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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.


July 29, 2008

Fire is the embodiment of uncertainty, and playing with it is just what Mama said.

By William deBuys

It is said that for every complex question there exists a simple, easily understood, and completely erroneous answer. In the year 2000, such answers sprouted like radishes from the ashes of the Cerro Grande fire, which had raged across the eastern face of the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, blackening 17,348 forested hectares. Along the way, it destroyed the homes of 400 families in the town of Los Alamos and penetrated the security of Los Alamos National Laboratories more effectively than any Cold War enemy.

One reason the fire inspired a Babel of argument, in addition to the obvious trauma of loss, was that it contradicted so much previous experience. In a way, we did not know how to think about it. I say “we” because, as a northern New Mexican, I was among the thousands of stunned witnesses to the fire’s harrowing passage. I remember how it seemed that not just a mountainside but also one of the central pictures of the world had caught fire, and its flames consumed not only the picture but the frame that contained it, so that when we sought the meaning of what had happened, we had to find a new place to put the answer.

The proximate cause of Cerro Grande was neither lightning nor accident nor arson; it was an intentional, prescribed fire set by the federal fire professionals at Bandelier National Monument who, over the span of more than a decade, had built a reputation as top experts in the use of fire to restore landscape health. But Cerro Grande burned away that part of the picture, too.

In more ways than one, the fire was a watershed event for the region and for the culture of land management in the American West. After Cerro Grande, it was impossible to forget that, because of the changed character of western forests, the potential scale and destructive power of forest fires had grown by orders of magnitude and that the threat they posed to life and property had increased in equal measure. At a deeper level, Cerro Grande and the large fires that followed it burned through people’s ideas about wild lands and their relationships to them—not destroying those ideas entirely, but opening them up, clearing away the accumulated brush and debris, making room for new ideas to take root and grow.

Trying to Do Right

When Cerro Grande raged, we thought, “This is the top”: in the Southwest at least, things are as bad as they can get. Then, two years later in central Arizona, the Rodeo and Chedeski fires burned together into a single pine-fueled holocaust, ultimately scorching over 20,000 hectares. Meanwhile, fires in the northern Rockies and the rest of the country grew bigger and wilder, as they also have done in other parts of the world.

Here we mark time by the fire: land managers as well as the townspeople of Los Alamos think of pre-Cerro Grande as one world, post-Cerro Grande another. All of us in the greater community of northern New Mexico remember the crisis in complicated ways. We remember the heroism and stamina of local firefighters, who fought valiantly to defend home ground. We remember the taste of ash and smoke, the sifting of ashes, the indelible images of pain and destruction. We remember the outpouring of generosity: people taking in strangers; donating services, cash, and goods; finding ways to help. And no less we remember the anger the flames released and the impulse to blame quickly and punish dramatically, to “make heads roll.” The fire managers at Bandelier National Monument, it was universally conceded, had to be held accountable. But consider this: the prescribed fire widely credited as the cause of the greater conflagration really wasn’t. What sent embers and flames scudding before the wind toward Los Alamos was a backfire set to contain the prescribed burn. Later evaluations have suggested that the backfire was unnecessary and that the prescribed burn would have been contained without it. But the decision to set it off (who made it is not clear) came in the heat of battle and, once made, was irreversible. There is nothing exculpatory in this. Events proved incontrovertibly that lighting the prescribed fire was an error; but the deeper one delves into the chain of actions unleashing the fire, the better one understands the contingency of both human and ecological affairs—how effects cascade from discrete small acts, how easily they might have turned out differently. Some close observers maintain that even the ill effects of the backfire were for a moment contained, and then one lone snag candled up, flared in the wind, and . . .”For want of a nail, a shoe was lost; and for want of a shoe, a horse . . .”

But before the first flames of the prescribed fire were lit, it was not contingency that worried the fire managers of Bandelier National Monument; it was inevitability. They may have overestimated their powers and underestimated the uncertainties of fire and weather (as well as the fallibility of arrangements for interagency cooperation and backup), but these concerns explain only part of their decision to proceed with the burn. An acute sense of urgency and dedication explains the rest. They had a big job to do, and they were running out of time to do it. They quite rightly viewed the over-dense, fuel-heavy forests above Los Alamos as a bomb set to explode. Most of these forests lie within Santa Fe National Forest, administered by the U.S. Forest Service, a separate agency. But one of the likeliest triggers was the upper reach of Frijoles Canyon, a tinderbox that lies within the monument and is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. National Park Service. The Bandelier team had to burn Cerro Grande before they could burn upper Frijoles, and they had to burn Frijoles before the present administrative assemblage changed: a visionary superintendent of the monument was due to retire soon. Under his leadership, Bandelier had become a showcase of progressive ecological management. He and his team had restored extensive ponderosa savannas and maintained them with fire; they’d stabilized eroding piñon-juniper sites with mechanical treatments even in a Wilderness Area. They had assembled a dedicated and aggressive prescribed-fire crew. The next superintendent was unlikely to have his vision or his nerve, and so to save Los Alamos the work had to move forward without delay.

