Wildfires fascinate. All of us stand in awe of fire. So deadly! Uncontrollable. Powerful. Even natural scientists are fascinated. Why? In part, because understanding wildfire draws on the full range of disciplines. It starts with a long-term buildup of fuel – the extended parched spell or period of drought needed to turn green, lush, wet living trees and brush into tinder-dry kindling. Maybe a forest die-off was involved. Here are two examples. First, pine beetle infestations. [A sidebar: some scientists say these are on the rise because warmer winters are unable to kill off the pine beetle larva as effectively as the colder winters of the past once did.] Second, when Hurricane Hugo slammed the Carolinas in 1989, the winds blew down and killed a few million acres of forest. Sometimes policy exacerbates these natural processes. For decades in the 20th century, U.S. policy was to put out forest fires as quickly as possible after they would start. Then foresters and policymakers began to notice the unintended consequence of this approach – the gradual buildup in wildlands of enormous amounts of fuel. Our policy had traded many fires of small extent for a smaller number of really large conflagrations (the Yellowstone fires of 1988 were a recent example). The annual costs of fire suppression were rising into billions of dollars each year. The result was a shift in approach. Today we allow forests to burn except where the fires threaten property.
Then there’s the triggering event.
Out west, this is might be the result of electrical storms and the accompanying high winds. But experts tell us that across the United States, maybe 80 % of fires are started either accidentally or deliberately by human beings. Even in the desolate west, the figure is something like 10-25%. Want some interesting reading along these lines? Get a copy of Stephen Pyne’s major work, Fire in America: a cultural history of wildland and rural fire, or read one of Pyne’s other papers and books – or maybe his blog. Think of Pyne as the poet laureate of fire. For fifteen years a firefighter, he’s also a scholar. In Fire in America, he points out that most of the Earth’s land surface is really a fire landscape. He tells us that when the first Europeans settled along the East coast of what today is the United States, they used fire to clear the land and make it suitable for farming. But the country they encountered was already a fire landscape – one created by the indigenous people. They used fire for a different purpose; they burned out the forest understory to make it easier to hunt the wild game.
Scientists and foresters aren’t the only professionals concerned with wildland fires. These days, policymakers and urban planners are also drawn in. Time was, wildfire was just that…out in the wild somewhere – remote. But today, much of fire’s consequences occur in the so-called urban-wildland interface. Lots of us (not so much in relative terms, but in absolute numbers), nationwide, have moved to the woods. We like living there! But this trend is building our vulnerability to fire, and increasing the losses fires inflict.
This past weekend, those of us in the Washington DC area experienced firsthand a whiff of smoke from wildland fire. Rare back here. But we saw fire outbreaks over a widespread area extending from Shenandoah National Park to Laurel, Maryland, and fanned by 50 mile-per-hour winds. Homes burned to the ground. Fire closed down traffic on Interstate 95 for a period. The winds also downed power lines. Adrenaline-pumping stuff!
How did these particular fires start? The news reports had little to offer by way of explanation.
But over the same weekend, and in the days since, if we’ve had the television on, we’ve been forced to watch children playing with matches. Where? In the halls of the United States Congress.
That’s right. There’s really no other word to describe the choreographed set of actions that threaten to bring the federal government to a standstill. Think about it for a second. We’re told the critical date is March 4. Both parties are acting as if there’s no way to head this off. But the fact is, this emergency is a human construct – just as are most of those actual wildland fires. And while an actual government shutdown of days or weeks might be inadvertent, the brinkmanship leading us to the edge is 100% deliberate. Some 435 supposed adults, instead of engaging in safe behavior, instead of doing the main thing they were elected to do – work together to develop a budget for the operation of the federal government – are egging each other on: “Go ahead, Johnny (Boehner)! Do it! Light that match! Dare him, Nancy (Pelosi)! Dare him to do it! Betcha he won’t!”
Now much of the time, when kids play with matches, the risks are rather small, contained. That was the situation back in 1996 when Congress last went through this double-dare-you-shtick.
But when the winds pick up, that’s a different story. Picture an event a few years ago with adults involved – professional, well-meaning adults. That would be the Cerro Grande Fire, which began as a controlled burn just outside Los Alamos, New Mexico, on May 4, 2000. But high winds and drought conditions took over, and before the fire was brought under control it had claimed 48,000 acres, 400 homes, and some of the outbuildings of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (if you like smoke, you’ll love radioactive smoke).
And, today, as members of Congress toy with inflicting a government shutdown on the rest of us, the wind levels around the world seem pretty high. The entire Muslim world is in an uproar. International energy prices reflect global nervousness about oil supplies. Food prices are spiking in response to Chinese drought. The world’s economies are still recovering from the financial sector meltdown of two years ago, triggered by other U.S. kids playing with other matches. China and other emerging nations grow restive with the idea that the United States is the only safe haven for the world’s money. The world is looking to the U.S. and to U.S. leadership for responsible behavior; they hunger for signs of wisdom and maturity.
Here’s a point to ponder. Those kids with the matches? They don’t feel they’re in control. They’re feeling peer pressure. And not just from each other. From the 300 million of us who live here, who elected them. They think this is what we sent them to Washington to do.
One way or another? We’re all going to show the whole world what we’re made of.