april 2016


by Stephen Fillmore

(In tribute to 406)

Like many before it, the wildfire was conceived on a late summer afternoon as a drifting monsoonal cell bunched up, gathered its energy and raked over the mountainous uplift spewing hard rain, wind, and lightning. The neighborhood it was born into was both rough and beautiful; the mountain gazetted into minor peaks, valleys, and draws that spilled down from the ridges into deeper cuts and steeper slopes as the watercourses worked ever downward and outward toward the Pacific Northwest coastline.

The wetness that came with the storm dampened the usual sounds of the forest in the first few hours after the fire’s arrival. The last outflows of wind from the collapsing cumulonimbus streamed through the upper canopy, throwing off beads of water that fell as false raindrops. Curtains of steam rose from the surrounding boulders and swirled like midwives around the fragile new fire. The furrowed and moss-draped Douglas-fir trees loomed over the newcomer like reproaching passersby.

The instance of creation had occurred suddenly, with abstract natural violence, and few witnesses. The rain kept the fire diminutive for its first inchoate hours; however the minute gray smoke back-dropped to the bluing sky confessed the fire’s existence before it could learn to run. Authorities arrived swiftly; this had all been rehearsed before. Professionals moving with intent made their way through the forest, found the fire, and judged it on its merits. It was like so many others; small, burning valiantly but gently under a fir tree, hemmed in by the dripline where it was still dry and protected. The branches hung low like protective arms around it. The fire was to be easily controlled with minimal effort. The men moved to do what was expected of them. They were there to keep the peace, to keep the neighborhood intact, and to cease the interruption that this impertinent little fire was bringing to the area.

An unexpected radio call stayed their hands before they had a chance to begin their rote work. Another man had listened to the fire report, and had visualized the potential of the young interloper. He wanted to meet the fire face to face, and to assess for himself what potential it had in this world.

He arrived at the fire under the late afternoon shadows of dissipating storm clouds. He recognized that the fire, if left untouched, could grow to perform both wonderful and terrible things. The good or ill extent of these effects would of course be largely in the eye of the beholder and decided much later, after the fire had been allowed to mature and then fade. First, however, a group of people existed who must be consulted regarding the future of the new fire. The fire manager noted the position of the fire – near the top of the ridge with sparse fuels above, recognizing that it could not burn wildly uphill, and instead could be tamely and deliberately nursed downhill, slowly moving along the forest floor, eating and growing in manner of disturbance that the old trees remembered only from long ago.

Two good ridgelines flanked the fire; two good ridgelines that would be there to direct and control its actions. Patience would be required to let the fire exhibit its full potential. Patience, time, and the expertise of those who would watch it grow, steer it when it went the wrong direction, and teach it to go the right way. This potential future is what the fire manager saw as he stood there watching the tendrils of flame struggle and writhe. Wistful perhaps, he could admit this to himself, but mostly hopeful that this time was the right time, that this fire was the right fire, and that he would be allowed to let this fire grow into something auspicious.

There would be hiccups. The fire would certainly make some mistakes along the way. A pocket of trees would be scorched more severely than hoped for; maybe an area that was favored by the local owl pair would be diminished. The winds may blow the smoke the wrong direction and the neighbors would consider complaining. The fire manager knew that these disturbances would pass quickly and become a memory and a learning experience. In its exuberance, the fire may even hurt one of the people tending it. The very act of being there sets that circumstance. However, the magnitude of the effects of growing a fire can never be known until the privilege of hindsight is revealed.

He knew there would be other costs as well – financial costs. It is no cheap proposition to bring a fire into this world and let it fully grow. There would be the costs of watching over it for weeks and months and perhaps longer. Would they have the resources available to tend it? Who would watch the fire if they were called away?

Is it more expensive to let a fire grow that can be taught the correct way to exist, or do they wait for the fire that is born at the bottom of the hill, and wants not to be tamed, one that wants to feed hungrily at the fuel, consumed in a gorge like a beggar at the banquet table? The chronic alternative is to endure a fire that casts aside the vain efforts to tame it and who destroys the very house in which it briefly lives, raging only until the ropes of man’s efforts can be slung over its neck and broken like a stampeding horse, slowly, tediously, and with great risk; until finally the fire’s loud voice is muffled, tamed into submission, and all that is left is the charred remains of what once was and will never be again.