The Urge to Simplify

The irony and tragedy embedded here need no embellishment. Skiers, kayakers, and other high-risk athletes are taught not to look at the danger they wish to avoid but always to focus on their path to safety. The Bandelier team was like a skier who could not take his eyes off a tree—and crashed into it.

Only a dramatist with a Sophoclean turn of mind would have predicted the particular choreography of the crash, but the crash itself fit a long-established and obvious pattern. Consider for a moment the present condition of the east slope of the Jemez range: the Dome Fire (1996) adjoins the La Mesa Fire (1977), which adjoins the Cerro Grande Fire (2000), which adjoins the Oso Complex Fire (1998). The cumulative effect of these powerful fires, amplified by additional stand-changing burns on the southern slopes of the Jemez in the 1970s, has been to incinerate most of the continuous belt of ponderosa pine that used to wrap around the mountains.

Those who feed on irony can fatten here: the lumber-rich pine zone was the most economically valuable ecosystem in the range, and so it received the lion’s share of management attention and resources. In fact, the central goal of a century of intentional forest management in the Jemez Mountains was to protect and enhance the pine zone—yet the result of management has been to destroy it. It is the story of another skier, in this case the Forest Service, and another tree.

The physical culprits are well known. Overgrazing and fire suppression combined to increase stand densities by between one and two orders of magnitude. The fire-starved pine zone shrank as piñon and juniper crept upslope and mixed conifer species crept down. Logging did little to arrest either trend because of its focus on removing the biggest and best trees, a practice that often speeded establishment of over-dense, weedy cohorts. These were not accidental outcomes. The ultimate culprit was a way of thinking. Scientific forestry and the idea of land management developed from a view of the world and of nature that was mechanical. A factory was a big machine. A forest was a bigger one. The same scientific principles that rendered the factory floor more productive would also make the machine of nature more efficient. The first thing to do was to eliminate waste and superfluous movement by removing unneeded parts: floods in rivers, freshwater flowing to the sea, bark beetles and budworms, predators, prairie dogs, and other varmints, even porcupines. Get rid of them. Get rid of fire especially because it is disorderly and kills trees, which are the output we want. Granted that a lot of other cultural imperatives were entwined with the impulse to simplify, but the impulse remains the common thread.

We’ve learned from that experience, and maybe Cerro Grande has helped to burn away the last elements of that discredited view. We’ve learned that when we try to maximize production of a single variable from a complex system, we destabilize the system. Whether the cherished output is codfish, board feet of timber, or animal-unit-months of livestock forage, the result tends to be a system crash. In theory, an obsessive effort to maximize output of an endangered species would be no different.

The Myth of Eden

The old mechanical model did not stand alone. It existed in tension with its opposite, an essentially Edenic view of nature, a myth of the pristine. This view presumes that the affairs of the natural world in North America were in a state of near-perfection prior to settlement by neo-Europeans, and it therefore concludes that the best way to preserve what is left and regain as much as possible of what has been lost is to cease human interference in the dynamics of the land.

Never mind that such a view oversimplifies the ecological history of the continent and that it fares even worse if exported to other regions of the globe. In a sense, the rightness or wrongness of the Edenic view is immaterial. The reality we must confront is that we inhabit a post-Edenic world. Federal land management agencies currently estimate that the vegetation of almost 74 million hectares in the western states is “highly altered” and that federal lands account for more than half of this area (U.S. General Accounting Office Report GAO-04-705, June 2004). That estimate covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively. It supports the widely accepted observation that “We are changing earth more rapidly than we are understanding it” (Vitousek et al., Science 277:498, 25 July 1997). It tells us that if we genuinely value only what is or can be made to appear pristine, we will love far too little of this earth.

Playing with Fire

In recent decades, technical culture has traded its mechanical model of nature for a systems view and glimpsed a partial answer: ignore the individual variables. Ecosystems are too complex to allow managers to attend to every part, even if we could count them, which we can’t. We need instead to focus on the keystone processes that structure the systems. If we do that, the individual variables will take care of themselves. The natural flow regime of a river, including periodic floods, is such a process. Fire is preeminently another. Every thinking land manager, from the burn team at Bandelier to the chief of the Forest Service, has known this truth: we’ve got to return fire to its native ecosystem role. We’ve got to do it no less for ecosystem health than for prevention of catastrophic events. Now that the water squeeze of multi-year drought appears epidemic, we can say we need to do it for water yield.

