Graham Z.: Outside Portland, Oregon, in the scenic Columbia River Gorge, the Eagle Creek fire had been burning for about five days when firefighters finally caught a break.
Lance Lighty: About a week into the fire, we did have a change in the wind.
Graham Z.: Lance Lighty was an incident commander in charge of hundreds of elite firefighters that were dispatched to the Eagle Creek fire when it was elevated to a Type 2 Incident. The wind had finally died down, and for a moment the fire had stopped spreading. But the highway was still closed, and the residents of Cascade Locks were not allowed back in their homes. The fire was only 7% contained, so a sudden increase in the wind could cause it to once again continue its approach towards Portland, a heavily wooded city of 700,000 people that hadn't seen any measurable precipitation in 50 days.
Lance Lighty: Well, our job from then on, after the first initial couple days, was to make sure that we were mopping up around houses, make sure there's no threat, staying ahead of the fire.
Graham Z.: On September 12th, 2017 things changed yet again. 10 days after the fire began, another wind surge arrived in the gorge. The fire quickly engulfed another 10,000 acres of forest, again, putting residents of the gorge on red alert. Not only that, the new wind direction meant that new communities were now under threat, including Corbett, Troutdale, Gresham, and even Portland was back in the crosshairs. Everything had just gotten a lot more complicated.
Lance Lighty: We had the Type 1 team come in. A southwest team came in and took over the Type 2, and so we unified with them.
Graham Z.: The government had elevated the fire from a Type 2 Incident to a Type 1 Incident, which meant way more resources and manpower.
Lance Lighty: Yeah. The Type 1 teams brings in just more resources, more people, a little more buying power, if you will. And so the fire went from a camp of 200 or 300, to 1000 in just a couple days.
Graham Z.: There were now more than 1000 firefighters in the gorge to fight this fire and stop it before it went nuclear. The new resources included more air support, which meant that a lot more water and fire retardant could be dropped from the air. But after the chaos of the previous two weeks, everyone remained skeptical that there was anything short of rain that could put this fire out, and it was nowhere in the forecast.
Graham Z.: This is Wildfire, a podcast about the past, present, and future of wildfire in North America. I'm your host, Graham Zimmerman, and I'm teaming up with my dear friend and business partner, Jim Aikman, on an investigative journey into one of the most intriguing and destructive issues of our time.
Graham Z.: As we talk about wildfire, we are using the Eagle Creek fire of 2017 to drive home the important elements of this complex subject. In the last episode, we sidled up with firefighters and locals as they fought the flames of the Eagle Creek fire, defending their homes, businesses, historic buildings, and lives. We got a close look at how firefighters go about this process, and how it bonds them together. We also learned about the potentially devastating consequences of fighting these massive fires.
Graham Z.: As a society, we're not always great at learning from history. Sadly, mistakes are repeated time and again. The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again in the same way and expecting a different result. So wouldn't it be insane, or at least irresponsible, to ignore the past of wildfire strategies in this country, while we consider its present and future? That's where we're headed in this episode, the past.
Graham Z.: So far we've just been examining one fire among thousands of incidents, but at this point we're going to start looking beyond that, to do a broader audit of what's happened over the last 115 years in this country, looking at a variety of different fires, some similar to Eagle Creek and some completely different, in order to piece together a broader understanding.
Graham Z.: We'll also look even further into our wildfire management strategy as an institution to understand its founding principles as well as its pitfalls, and learn from our triumphs and mistakes to help chart the best path forward. How did these policies originate and why? What led to this overwhelming strategy of suppression? And where has that left us now? Has our approach over the last 100 years actually been a complete disaster?
Graham Z.: As with all complex matters like this, there will not be a clear yes or no answer, but a complete understanding that could help inform our policies going forward. In addition to the past of the Forest Service, we'll look back at our individual pasts, myself and Jim, for perspective on the young man who started the fire, how this kind of thing could have happened, and what might happen next. We'll reveal everything that we know about him, from press releases and news articles, to hopefully make some sense of his crime.
Graham Z.: From there, we'll look at the birth of the National Forest Service in the beginning of the 20th century, the pioneering efforts of Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, and the systemic perception of wildfire that has sunk its roots so deeply into society's consciousness, that it has been next to impossible to change. And we'll speak to those on today's front lines fighting for that change, on this episode of Wildfire.
Jim Aikman: Believe it or not, I myself was once a young, foolish teenager. In fact, I don't think it was even that long ago, somewhere maybe around my 30th birthday, that I actually started thinking like an adult, whatever that means. Perhaps it means thinking ahead, being responsible, taking care of myself and my things, paying my taxes, making my bed, brushing my teeth for two minutes twice a day. Well, maybe I'm not quite there yet.
Jim Aikman: But the point is, we were all teenagers overwhelmed by hormones, and hell bent on standing out as unique individuals, capable of everything we were not yet allowed to do by a society that sought to suppress our burgeoning instincts, instead of enable them. And thank God for that. I know those impulses motivated me to do a lot of stuff I'm not terribly proud of back in those days. Growing up in the Midwest, we got bored and cooked up stupid shenanigans all the time. We experimented with drugs and alcohol, got in fights, broke the law, a lot of stuff I'd be too ashamed to say to my therapist, let alone share on a podcast. And yes, I even played with fire.
