Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Rx Fire

If we can't trust nature to do what we want, and if we can't suppress fire, then it seems we ought to do the burning ourselves.  This in fact is what humanity has done since we seized the firestick from Homo erectus.  And it is the third strategy of wildland fire management. The benefits seem apparent.  We substitute our fires for nature's, keep fuels under wrap, and replace the Manichean fallacy that we either must either have fire or not have fire with choices among a variety of fire regimes.  There are places that have achieved this goal, that have ample Rx fires and no wildfires (see photo).  But unless you have grasses, an endangered pyrophylic species, and tolerance for smoke, it has proved remarkably difficult.  It is easier to take fire out than to put it back.  Restoring fire is akin to restoring a lost species. Why?  Some fires escape (remember Los Alamos in 2000?).  All fires produce smoke, which can afflict urban areas and highways (Florida suffered fatal vehicle accidents earlier this year from smoke drifting across I-4 in Polk County).  Not all fires yield the ecological benefits promised: they burn too hot, too cool, too spottily; they promote invasives or kill more woody vegetation than they consume.  Rx fire is not ecological pixie dust that, sprinkled over landscapes, makes the ugly and polluted into the beautiful and pristine. Worse, Rx fire establishes agency.  It identifies a person or institution responsible.  This raises both legal and ideological concerns.  If something goes wrong, an agent can be held legally or politically liable.  Florida has passed a law that provides protection for burners, but even the federal agencies are now encouraging personal liability insurance.  The threat of lawsuits is not an incentive for innovative, perhaps risky, experimentation.  Moreover, the specter of people doing things in wildlands arouses suspicions.  Today, Rx fire; tomorrow, chain saws and casinos.  It's easier to outsource the job, however compromised, to nature. It is a curious spectacle, however, that has the one creature endowed to manage fire voluntarily surrender that charge.  Other species knock over trees, dig holes, hunt - we do fire.  Or we did, until we decided to funnel our firepower through machines and to cede back to inanimate nature control over the fire that the living world alone makes possible. ———- Steve Pyne is the author of Tending Fire: Coping with America’s Wildland Fires. He is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.