Jun 13, 2019
Science Thursday: Finding Good Fire
Type: Research Synthesis
How did you find fire? Did it come to you — a wildfire in your community, a random job opportunity — or did you go to it? I like to think I was born into it. I was born at home in rural northern California during a wild winter storm, and my doctor became stuck in the snow on his way to our house. My mom and dad ended up delivering me on their own, and when they decided on a name, they called me “Lenya”—an altered spelling of the word “leña,” which means firewood in Spanish. It may have been in that moment that my fate fell into place.
But even with firewood as my namesake, it took me many years to truly find fire. And when I did, it was through the lens of restoration. I worked for years on a stream restoration crew, building habitat structures with logs, willows and rocks, but eventually my interests moved upslope, and my focus shifted from water to fire — one element to another.
It was around that time that I became familiar with the work of Eric Higgs, an avid restorationist who had been documenting some concerning trends in the field of ecological restoration — trends that compelled him to work toward a better definition of “good” restoration:
The rapid rise of ecological restoration is forcing consideration of what good restoration entails. Defining an endpoint for restoration is as much an ethical matter as a technical one, but scientifically trained restorationists have largely ignored the former issue. I argue that good restoration requires an expanded view that includes historical, social, cultural, political, aesthetic and moral aspects. (Higgs 1997, PDF, 2.24MB)
Restoration, Higgs explained, is fraught with debate over the objectivity of nature, the appropriateness of historical standards and baselines, and the cultural, moral and technological contexts of restoration. He argued that as restoration grows in popularity and practice, it moves away from the community-based models through which it emerged toward a professionalized model that focuses on efficiency and technological complexity but ignores social and cultural context. This “two-culture problem” (Higgs 2005) is something that I noticed in my brief watershed restoration career, and a pattern that a colleague and I also inadvertently documented in research we did on our county’s restoration economy (Baker and Quinn-Davidson 2011). Over time, the small, grassroots efforts that kicked off the restoration movement in my area had given way to more large-scale, expensive projects led by private companies and consulting firms — not the community-based (often volunteer) watershed groups of the past.
In recent years, my work in prescribed fire has brought these debates back to life for me. I find that the same questions that Higgs struggled with decades ago are more relevant than ever in the prescribed fire world, as we face intense pressure to increase the pace and scale of treatments, but largely lack the cultural context and comfort that is needed to get us there, especially in the West. We also suffer from many decades of the professionalization of prescribed fire, which — like Higgs pointed out for restoration — has changed our collective “environmental imagination” about what prescribed fire can be and who can use it.
In California’s fire culture, we’re attracted to complex in-season burns that require complicated prep, large crews and lots of resources. (I’ve found that people get extra giddy if a burn requires a helicopter!) It’s not as common to see fire practitioners taking advantage of mellow winter windows, working the nuances of aspect and fuels with only a handful of burners. In the same ways that Higgs documented a shift in the restoration community, I see the same problem in prescribed fire — the same central challenge of advancing, expanding, and professionalizing the practice without losing its soul, its human connection. Likewise, this transition to an “expert”-driven approach makes fire increasingly unavailable, not only operationally, but also culturally. And the losers in that game are often the communities who need it most— the communities from whom the original fire connection came, or for whom it could be the most powerful tool.
So as I reread Higgs’s work, and I think about it in the context of fire, I wonder: what is good fire? We in fire often tout the term, claiming that “more good fire means less bad fire.” But what are we talking about when we say that?
I would argue that good fire is not just low-intensity fire, or a single prescribed burn, or a fire that gets us back to pre-settlement conditions. Good fire, like good restoration, is much bigger than all of that — at the center of a web of culture and ecology in which human history, the natural world and the future are all entwined. Good fire is an opportunity for us to own our connection to the landscape, and to acknowledge that by using fire, we’re not merely checking a box for some objective form of ecological fidelity or trying to recreate past conditions; rather, we’re making a subjective decision about the values we want to persist into the future. That’s a responsibility and a privilege — and it’s good.
Have you ever asked, or been asked, what a given landscape is “supposed to look like”? And have you come to think that there is no right answer — that the landscape is not only dynamic, but also a reflection of the social and cultural values of the times? This has been a theme of a couple of my previous blogs, like Fire History is Human History and Naturally Human, and I believe it is at the root of good restoration and good fire. The goodness comes not just in the product itself — the individual project or burn — but also in the depth and sustainability of our connection to the landscape and to fire as a tool. If we are motivated by our own social, cultural and ecological values, rather than by notions of what things are supposed to be like, we may find that our commitments and successes are stronger.
I would also argue that within good fire, we can find ways to balance professionalism with local and traditional knowledge. I believe the Prescribed Fire Training Exchanges (TREXs) are doing just that: providing hands-on fire training that meets a rigorous standard, while also valuing and making space for alternative kinds of knowledge and experience. In my mind, cooperative burning models like these are core to the future of good fire.
So even if fire came to you long ago — even if you were named by fire — it’s never too late to revisit your connection, and to find good fire in the wake of all the bad.
Higgs, E. S. (1997). What is Good Ecological Restoration? Conservation Biology, 11(2), 338–348. (PDF, 2.24MB)
Higgs, E. (2005). The Two‐Culture Problem: Ecological Restoration and the Integration of Knowledge. Restoration Ecology, 13(1), 159–164.
Baker, J. M., & Quinn-Davidson, L. N. (2011). Jobs and Community in Humboldt County, California. In Human Dimensions of Ecological Restoration (221–237). Island Press, Washington, DC.
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