The necessity of fire is a new realization, and the instrument of choice for its reintroduction, prescribed burning, may be an old tool, but it is wrapped in a thousand limitations. Cerro Grande heightened attention to those limitations, and they are significant. First, the risks of prescribed fire in heavy fuels are great, maybe too great to be acceptable most of the time. Playing with fire is just what Mama said it was. Second, the scale of fire applications required to address landscape needs is many times greater than our present capacity to provide it. Consider the alignment of stars a federal burn boss must achieve: archeological clearance, interagency consultation on threatened and endangered species, environmental analysis, survival of appeals, clean air permit, crew and equipment availability, weather window. A 400-hectare burn can take a year or more of preparation and cost tens of dollars per hectare. Even then, its chances of occurring under optimal conditions are slim. Within the existing management paradigm, we may never offset, let alone reduce, the accumulation of fuel.

Third, Cerro Grande’s practical effect, regardless of policy changes, has been to close the hotter part of the burn window. With understandable caution, many managers meet their acreage objectives by turning landscapes temporarily black with mild, cool treatments while shying from burns that are hot enough to achieve ecological effect. The chain saw, on surface, offers an alternative to prescribed fire, and the years since Cerro Grande have been noisy with debate over what kinds of mechanical treatments to use and how intensively and extensively to use them. In a sane world, people would speak of tree cutting not as a substitute for prescribed fire but as a partner to it.

The Gorilla in the Room

Nevertheless, the debates rage on, and it is always interesting to see whether anyone acknowledges the very large gorilla frowning in the background of every discussion. That gorilla is our ignorance. We don’t have complete answers to the conundrums we face. We really have not learned how to live in the places we call home. Our land management infrastructure (which includes environmental and industry interests) is responding to the fuel-and-fire challenge by intensifying its management efforts. Meanwhile, mortgagors, insurance companies, and the general citizenry alter their habits little if at all. And so we still get subdivisions in the piney woods with shake roofs, pine straw lawns, and doghair yards. Enforcement of a fire-savvy building code might have cut the losses in Los Alamos by half, but a town that leads the world in PhDs per capita never thought the matter through. Good luck to the rest of us.

If we were to acknowledge the gorilla of our ignorance, we might start by putting aside the language of “land management.” The very words exaggerate our powers. We rarely manage; we mostly shove and bludgeon, and the results frequently confound our best intentions. Alternatively, deluded by visions of Eden, we walk away from the need to intervene.

The answer is not to search for some illusory middle ground but to reject the “control vs. leave alone” debate and to practice real science by focusing not on what we think we know but on the gorilla himself. It means formulating hypotheses and testing them. It means extensive monitoring of natural systems and frequent adjustment of stewardship efforts, based on unbiased analysis of the data. It means what is generally referred to these days as “science-based adaptive management.”

The invocation of those words, however, is no panacea. For four years I have been deeply involved in developing programs for protection and use of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a spectacular 36,000-hectare federal property in the heart of New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, just across a high divide from the lands burned by the Cerro Grande fire. The U.S. acquired the preserve from private owners in the summer of 2000, even as the fire’s ashes were cooling. Rather than assign the property to an existing agency, Congress created a new entity, the Valles Caldera Trust, to take charge of the preserve. Early on, the trust’s governing board decided that its approach to management would be science-based and adaptive.

Those of us involved in that decision drew confidence from the preserve’s advantages. The land had no prior history of public use, and the trust inherited no policies or traditions that might undermine a new approach. Within the constraints of a complex congressional mandate, we started with as clean a slate as one could wish.

Since then, the trust has come a long way, and commitments to science and to adaptive management have remained at the center of its efforts. But almost four years into the project, success in the implementation of science-based adaptive management is by no means assured. Every ideal concept, applied to pragmatic situations, runs a gantlet of dangers. Adaptive management can mean different things to different people, including people in positions of authority. I have heard some who profess to support adaptive management say they do so in the belief that adaptive means that economic or political concerns, if necessary, may trump data from the field. While there may be a gram of truth in such a view, there is surely not a kilo, yet in the actual application of field science to day-to-day operations, the matter will undoubtedly be weighed again and again.

In this light, the greatest challenge may lie not in devising hypotheses and protocols but in revising the way we see ourselves in relation to the lands around us. It may be that we need a new meta-story to describe how we live with nature—a new myth. Nothing in our vast inherited body of guiding stories quite seems to fit our present situation. For some years, I have queried classicists and ethnographers in search of a myth more complicated than simply a story about controlling nature, on the one hand, or wounding it, on the other. It seems to me what we need is a myth about responsibility conceived as both a burden and a blessing. Unfortunately, neither Prometheus, Pandora, Gautama, Loki, La Llorona, Changing Woman, nor anyone else appears to offer much advice. Perhaps we need to conceive a new Eden whose occupants, having bitten the apple, must forever tend the tree. And in this Eden, the tree would be forever growing and forever changing, and the Adam and Eve who tend it would understand that, while they can prune a little here and trim a little there, what they most need to do is to grow, change, and learn in harmony with the tree.

About the Author

William deBuys is a writer, teacher, and conservationist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

His latest book, Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell, was published by Shearwater Books in 2001.

This article was adapted from an essay by the author published in High Country News July 3, 2000.

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