The Human Dimension of Wildfires
This article is part of our four-part series “Forests, Fires, and People,” presented by the Institute for Science and Policy and the Center for Collaborative Conservation, with support from Gates Family Foundation and in partnership with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, the Southern Rockies Fire Science Network, the Colorado State Forest Service, and the Climate Adaptation Partnership. Find all series episodes on our YouTube channel.
Wildfire’s impacts are deeply personal and affect us in numerous ways. Fires destroy property and, tragically, often cost lives. They can contaminate the nearby air and water. They require significant resources in the form of mitigation funding and first responders. Fires have also been shown to have a disproportionate impact on low income households and people of color, who may be among the last to receive aid. The question of how and if humans can sustainably live in increasingly fire-prone areas is complicated and tied to cultural identity values that are often at odds. Still, shared stewardship of our forests has never been more crucial.
In part three of our ongoing series, Institute for Science & Policy Director Kristan Uhlenbrock and Center for Collaborative Conservation Director John Sanderson were joined by Heather Hansen, a journalist and author of Wildfire: On the Front Lines with Station 8; Wendy Koenig, Mayor of Estes Park, Colorado; and Christopher Roos, Professor of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University. They discussed the changing scope of the wildland-urban interface, humanity’s long relationship with fire through the lens of Native & Indigenous perspectives, and the very real costs of fires for people and communities.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Change is needed, but has been slow to arrive
HEATHER HANSEN: When we look at 2020, we know it was a terrible year for fire. It was a record breaking year in some ways. But we have to look at it through decades of precedent and deadly destructive fires. The crew that I write about in the book is the City of Boulder wildland fire crew at station eight. And they're actually the only municipal wildland fire crew in the country. I keep in touch with them still. In late October I got in touch with the guy who's now the chief of the department, and I asked him just simply: what this year has been like for you? And he said, incredible yet not unexpected. Climate change, global warming, whatever you want to call it is making things harder, yet we keep doing the same things over and over, waiting and hoping for different results.
Fire managers, firefighters, forest ecologists: they've known for a long time that something needs to change, but it hasn't really in any big way. And that's where we come in as the public. We need to take a look at what our values are. What do we care about, what's at stake? And then we have to kind of shift our expectations to meet those values in terms of fire adapted communities, resilient landscapes, that sort of thing. But I would start by saying we are in uncharted territory in some ways but, but not in others. This is a good moment to start to change the way we think about fire.
Native and Indigenous peoples have viewed fire very differently
CHRISTOPHER ROOS: I start by expressing some humility. Native knowledge holders, of course, held on to this knowledge about these environments and the role of fire these places. We see this most locally in parts of California and in parts of the Southwest where Native people have been lending us their voice.
I think one of the big takeaways for folks living in the West today is that we don't have to reinvent the wheel. People have lived sustainably in these environments for centuries or millennia. And if I could build on what Heather said, she had a really great opening statement. Living in a world without fire in the West is simply not on the menu. We act like it's our choice, but it's not. We may struggle because we don't know all the choices that populate the menu. But by looking to the Native communities that have been stewards of these lands since time immemorial, we can start to populate that menu with things that have worked.
Which is not to say that we have to turn Boulder into a Jemez Pueblo community. That's not feasible, it's not realistic. But there are things that we can learn about living with fire, living with smoke. Managing fuels and forests, and probably most importantly, finding cultural value in fire itself rather than see it as just a hazard. Obviously, it is hazardous and it requires our respect. But one thing that my work with folks in Jemez, Apache, Hopi, Zuni has shown is that fire does really good things, if it's respected and cared for.
Last year’s fires demonstrated the need for preparation
WENDY KOENIG: It's very important to understand how quickly things changed [last October]. We actually watched the fire burning for a long time and we had tourists that would drive up into Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road and watch the fire off in the distance in Wyoming coming toward us because it was very spectacular. And it wasn't a threat, we kept being told. That when fire hit the tundra, it would run out of fuel and that we really didn't have much to worry about in Estes Park.
