april 2017


Elk bath - Rhythm of the Reigns Pyne Washa .png
“Elk bath” may be the most emblematic fire photo of our era — but is this wilderness fire or megafire? The updated “Problem Fire” table can help us come to terms with our evolving fire eras. The photo, a TIme Magazine Photo of the Year, is credited to John McColgan, photographed during an August 2000 forest fire in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest.

by Stephen J. Pyne and J. Bradley Washa

History, thought Mark Twain, didn’t repeat itself but it did sometimes rhyme. And one of the ways American wildland fire history seems to rhyme is with rhythms in how it defines problems, specifically those fires that seem to inform, or reign over, the imagination of a generation, if not an era. The first historical survey of American landscape fire, Fire in America (1982), identified four such rhymed eras, beginning in 1910, and organized into a chart. Moving the subject from wordy paragraphs to periodized boxes found a welcome audience since they distill a complex historical record into a visual form that allows for comparisons.

But the history recorded in that book ended in the mid-1970s, or approximately half-way through the era it identified as “wilderness fire.” Further reflection, announced at a 1983 conference, noted it was possible to project the 20-year cadence back to the 1891 Forest Reserve Act, and pointed out that, if the cadence continued, a new informing fire should emerge around 1990. The best guess was that the new period would grapple with the question of exurban developments, what we have come to know as the wildland-urban interface fire. Pushing further, if the old patterning held, we could expect that era to yield to yet another around 2010. Would it? And if it did, what might it be called?

Or to pose an obvious question, why should history – that “seamless web,” as Frederic Maitland famously described it – parse so cleanly at all? Might this all be so much historical numerology, or scholarly astrology?

Let’s begin with the concept. At any time wildland fire management has to cope with everything that matters to fire. But the fire community also has to establish priorities, some of which can last for many years. A problem fire is a kind of generational priority – a fire, or fire problem, that seems to distill the character of an issue for an extended time. It’s a type of fire that announces itself dramatically, the type of fire that expresses what most distinguishes the issues of the day, the type of fire that claims the most attention, the most funding, the best minds. More than anything else, it informs – gives internal structure and significance to – the fire management of its time. When it fades as a problem fire, when its reign ends, it does not vanish from the scene. It simply becomes part of the administrative background while another problem comes into favored status.

Each problem fire period might be parameterized according to several traits. Each aligns with a strategic vision. Each brings forward tactical emphases. Each has a characteristic research agenda. Each seems to rely on some kind of abundance, which is to say, some surplus beyond basic needs that does not merely respond to the day’s challenges but helps define them.

In thumbnail summary, the original eras went as follows:

Frontier fire (1910-1929) described the efforts of the early U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to bring systematic fire protection (that’s a technical term) to bear on the forest reserve system, trying to match the abundance of lands, particularly after 1907, with the abundance of funding made possible through the Forest Fires Emergency Act of 1908. Policy sought to bring an economic sense to protection, which in practical terms was limited to accessible frontcountry lands.

Backcountry fire (1930-1949) begins with the big burns of the early 1930s and the response by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, which invested immense resources into conservation and economic recovery. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) made it possible to project fire protection into the backcountry, and unsurprisingly marks the beginning of organized crews. It was amid this largesse that the Forest Service announced the 10 am policy which stipulated that a fire was to be controlled by 10 a.m. the day following its discovery.

Mass fire (1950-1969) continues many of the themes of the preceding era but with a military and civil defense alliance typical of the Cold War replacing the New Deal. The feared big fires were those that came from or echoed a possible war; military funding moved fire research out of its forestry ghetto, particularly into fire physics; war surplus equipment – mechanization, especially aviation – replaced the muscle of the CCC.

Wilderness fire (1970-1989) embraces the attempt to replace fire control with fire management, to restore good fire, and to bond fire management with land management. A policy of fire by prescription supplanted the 10 am policy. Fire in wilderness was the most organic and dramatic expression of the era, but prescribed fire was the agencies’ treatment of choice. The wealth of knowledge gleaned from fire science would, it was hoped, substitute for machines and manpower. This era would come to a close following the Yellowstone Fires of 1988.

If we wish to revise the original table and add an era for 1891-1909, it has the effect of splitting and redefining some properties of the 1910-1929 era. Rename the 1910-1929 period as the era of frontcountry fire since it was the accessible portion of the public domain that claimed attention. Call the earlier period the era of frontier fire since it was the specter of untrammeled fire and ax along the edge of settlement that provoked state-sponsored conservation, which served as an inchoate policy. The strategic concept was to create forest reserves. Its tactical emphasis was a simple notion of guarding those lands against trespass (including fire); its most effective expression was the U.S. Cavalry, which oversaw the major national parks. There was no systematic research, just mapping reconnaissances, mostly done by the U.S. Geological Survey. The abundance was land – a vast estate; in fact so large it overwhelmed efforts to protect it. Just before he left office, President Theodore Roosevelt effectively doubled the reserved forest lands. In 1909 the Forest Service had one fire guard for every 670 square miles.

This early time attracted little attention from readers (no surprise). What did interest them was the period contemporaneous to the 1982 publication of Fire in America, what has come to be known as the era of the WUI fire. In truth, nearly a third of the modern history of American fire has occurred since that book was published.

A new narrative, Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America, has brought the chronicle to 2013. It did not, however, update the table of problem fires. In 2016, an updated revision was proposed by Brad Washa that broke the recent history into 10-year lumps and sketched how we might fill the chart’s parameters (Table 1 – 1990 and beyond).

Problem Fires - Table 1 Proposed Revision web.png
Table 1: Problem Fires – Proposed Revision (10-year blocks).