“No,” the fire manager thought; “let’s allow this fire to flourish into a productive thing, to see this fire contribute to the goals of nature in its own unique and individual way.” There will be challenges in the endeavor, knowing also that with great challenges come great rewards. And so he made his plans, and came to love the fire for what he knew in his heart it could become.

Ever a servant to the complexities of this world, he knew that the authority that would allow him to fulfill his vision did not exist with him alone. Standing by the fires edges, dreaming his dream, he gave his orders, and the men walked back to their equipment to head for home. And so, for this one long evening and night, the fire would be left to exist freely, alone and without bounds.

In the morning, the fire manager went to see the others, to explain his visions for the fire. He spoke of the possibilities that this fire could afford them. He extolled the positive effects of what letting the fire burn could do for the landscape, for the culture, and for the lessons that would be learned and shared.

While listening, the others thought of the past. They remembered a fire that they had tried to nurture before. That fire grew, and then surprised them; had figuratively burned them, and had not acted according to their expectations. They did not forget the lesson that fire has the potential to go different from that which they desired.

“This new fire is different,” the fire manager persisted. “This one is not able to race up the hill, this one can be guided the right way, and this one can achieve the things we all hope it will.”

“But,” they retorted, “what will the neighbors think? They could be inconvenienced by this fire, annoyed even, especially when it grows more noticeable as it gets bigger.”

“Let the neighbors get to know the fire early,” the fire manager suggested, “we’ll introduce them when the fire is still small.” The neighbors can take ownership in the growing of this fire and help to assume the risk that they have in living in the same neighborhood.”

“They would never go for it,” they said dismissively. A fire like this was just too inconvenient for everyone to deal with. “Plus,” they asked, “How can you guarantee that the fire will follow your directions and intent? How can you know that it will not take a mind to go a different way than what you want?” The fire manager could only reply that “we know there are no guarantees in a business such as ours.”

“And what about our wildlife,” the biologist asked. “How can you ensure that the trees where they live won’t be harmed? Can you tell me for certain that the fire will behave as you expect?”

“Well, no, I cannot guarantee that, however I know that a fire born at the bottom of the hill, at the wrong time, will almost certainly destroy the nests of all the birds in the forest between the two ridges,” the fire manager replied.

“We’re not talking about a fire in the future,” the others said, “We’re talking about the fire we have now. You have to see that there are neighbors nearby, and that the trees have been there a long time, and we just don’t want to disturb the peace. We understand why you want to let this fire grow, but we don’t think that this is the right time for it. Maybe if it were a bit later in the year, when the winter rain and snow is closer at hand, and we could know that the fire won’t move too far…maybe then we could allow it.”

Inwardly, the fire manager knew that these are the reasons that it always comes down to. How could he argue with the hypothetical wrong time, wrong place, and wrong resources? How could he guarantee that which can never be known, and promise only that he would try his best utilizing the skills he now possessed?

“True,” the fire manager said outwardly, “however we can’t know that there will be a fire later this year, and surely you could see that the plans that I’ve made for the fire are sound. I just need some help for a couple of weeks to help monitor it to the end.”

“Who would come to help us,” the others asked cynically. “It’s just a fire that no one seems to want, and no one wants to put money or energy into it. The resources that we have are out dealing with the trouble fires. Why make more headaches for us? It’s so much easier to just put it out. I know that we have been asked to look for opportunities like this, but let someone else find a way to make it work. We can at least have our guarantee of success with that. The risk is not worth it to us.”

And so it was decided, and so it was that the fire manager walked out of the high office, and into the brightening last light of the morning of the last day that the fire would heave its smoke into the sky. A brief radio call was made to the firefighters who were already perched next to the fire, watching it, perhaps even encouraging it in their own abstract way. They were waiting for the final decision to come down, one way or the other. The call came, they understood the decision, and in a few short hours the heat was gone, the smoke was gone, and the possibilities of a fire on a long summer’s day were gone, too.


AFTERWORD: Of course, nothing is simple. My good friend and fuels colleague Daniel O’Connor pointed out after reviewing a draft of this essay that “resource fires are the fruit of years and years of successful community protection, prescribed burning, community outreach, and trust gained.” His words are true of course – my point, however, is only that at some point you just have to anchor in somewhere and start working up the hill towards the top.


Stephen Fillmore

Stephen Fillmore is the Forest Prescribed Fire/Fuels Management Specialist for the Cleveland NF, in San Diego, CA.