Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Changing the Fire Culture: Let’s Be Provocative

By: Lenya Quinn-Davidson

Topic: Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire

Type: Essay

I love words. I love flowery, superfluous words; I love pithy, intense words; I love concise language, florid language, scientific language, love language—I love language. And I remember the moment I learned the word hegemony: a word that packs culture, politics, social norms and power into four soft syllables. Hegemony, the idea that the powerful can elevate their ideologies to the point where they become cultural norms—and justify the status quo as natural and inevitable. What a word.

I was reminded of this word during a recent lunch stop on my way south. The old Mendocino Brewing Company building in Hopland, CA—the original home of Red Tail Ale and Eye of the Hawk—has recently reopened under the leadership of a guy named Ron, who has worked in the beer industry since the early 80s. Over pints of his all-time favorite beer—Lagunitas IPA—we talked about the cultural change he’s observed in his career, from the early 80s when small breweries were practically non-existent, to now: a world so full of beer—hazy, sour, hoppy, Belgian, Korean, light, strong, double, trippel, incredible—that it’s actually overwhelming. I loved hearing him muse on how, in so few years, the country went from drinking only mass-produced light beer to craving a product that’s objectively unpleasant—strong, bitter, more expensive—and yet soooo good.

In my usual fashion, this conversation got me thinking about fire. In some ways, IPA reminds me of other things that may seem distasteful at first but become addictions once you’ve tried them: stretchy skinny jeans, for example, and prescribed fire. The likeness had me wondering: could it be that we now live in a time with some alternative form of hegemony? That we now live in a world where hegemonic opportunities exist outside the historical guise of political power, and we have opportunities to influence culture by appealing to pleasure, comfort and passion rather than just the status quo? In this time of ideological proliferation—where anyone with an internet connection can have at least some sort of voice—who are the powerful? Let’s just say PG&E isn’t influencing culture, but Lagunitas is.

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Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson

I’m bored with the fire discourse. Is it just me, or is it increasingly rare to find an article about prescribed fire—popular or academic—that’s provocative in any way? Don’t get me wrong; I’m as guilty as the rest of you. We all feel the need to hit the major talking points: the hundred years of fire suppression; the political, operational and social barriers; etc. But do you know what I want to read? I want to read the honest, uncomfortable truths in fire: reflections on how and why we’re boxed into the status quo, both personally and societally. I wish it were as simple as social acceptance and liability, but I think we all know deep down that one of the biggest influences on prescribed fire is our own passion around it, or lack thereof. We need bolder thinkers and leaders. Even the political barriers, like the ones we faced last week in northern California with the blackouts, are ultimately based on the values and vision of someone somewhere. I want to hear about that.

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Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson

A few days ago, my husband ran his first marathon. This comes after two decades of rock climbing, some dabbling in biking, and any number of other physical endeavors. So in our house, physical fitness and endurance are everyday conversations: his strained hamstring, carb loading, foam roller technique, the new trad route, or the X-Games that our son is now gravitating toward. But what compels me is not the adventure or training itself, but the steady progression of these sports through time—the fact that human performance is evolving at a rate that is tangible at a yearly or, at most, a decadal scale. The things that climber Alex Honnold is doing now would have been unimaginable when Honnold was born—likewise for Allyson Felix, who recently broke Usain Bolt’s record in running, or Eliud Kipchoge, who just ran a marathon in less than two hours. How are those fields advancing so rapidly when ours—fire—seems so stagnant? While they continue to evolve and push the boundaries of physical achievement, we continue to make a mess of what for millennia came so naturally: the human relationship with fire. As the saying goes: in fire, we have 50 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.

photo credit Marco Verch -Flickr.jpg

Eliud Kipchoge competing in the London Marathon (2018) Photo credit: Marco Verch/Flickr

I think athletes advance their sport not through physical improvements but by advancement of their mental game. The breaking of an athletic record is a shattering of a glass ceiling—a growth in the personal vision, and therefore potential, of the athlete. And with each individual accomplishment comes a growth of the entire sport—a collective expansion of what we think is possible. The human body has not evolved in these short years, but the mindset of the athlete evolves all the time, and with it, our societal understanding of human ability. To stagnate is to drop out.

When it comes to fire, I think we’re still drinking Budweiser. We’re still climbing 5.6 and running slow relays. We still think we’re competing with the powers that be, rather than competing with ourselves. But here we are in this new time, with this new power: decentralized hegemony, skinny jeans, prescribed fire, IPA. The onus is on each of us to advance ourselves, and thereby advance our field. We have everything we need.

 

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6 thoughts on “Changing the Fire Culture: Let’s Be Provocative”

  1. Ryan Anderson says:

    Great thoughts, Lenya. I have two things:
    1. Someone buys me some dad jeans (36×36), I’ll wear them.
    2. Are we willing to live with the tension that creates the change we want to see?

    I have had some talks and thoughts about the role of tension with some of our work with WAFAC, but will be exploring that moving forward a lot more.

    Thanks for the great blog.

    Ryan

  2. Amanda Rau says:

    I think that one of the reasons were are not charging forward in the provocative manner which you eloquently describe here is that we are still reaching back into the past to reestablish and understand our historical relationship with fire. We are also dealing with a force of nature that has the potential to negatively impact a lot of people when things do not go as planned. Prohibition probably had a similar effect on the evolution of alcohol, but is far enough in the past now to be less of an impact on the ever expanding world of beer (and cider, spirits, wine, etc.). We suffer a broken history much like that of our indigenous fire keepers, who continue to have their entire culture impacted by colonialism. I do think they are doing a better job than most at being provocative, so we have them to look to as we strive to stop managing fire like Budweiser is the only thing on tap. When we have mended those historical wounds from the removal of the healing fires of the past, we will be better situated to evolve. Healing takes time, and is sometimes boring, but also necessary and part of developing the kind of resilience that enables the kind of risk-taking that we look back upon as once unheard of.

    Thanks as always, Lenya, for your thoughtful and not boring writing!

  3. Terry Lawhead says:

    Excellent essay providing for productive reflection, thank you. I sincerely hope this important conversation continues and flourishes. I think individual success, separated away from community success, is doing us in. A mixture of narcissism, entitlement, indifference to working for a greater good and fear of what change may do to what little is left of stability. I count myself in the walking wounded traumatized and deeply worried about what is next. I appreciate your insights into how to move forward together.

  4. Ditto the first two responses. I’m preparing to emcee our fourth semi-annual community fire safety workshop tomorrow and it will include for the first time the topic of prescribed fire. We’ve got a great forest owner to present on the topic but I like to weave all our topics together. Your blog and the responders comments give me a few concepts to use in creating the links in the stimulating way I was looking for.

  5. Dominique Bachelet says:

    Check out the FUSEE web site: fusee.org, I think you will like this group, quite experienced with fire.

  6. Ali Freedlund says:

    First off the work that Lenya and the Humboldt County Prescribed Burn Association have done in the past two years alone is changing and expanding our cultural wherewithall—very much so. The numbers of prescribed fires in our northern CA counties attest to this. It is waaayyyy easier to advance a singular self in improving one’s score, but cultural shifts??? they can be geologic in time. Using that metaphor–I feel that prescribed burns has been through some major shifts–on the scale of earthquakes–not going back to what is was, but grooving together across agency/landowner/volunteer firefighter/burn boss lines-shaking things up!!. What disparate groups have accomplished together is uplifting and then there is the land…YAY for Rx fire.

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