This schema seemed plausible and interesting, and an update should have been included in Between Two Fires. It wasn’t – a gap that this essay seeks to fill.

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Table 2: Problem Fires – Revised (20-year blocks).

Table 2 shows the final outcome of that dialog and the effort to bring the problem fires table up-to-date, now broken down into the original 20-year increments. It reflects an understanding that another inflection seems underway. What to call this emerging era? Megafire was coined in the early 2000s, but it makes a nice shorthand for a time in which fires seem to have spilled over their old boundaries. As we use megafire, the term refers not just to very large fires but to the enhanced complexity of not just fire complexes but of fire management. It may be other terms (managed wildfire suggests itself) will seem more apt as the era unfolds, or as historians in decades hence look back on today. So let megafire serve as a placeholder until the contours of the era sharpen.

In this new era, the old policy continues but with guidelines that have invited a widening use of managed wildfire. The new abundance is the “all hands, all lands” breadth of what fire response, resilient landscapes, and fire-adapted communities require these days – all those states, all those local and county agencies, all those private contractors and collaborators. They not only magnify the resources available for collective use, but threaten to overwhelm the system, as a system, with competing interests, which argues for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy to serve as an organizing vision. Tactics developed after new guidelines in 2009 favor point protection and box-and-burn operations; these were first noticeable in the western U.S. but seem to be finding niches elsewhere. No less expansively, fire research has reached far beyond its old sciences to consider fire within the context of global change, with the upshot that fire-related publications have increased exponentially. (Some of us would like to see the Anthropocene renamed the Pyrocene.) The era is young, so it is hard to divine what the final contours will look like.

The deep significance is that the times are indeed a-changing, as our most recent Nobel laurate in literature once wrote.

The rhyme continues.


The landscape where our Fire Problem eras play out: WIldland Fire Potential, circa 2013. USFS Fire Modeling Institute.

Why should it? While there is no definitive explanation, a first guess is that it is tied to the cycle of bureaucratic generations. Until the 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service so dominated fire that its story can stand for the national one. The agency began, almost overnight, with a cohort of young men, not a mixed or generational workforce, so it makes some sense to tie the shifts in problem fires to generational waves. But it’s odd that it should hold for so long, and this explanation might be expected to have ended with the advent of interagency cooperation and new players at various levels. It didn’t, because the workforce from other agencies effectively constituted a new generation, again suddenly acquired, and because the consent decree to accelerate affirmative action programs broke the continuity of USFS generations. Its own workforce began anew. So did the cycle of problem fires.

Or not. The reasons behind the rhythm remain opaque, so it is difficult to predict whether the cadence will persist. The cycles, though, do seem to hold value as a heuristic device.

Perhaps more curiously there is another rhythm buried in the chronicle, this one of 30 years, that describes a cycle of policy shifts. Begin in 1905 with the formation of the U.S. Forest Service and its first Use Book (1906) that stipulated fire protection as a fundamental duty. In 1935 the 10 a.m. policy hardened that precept. Thirty years later, in the mid-1960s, there was no explicit policy shift so much as a general ferment that led over the next decade to reforms to restore fire where possible. The National Park Service adopted such a policy in 1968, with the USFS following in 1978. Fast-forward to 1995 and the thickening interagency agenda argued for a common Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy. With updates along with the National Fire Plan and the Cohesive Strategy, the 1995 policy still survives. If this rhythm holds, however, we should see another fundamental shift around 2025, roughly eight years from now. A cause to pause.

Or to widen the field of vision still further, there appears to be a 50- to 60-year macro-rhythm at work. For 50 years, beginning in 1910, the U.S. sought to exclude free-burning fire and used the U.S. Forest Service as the institutional means to do it. The outcome was to remove good fire as well as bad and to create a national (if relatively benign) hegemon. Then, beginning in the 1960s, the country tried to restore good fire and diversify wildland fire’s institutional matrix. Results have been mixed, but a sure outcome has been to confirm the value of landscape fire and to craft interagency institutions. Now this era, too, may have run its course. We seem to be undergoing a phase change that enlarges the institutions to all levels of government, and even to non-governmental actors, and that is creating fusions of ideas and practices. The old dichotomies may matter less. The managed wildfire, for example, is a hybrid – part suppression, part prescribed burn. Management can look, to outsiders, like a mashup.

How might these rhythms help us understand the scene today? It suggests that we are a third of the way through our current problem fire, about three-quarters of the way toward a fundamental policy shift, and at the cusp of a new long-wave cycle in national fire history. Interesting times.

Musings like these come with a hope and a disclaimer. The hope is that others might find the parsing of American fire history useful. History may indeed be a seamless web, but we need seams to sew experience into a usable past. The disclaimer is a warning not to put too much faith in the numbers. Numbers get reified in not always helpful ways. Times do change, and sometimes they rhyme. But not knowing how or why, other than the commonsensical observation that change is always happening, it’s hard to invest too much confidence in forecasts based on perceived rhythms. Concepts are an act of mind, which has its own logic and longings. We typically see what we want to see. Correlation, or its literary equivalent, analogue, isn’t cause. It may all be coincidence, given apparent coherence in retrospect.

In the long term, house odds (read: real history) beat any system we concoct. History has lots of pasts. We choose the ones that help us get through the present.

About the Authors

Steven J. Pyne. Photo: ASU.

Stephen J. Pyne is a Professor in the School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, [email protected]. He will offer a historical perspective during an all-day webinar, “A Century of Wildland Fire Research: Contributions to long-term approaches for wildland fire,” on March 27, sponsored by the National Academy of Science’s Board on Earth Sciences and Resources.

Brad Washa.JPG
Brad Washa

Bradley Washa is the State Fuels Management Specialist at the Utah State Office, Bureau of Land Management, [email protected]