The Big Bad Fire and Other Stories


Danger! Devastation! Ravage! Death! Devouring! Destruction! Waste! Monstrous!

Not so long ago, we heard these words used to describe the wolf. This summer, newspapers, television, radio stations (even public radio), and politicians, as well as ourselves, friends and neighbors used these same words to describe the fires that burned in the Bitterroot Valley and throughout the West.

Is there a link between our feelings about wolves and wildfire? Yes. They’re both apex predators and neither respects the artificial property rights of humans. They’re wild. They cull the weak and the sick (and sometimes the strong and healthy if an unlucky individual is in the wrong place at the wrong time). Predators and fire are instruments of change. Humans, like most other species, innately favor the status quo—it’s safer, it’s known and even if things aren’t currently great, at least we’ll survive if things stay the same. Our instincts for basic survival, coupled with our drive to establish territory, prompt us, without need for thought, to protect what is “ours” and avoid change.

Stories reinforce these instinctive feelings. Wolves and wildfire share common ground in that stories portray them as villains. Smokey the Bear and Bambi convey the message that fire is evil and cruel, just as stories like the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood perpetuate the same message about wolves.

So what do we do with these apex predators, these wild things that thwart our desires and eat our property? Historically we’ve tamed them and then worked to annihilate their wild ancestors. Dogs, our most faithful servants, are the direct descendants of wild, uncontrollable wolves. Fire, harnessed in our furnaces and cars, serves our purposes and makes our lives more comfortable. However, the ingenuity and cleverness that allowed us to tame nature has not been coupled with the wisdom to recognize the danger that lurks in eradicating wildness.

Fires, like wolves, are a part of the landscape, they are a keystone component—an influential force that shapes what they feed upon. As Doug

Chadwick so beautifully wrote in The Kingdom, “I do not think it possible to truly understand even one leg muscle of one elk in the absence of wolves. Not a single leap of a single deer, nor any traverse of any mountain goat across a winterbound cliff wall. The size and endurance of hoofed beasts on this continent; their speed, coordination, and quicksilver reactions, their social structure and communication abilities—wolves sang these things into their present form.” In less eloquent words, wild ungulates, without wolves, would evolve into cattle.

Similarly, in World Fire, Stephen J. Pyne wrote, “Marine life pumped the atmosphere with oxygen, and terrestrial life stocked the continents with carbon fuels. Fire and life have fused biotically ever since, a relationship aptly symbolized by the ponderosa pine, germinated in fire’s ashes, pruned by fire’s heat, fed by fire’s liberated nutrients, and perhaps consumed by fire’s final flame… The elimination of fire in the world will not save the planet from destruction but only abolish the regeneration that it once promised should follow.”

Half a century has passed since Aldo Leopold pointed out that we have a moral obligation to protect and nurture native species as well as the landscapes and natural processes that shaped these species. The majority of us have recognized the first obligation, as exemplified by the passage of the Endangered Species Act. The latter, which he labeled as the need for a land ethic, is still poorly understood by most citizens. Few of us are capable of looking at a landscape and recognizing it as a living entity, let alone whether or not it’s sick or healthy. Nor do we understand that the land’s health depends on accepting and allowing phenomena such as fire, which from our limited view-point seem to appear catastrophic.

Thoreau said, “In wildness [not wilderness] is the salvation of the world.” Leopold wrote, “Too much safety yields only danger in the long run.” When we tame wildness, either by reining it in or conquering it, we run the almost certain risk of harming ourselves.

The West is a fire landscape. To be certain, fire will come. And the longer fire is repressed, in a vain effort to maintain what in realistic terms is a false sense of safety, the more intense it will burn. For example, 80 years of aggressive fire suppression resulted in forests with unnaturally high numbers of small evergreen trees and brushy plants. Combine that fuel load with an abnormally hot, dry summer and add lightning (lightning strikes the earth over 300,000 times/hour) or a careless human or sunlight through a piece of broken glass and you’ve got a fire that burns more intensely than it normally would. The fires this summer consumed ancient pines that survived dozens of earlier fires—fires that nurtured them in a time before we, in our finite wisdom, decided to extinguish the flames.

At the same time, attempting to replace fire’s role through logging is doomed to failure. Human hunters selecting for the healthiest and fittest individuals in a prey population do not mimic the essential role of wolves who take the weak, sick, and young. Likewise, commercial logging selects for large trees, which are the most fire resistant—this also removes the protective canopy that holds moisture in, leaves highly combustible slash (limbs, tree tops and dead brush), and churns up the soil removing its cover which accelerates drying. Some of the largest and hottest fires this summer burned through heavily roaded and logged lands. But you can look into the specifics of this issue for yourself. Our purpose here is to set you thinking about the similarities between wolves and wildfire.

