there is evidence that this simply doesn’t translate into action. In all three cases–climate change, evolution, and wildfire–most people know the scientific argument perfectly well. Even climate or evolution skeptics can tell you what the scientists believe. But individual action or broad based policy change are shaped by more than science.
What can we do to effect real change in wildfire policy? There’s no simple answer here, but I doubt that a single journal article will be a turning point. Neither will another news article about “fighting fire with fire.” If years of doing the same old thing has resulted in little change, we need to rethink our strategy. Instead of telling people that not all fires are scary, we should actually help people learn to live with fire on the ground, even when it scares us.