Today one of my dearest and most influential fire friends called to vent. He said that he wanted to give up on prescribed fire and get a job at an airport parking and refueling, loading and unloading baggage—something that couldn’t let you down because you wouldn’t be trying to change a world that doesn’t want change. After more than 15 years of what often feels like revolutionary work, this colleague felt today as if nothing had really changed; the conversations, the agreements, the egos—they’re all the same. The only thing that’s different is that the wildfires are so much worse.
One of my other fire friends had voiced a similar sense of listlessness last week in a Facebook post. After witnessing the worst counts of spring Chinook in the history of his Salmon River watershed, he described sitting with his teenaged son, the two of them crying together for the fish and the fire and all the cycles that now lie broken in their remote mountain home. He said the only thing that could shift things at this point would be radical action.
Fire, smoke, water temperatures, fish, people, forests: we’re all the same, aren’t we? We’re all suffering simultaneously from too much fire and not enough of it. The paradox is soul-bending.
* * *
I think my work and I might have a dysfunctional relationship: the things I hate about it are also the things I love most. I love feeling like I’m fighting for what’s right—the battle is endlessly energizing—but it’s also exhausting to feel constant frustration and struggle. Why do we have to fight so hard for good fire?
Here in California, the last week has brought managed wildfire to the forefront, after two lightning fires burned out of the back country and into rural communities, damaging properties and homes. These fires have raised questions about the validity of any approach that includes managing wildfires for resource benefit, especially in a drought-impacted and climate-changed environment. Retired fire professionals spoke out against the Forest Service for their seemingly ill-advised tactics, and even Governor Newsom weighed in to say that all fires should be put out immediately. Then this Monday, new Forest Service Chief Randy Moore (who came to D.C. from California) issued direction that the agency will no longer be using managed wildfire this season, and that prescribed fire projects will be limited and subject to additional review and approval.
Those of us who work on these issues are feeling a collective heart drop, the clock winding back. These broad-brush decisions might make sense in the context of this state, in this month, in this season, but in the contexts of the last century and the entire country, they are hard to swallow. What about the remote places where wildfire could only do good? What about the places where prescribed fire is in the hands of robust local partnerships for whom national preparedness level is not a bottleneck? These are the things so many of us have been working on, being the change we wish to see—desperately moving eggs out of that one big fire suppression basket.
Last night my husband reminded me of the hidden traps in decision making—the unconscious biases that can sabotage good leadership. There’s the sunk-cost trap, where we “make choices in a way that justifies past choices, even when the past choices no longer seem valid.” And there’s the status-quo trap, where decision makers stick with old ways of doing things because “breaking from the status quo means taking action, and when we take action, we take responsibility.”
Kurt Vonnegut had it right when he called humans “the almost smart enough species.” We forget that inaction is also an action—and a responsibility.
* * *
Disingenuity. That’s the word that keeps coming to mind for me. Example: the endless focus on acres. Every media interview, every policy conversation, every presentation I give lures me into a conversation about acres—as if acres are the measuring stick for some silver bullet solution. How many prescribed fire acres do we need to save California? Is California’s million-acre fuels treatment target enough?
Short answer: no. Better answer: focus on people, not acres. People are where all the problems are, and as the anthrophile that I am, I think people are where the solutions are, too. Maybe that’s why I’m still in this dysfunctional relationship—I’m still in love with the idea of people and fire.
I’d like to stop talking about prescribed fire acres. When success is judged by acres, we drift toward the easiest projects—maybe a unit from last year that could be burned again, or something sizeable but in a non-strategic location, or even an easy grass unit burned at an ineffective time of year to nail down a few more black acres. There may even be a temptation to count pre-existing or unrelated projects toward new acre targets. As pressure for acres builds from the top, these kinds of patterns will be more prevalent—the focus on quantity distracting from quality.Instead of acres, let’s focus on jobs, training, innovative fire planning and bold projects, and let’s lift up all the people who are in love with and leading this work. If we focus on the people and the capacity, the acres will follow. And hopefully the prescribed fire acres will be in places that allow wildfires to burn again. That should be the vision.
We need to let go of the blame, too. Can retired fire managers who put out fires and deferred risk for the last 30 years point fingers at today’s fire folks, who have been left to pick up the pieces? Can the cities and developers point fingers while they sprawl aimlessly into the wilds? Can the environmental organizations call out inaction at the same time they’re filing lawsuits? Can we citizens blame the fire managers, when we and the agencies consistently fail to give them the pay, job security and votes of confidence they need to do the jobs we hired them to do?
At some point we need to realize we’re all in this together—maybe we’re each aggressor and victim, maybe we’re all feeling the dysfunction and heartache, maybe we’re all ready to hang up our Nomex and work at the airport.
But here we are: the West is still burning, the land is still hungry for good fire, there are still a few fish in the rivers and a few big trees in the forests, and they need us. We need us.
It’s time for radical action—and radical responsibility.
* * * *