As wild fire advanced toward our home this summer, it became apparent that it would take far more enlightened people than us to step aside, allow the fire to burn our place, and view the charred remains as a beneficial component to a healthy forest. Faced with the impending destruction of our home, we wanted the fire doused, put out, the sooner the better… we empathized with the rancher who, following the loss of a cow, demands that the offending wolf be killed. But there’s a difference between protection of personal property and wanting all fires and all wolves destroyed. Those of us who live adjacent to our nation’s dwindling patches of wild lands have an obligation to educate ourselves and take steps to protect our property in ways that will not preclude wolves, fire and other natural processes from sculpting the land and wildlife as they always have. Then if, despite our best efforts, our property is destroyed, we need to take responsibility for where we’ve chosen to live and carry out an occupation.

One role of government, working as an advocate for its citizens, is to make sure that the needs or desires of a few individuals do not dictate how our public lands are managed. In order for the government to accomplish this, the public must be informed and educated about what our lands need to remain healthy. A first step is to stop using words like ‘devastating’ and ‘destroy’ when describing how predators or fire affect the land. A wolf may destroy a rancher’s cow or a fire may devastate a neighborhood but fire does not devastate a forest any more than wolves destroy elk herds. It is awful or terrible when a fire consumes a home or a wolf kills a beloved pet. It is not awful or terrible when fire sweeps through a stand of trees or a wolf pack kills a moose. The land and its native inhabitants are adapted to fire and predation. Diverse and healthy ecosystem are impossible without them.

Secondly, we must learn to feel empathy for forests that lack fire, to see those blankets of solid green for what they are: sick. Perhaps it would help if we worked toward developing the same feelings of abhorrence and sorrow when ecological processes are thwarted that many feel when faced with inhumane treatment of animals. While it seems silly to think about feeling sorry for a wildfire choked in a fire line’s noose, it’s not so hard to emphasize with the plight of a trapped wolf. Yet from an ecological point-of-view, both are similar. Most of us now recognize that too many elk or deer in an area leads to starvation. They need a predator that eliminates weak adults, as well as the overabundance of young born each year. (Ungulates give birth to an incredible number of young in order to compensate for predation—it’s called predator swamping). But how many of us walk through a forest crowded with spindly saplings reaching up into the branches of a few huge trees and realize that this forest is as sick as a starving herd of elk? Regular fires in the low elevations of western forests eliminate thick stands of young, weak trees whose branches create ladders for fires to climb up into the large healthy trees. Fire also recycles their nutrients to feed and maintain the few young trees that survive, along with the well-spaced mature trees.

Thirdly, we must begin telling new stories about fire and its effects. Instead of Smokey, the orphaned bear cub, let’s tell the story of Ashley, the homeless black-backed woodpecker who depends on burned trees to nest and feed. By eliminating wildfire we doom Ashley and other black-backed woodpeckers to death and extinction as surely as a poisoning campaign exterminates wolves. Or what about mountain bluebirds who thrive in burned forests and whose populations ebb and flow with the fire cycles? The burned trees that many of us are anxious to salvage so they don’t go to “waste” are assumed wasted only because we know no other stories. Just as the bones and meat of a deer left after a wolf pack has eaten its fill provides critical protein for kit foxes, ravens, and others, a host of creatures view burned snags as home and larder. Let’s tell their stories. What about Crackle the Clark’s Nutcracker who is busily caching seeds in the scorched areas above our house? Those seeds are available because fire’s heat opened pinecones. Crackle chose the intensely burned areas because snow melts quicker there, allowing him access to the food he stored. He won’t find all those seeds, some of which will sprout and grow. Without intending to, Crackle is replanting a new forest. Perhaps if more people knew Crackle’s story, we would not be in such a hurry to replant burned areas with nursery seedlings that may not be as genetically adapted to survive on a particular hillside as the future seedlings now being replanted by Crackle and his kin.

Most of us, if we’re honest, are much like Garth who, in Wayne’s World, uttered, “We fear change.” But there’s an old saying, “The only constant is change.” Wildness exists beyond our control and remains in a constant state of change. Wolves and fire are but two characters in a never ending and always changing story. Scientists like Aldo Leopold are the prophets and visionaries who provided rational explanations of how the tooth of the wolf sculpts the sinew and bone of the stately elk and how the tongue of flame breathes new life into the forest and nourishes the land. Now it is time for the storytellers to transform facts about fire into stories, stories that quell ancient fears and inspire understanding. A generation may pass before we truly believe the stories and begin to see the land as a living entity. But there’s no time like the present to start.

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