We did have an emergency command center because the northern part of the park was close to the Cameron Peak fire coming through. We were kind of surrounded on three sides by fire, and then Boulder had one blow up, where we couldn't evacuate using highway seven either. So we sat there, trusting, and then, bang, bam, the wind blew up and the fire actually jumped the ridge line. It skipped all of the tundra and went gee, I think I'll settle over here where there's more fuel.
I went downtown to do the MacDonald bookstore’s new ribbon cutting and I'm looking at the color of the sky, bright orange, going you know, do people really want to have this ribbon cutting? I had to go down in a special mask because the smoke was so thick. And after that, I went to the emergency command center and that's when everything blew up. Within a matter of 20 minutes, we were in full blown evacuation. People who had been on alert all of a sudden needed to get out of their homes.
And I think we need to understand that fire is not predictable, necessarily, and that when you're given an alert, people need to put their possessions in their car and actually be ready to go. Like all human beings, we procrastinate. And so a lot of people were separated, went down different canyons. We had to wait for emergency officers from other communities to come up and help work the traffic lights, to keep the flow of tourists and residents moving out of Estes Park. So we learned quite a few lessons as far as what does it mean to be on alert and be ready to evacuate a large population.
We're of course working with the town and the fire district and local watershed coalitions because we're surrounded by national park as well as Forest Service lands. We're working with all of those organizations to see how we can do a better job of keeping people safe and doing more master plans. We're also troubleshooting our fire plan that we had in place to see what would happen. So I think being ready is really very valuable to people.
Firefighters are not invulnerable
HH: I think we have this image of the sweaty, gritty, possibly superhuman wildland firefighter. In these images that we see over and over again, we think we have a sense of who they are, and we do in part. They are well trained. They are strong. But they're also human. And I think that part of what I spend some time on in the book is about their internal and their external expectations. We have a lot of external expectations coming from communities, wanting to have their homes protected or wanting to have resources that we value protected, whether that's a trailhead where we like to go hike or a watershed or whatever.
But they also have these internal expectations. They genuinely are helpers, they want to be able to fulfill those expectations. We've come into a fire environment now in which that's becoming increasingly difficult, almost impossible. In a lot of cases, either homes are not defensible because a fire is just moving unpredictably, as Mayor Koenig said. Or, the picture is just changing too quickly. We have to think about where they're coming from in terms of wanting to do a job, wanting to do it well, but also wanting to go home to their families. Sometimes, the price of what we consider valuable is too big a price to pay to kind of uphold that.
So that's part of the conversation around values and expectations. They do pay the ultimate price sometimes. We see wildland firefighters on the front line every year, and late last year, one US Forest Service spokesperson alluded that we saw an increasing number of frontline responders, particularly in fire, taking their own lives because they couldn't live up to those expectations. So I think we need to take a step back and look at challenges that they face as fire seasons get longer, more taxing. Is it safe for them to be there, where is it safe for them, and why do we want them there?
More strategic fires (and fireproofing) could be one solution
CR: For context, we can look at the Jemez landscape in northern New Mexico, where about a dozen large villages and small towns of farmers existed for several centuries, and they were using fire and agriculture and hunting and manipulating wild plants. They were trying to achieve a goal using very small patches of fire all over the place, all over the landscape. They saw benefit from fire use, for sure, but they were also harvesting fuels, taking wood off the landscape to burn in their fireplaces at home, which impacted fire behavior and fire intensity.
We certainly imagine that the landscape around the homes in the agricultural fields would have been one with relatively low fire risk: widely spaced trees with high canopies, low density fuel on the surface, always kind of broken up by a recently burned patch. But even with that, the big pueblos were fire aware. We went and looked for evidence of the forest around these villages, and there were no living trees around them for up to two football fields. And so they, they had really fireproofed the landscape, even though they were doing lots of the things that we think of as valuable things for reducing fire hazard. They also took care of their domestic space, and made it fireproof effectively.
We know that fires did burn within a half kilometer or so of these towns. We've got fire-scarred trees that show that this happened. And so there was lots of fire in and around these landscapes. But they also covered their bases, and made sure that their homes were protected in the event that the unexpected happens.
