Big Fires Demand a Big Response: How 1910’s Big Burn Can Help Us Think Smarter about Fighting Wildfires and Living with Fire

Officials say that this year, for the first time on record, a wildfire crossed the Sierra Nevada from West to East – the Dixie Fire did it first, and then the Caldor Fire did the same thing a few weeks later. The Caldor Fire was so hard to control, fire officials in late August talked about trying to steer it into another fire’s burn scar as their best chance to stop its race toward communities around Lake Tahoe. Some fires have become so extreme, they created their own weather.

Part of the problem is climate change. Drought and higher temperatures are fueling bigger, hotter and more dangerous fires than at any time in recorded memory. Summer wildfire seasons are lasting longer, droughts are leaving more fuel ready to burn, and fire weather is becoming more common.

Adding to the risk is the number of people living in wildland areas and all those years of fighting every fire.

The U.S. routinely put out about 98% of all fires before they reached a half-square mile in size. That means areas that normally burned every few decades instead built up fuel that can make fires more extreme when they do start.

In an unprecedented move this year, the U.S. Forest Service closed all national forests in California to hikers, campers and others through at least mid-September to lower fire risk and keep people out of harm’s way. Several national forests in Arizona were closed earlier in the summer.

Closing the forests is not a sustainable solution. That it happened drove home the nature of the emergency in the West.

A New Fire Paradigm
The response to the Big Burn was not only wrongheaded, in our view, but also crude in its single-mindedness. “Put all forest fires out” had a clarity to it, but a 21st-century fire paradigm shift will have to be connected to broader conversations about environmental knowledge and how it can best be shared.

The U.S. has learned that it cannot suppress its way to a healthy relationship with fire in the West. That strategy failed even before climate change proved it to be no strategy at all.

Building a more successful coexistance with fire includes figuring out how to work cooperatively. This includes broader conversations about environmental knowledge, what constitutes it and how best it can be shared. Indigenous communities have long lived with fire and used it to cultivate healthy ecosystems. Prescribed and cultural burning are important tools in mitigating catastrophic fire and simultaneously aiding forest health.

Living with fire also requires teaching everyone about fire. Schools at all levels and grades can teach fire knowledge, including the science of fire and its consequences for communities, economies and lives; the history and cultural practices of fire; and the plants, landscapes and materials that can help prevent fires.

Finally, communities and landowners will have to reconsider how and where development takes place in high-risk areas. The idea that people can build wherever they want isn’t realistic, and landowners will have to seriously rethink the reflex to rebuild once burned areas have cooled.

In our view, living with fire demands greater attention to learn from and care for each other and our common home. Collaboration, respect, resources and new ideas are keys to the path forward.

William Deverell is Professor of History, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Elizabeth A. Logan is Associate Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and The West, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.