The wildland-urban interface will continue to expand
WK: When I was a child, we didn't [build homes] above what was called the blue line. Now, technology allows that blue line to go up the mountain a little bit farther and neighborhoods have private water systems in some places that don't have any way to fight fires. One of them, Prospect Mountain, will be putting in a very large water tank so that they'll be able to have fire mitigation. So I think that not living in the back mountains is not an option, but with wisdom you learn over time, utilizing different agencies allows us to do reasonable mitigation in the area without destroying the environment and the natural species that live here. It's a balancing act.
We also used to have 2,000 people in Estes Park year round. We now have 6,000, or at least, 6,000 houses, because many of them are second homes. Our tourism rate has grown to 4.5 million people coming through Rocky Mountain and Estes Park. And when I was younger, you know, we had 20,000 and the season was four months long, and now we're always extending the season.
One thing that I would like to see is an education program in the school districts for families on, what is fire. We have so many kids that play games on the internet where things get blown up with fire and things and it blends reality with imagination. They don't see the end result of what can happen. So I really think we need to continue to educate the youth and families as a community.
HH: Fire suppression is still our go to. A whole bunch of people moved in to places where there was no fire, or where they thought there was no fire. The wildland urban interface (or the WUI) has gotten quite substantial. People have thought fire doesn't happen here, and we're realizing that it does because of the buildup of fuel and because of the change in climate.
So I think we start owning it, but without laying any blame on people who have built homes or bought homes maybe not understanding that history. We have to own the fact that we haven't treated, and now we're in a situation where fires are getting bigger, faster, harder to fight, and we're continuously in the path of that.
Management policies have changed a lot over the last few centuries
CR: Go back to the late 19th century, when Gifford Pinchot, the creator of the National Forest System, saw fire as a threat to America's timber reserves. John Wesley Powell, the guy who led the expedition down the Colorado River and mapped the Grand Canyon, made a number of observations about fires in Utah and Colorado that were Native American fire management. At least initially when he came back, his advocacy was for light burning. This drove the policy debate about whether or not this should be managed with fire like Natives did or managed with European scientific forestry techniques as Pinchot and his acolytes brought. Ultimately, the latter won for really interesting historical reasons, but then this gets codified in law for several decades.
The policy explicitly became suppression, and then eventually policy starts to incorporate the natural role of fire, but rejecting the role of Native Americans, and then again here in the 21st Century, greater recognition, partly because of Native peoples really speaking up about their desire to get fire back onto the landscape and turn it into a positive force.
HH: The history of fire has lots of twists and turns. People in the 19th Century understood they needed to protect watersheds because they needed it for biodiversity to some extent, and also for recreation. We had John Muir in Yosemite in 1895 at a Sierra Club meeting saying how important fire was to help with forests, particularly in Yosemite. When more people came west, there came this idea of the permanence of the forest. They thought fire was wasteful and in some cases a moral issue. Bad habits, loose morals, you know some of the terminology that people used at that point.
And then we kind of move through the big burn era of the 1910s which led ultimately to this “10 a.m. policy,” the policy that the Forest Service had to try to control or extinguish fire by 10 a.m. the day after it was reported. Then we go through World War Two, and this metaphor of the war of firefighting. There was a saying: “careless matches aid the Axis.” Preventing fire really became a kind of a patriotic duty. And then we get stories about Bambi’s forest burning and Smokey the Bear, which I'm sure everybody knows. Preventing fire became a kind of cultural imperative. The US Forest Service is more like the US Fire Service.
And then as we come to the 60s and 70s, there’s more ecological environmental awareness. People understand more about the importance of fire in the landscape. But then we have setbacks. In 1988, there's a huge fire in Yellowstone, and the whole country watches what was a pretty well managed fire take a turn and burn down America's first national park. This setback coincides with the end of climate normalcy.
Changing minds, changing attitudes
WK: We work with the National Forest and very closely with Rocky Mountain National Park to see what type of messaging we can coordinate. Sometimes it's our signage. If we're high fire danger we have electronic signs that let people know that, and certain precautions that they need to take as they come into town. Some of our hotels and motels will put up fliers or let people know what the fire danger is. The other thing that we have to manage is expectations for housing. We've actually had vacation rentals, they all want fire pits because they want to roast marshmallows and have hot dogs and sit around the campfire, but they get up and go in the house and forget that they have to put out the fire that they started in the fire ring. When you have people come and visit from a concrete world, they don't even turn off the lights in the house when they go to bed at night, which actually is hard on the wildlife that come out at night.
The Park Service and some of the Forest Service departments also host educational seminars during this summer that people can go to in the visitor center at Rocky Mountain National Park and learn some things about this. So, there are materials that are provided, and then you just have to realize when people get very enthusiastic and excited, sometimes their brains go out the window because they're seeing such beautiful things around them. And so we just have to be alert and all of us try to work with that population.
CR: One question is what to do with those small diameter trees that are not generally economically viable products. In Jemez, those were being burned in people's fireplaces, so they can burn in people's fireplaces again today. Communities that are in real need, whether there are poor rural communities or the Native American communities that are still nearby, can use those. And then, community leaders like Wendy are really ideally situated for this in terms of bridging the connection between what the agency is dealing with this in the landscape scale, and her community members.
Another is the smoke hazard. There's a lot of fuels and will be for the next few decades, even if we get all this good fire out there. It's going to be really smoky, but it's still better than megafires. We have to deal with the air quality issues that hang up so many prescribed burning projects.
WK: One of the things that we do in the national parks and the forests is build great big mounds of burnable fuel, and then we burn it in the winter when there's snow on the ground and there's fewer tourists. The air is pretty fresh in the winter up here. And that's when we choose to do some of the fire mitigation because if things get out of control, we have a good blanket of snow on the ground. I appreciate that approach because Denver and Boulder get an inversion and the smog just stays down there and we want to be cognizant of the fact that we do impact life in other areas. We're always taking into account our neighbors at lower elevation.
I do feel that society is becoming less about self responsibility and school districts have gone to more groupthink. And so if someone in the group suggests that it's not their responsibility, a lot of people are wrong. And I'm hoping that schools will realize there's very definite areas of being environmentally responsible, that the kids need to be exposed to education on what self responsibility means. We need a population that begins to take a little more responsibility and not just look at the big governing towns and policymakers to take care of things for them. It's not fair to the wildland firefighters either. There's only so much you can do when the fire takes off. There's just not a lot you can do.
HH: I completely agree with explaining better the role of good fire and prescribed burns. One of the things I tried to do in my book is taking people through the process, at least in Boulder, of planning a prescribed burn and explaining how exhaustive a process that is and how air quality regulations and various other legal requirements are in place. In the case of station eight, the burn boss (the person in charge of that prescribed burn) lived in a trailer on the site of where the burn was going to be so that they could monitor the environmental and atmospheric conditions. They get very granular, and they're very reticent to drop a match, so to speak. In some ways that makes it too confining to be able to do the prescribed burning at the scale that we need to.
It doesn't mean there's no risk, there's always going to be risks. There's no such thing as a 100% safe fire in a wildland area, but they are very well planned very well managed. In Boulder, they do try to educate people. They'll go out in an area, they'll talk to people on trails and say, this is what we're planning, this is why. They will get some resistance, and people will say, why do you have to do this, this is where I do my workout every day and you’re ruining that or, I'm worried about my house, or I really love the trees in this area. It gives people kind of a chance to explain what their values are, and for those to be understood and respected.
CR: I'm looking at traditional societies today, and optimistic that this can be done. These landscapes can really benefit from lots and lots of small burns that really enhance biodiversity. I think we can engage many Native traditions today in a modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps. We can move into a future in which we all embrace fire as part of our life.
WK: We need to realize and understand that what works in one area, like in Washington state, doesn't necessarily work in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are different trees, different needs, different vegetation. I think what gives me hope is we were given a second chance in Estes Park. So, I think everyone is on high alert, and we're all working together.
HH: It's not a mystery. We know what we need to do. We would be much worse off if we didn't, but we do. We do have a path forward and I'm hopeful.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.