Jim Aikman: And on September 2nd, 2017 another teenager in the Pacific Northwest walked into the woods with a smoke bomb in his pocket, and made a really, really big mistake. Unfortunately for him, his mistake had consequences that far surpassed anything I ever faced for my adolescent transgressions. The fire that was started in the Columbia River Gorge by this kid would ripple out into a number of catastrophic side effects. Of course, the forest suffered a devastating blow, and the perceived scenic beauty of the gorge was tarnished.
Jim Aikman: Many people also suffered greatly as the fire threatened their lives and homes, and let's not forget those 150 hikers that spent a night trapped by the fire, fearing an unimaginable fiery death. Residents choked on thick, smoky air for hundreds of miles in all directions. Three structures burned down. The steep, destabilized landscape of the gorge was left open to dramatic landslides that could swallow houses in Dodson and Warrendale. And the local economy of the gorge, which relies on the steady traffic of tourists, was decimated.
Caroline Lipps: The timing of the fire was the worst possible weekend or date ever.
Jim Aikman: That's Caroline Lipps, owner of Thunder Island Brewing in Cascade Locks.
Caroline Lipps: Having a catastrophic event happen in the middle of a traditionally busy weekend, obviously had an impact on every single business here in town. Well, not only did we close for that weekend, we ended up being closed for a couple of weeks, and some businesses even longer. Our customers didn't have a reason to come out anymore because there weren't any trails to run on, bike on, play on.
Jim Aikman: The many negative effects of this fire were felt by hundreds of thousands of people, and I'd have to imagine that weighed heavily on one person more than anyone, the kid who started it. We all remember what it feels like to get in trouble. Imagine if a million people were calling for a swift and unforgiving retribution for that trouble. But what do we really know about this kid? Was he a criminal, a repeat offender, somebody prone to this type of behavior, who had already received punishment after punishment and failed to improve his ways?
Jim Aikman: For this podcast, we made delicate attempts to contact him and get a statement, and we remain very curious about what he has to say. But after trying a variety of approaches, we've been unsuccessful, and it's clear that we need to respect his family's privacy. So we're left with what we already know. He was 15 when this happened. He likes to snowboard. He's very close with his family and his church, which he attends regularly. And he is a Ukrainian immigrant, and part of an immigrant community that banded around him like a herd of elephants protecting their young.
Jim Aikman: By all accounts, He was a nice kid, which leaves us at a bit of a disconnect. And to try and understand how a kid who sounds so normal on paper could be behind such a terrible mistake, I wanted to get inside the head of today's youth, to understand what motivates them. So I reached out to a friend who is a school counselor in the Portland area. She's asked to remain anonymous.
Counselor : A counselor means that we do a lot of different things. A lot of the work that we do is personal-social, so that's helping with relationships, or when stuff gets really hard and you don't know how to talk about it, and you can't kind of figure out where to go. So I'm typically responding to what you could classify as a crisis, repeatedly, all day long, a lot of dysfunction going on.
Jim Aikman: What I was after was what's going on in kids' heads right now? It's stressful enough to be an adult in these uncertain times, but what kind of burdens do the youth bear?
Jim Aikman: I remember being a kid. It was very stressful and it was hard to navigate a lot of that stuff.
Counselor : Absolutely. You forget. It's easy to forget when you are older, how hard it is to be a teenager. No one that I know of would want to go back to high school, or would want to be a teenager over again, because the problems that you deal with are adult level problems. You're dealing with relationships, and you're dealing with things going tough socially. And you've got to balance parents, and you feel ready to be on your own, or make your own decisions. But developmentally, you're not there yet. You have these hormones that are super intense, but you don't have the skills or the development to handle them in a productive way most of the time.
Jim Aikman: And developmentally, of course, these kids' brains are simply at a different place with a different understanding of cause and effect. I asked her what she thought might've been going through the kid's head on that day in 2017. What motivated him?
Counselor : I would say I don't think anything was motivating. I would say that every ... A lot of the time, what happens with kids, especially teenage boys, is not planned out. Your prefrontal cortex isn't developed. You're not planning it out. You're not thinking about what's happening next, but you are ... You're just going and doing because it's intriguing at the time, like, "Oh, I just want to see what happens." I think about it in a developmental standpoint of, okay, working with teenagers, are they thinking? No, they're not.
Counselor : They're with a group of friends. They're just trying to get that feedback. They're trying to look cool. They want the social acceptance. And when you're with a group, just wanting to entertain, and wanting for people to think that you are "a badass," and feel like you're invincible. And they don't think of consequences. It doesn't cross their mind. They're just going.
Jim Aikman: This was all sounding very familiar.
Jim Aikman: I wonder if you've given much thought to like why being reckless is cool.
Counselor : That's a good question. I would say, I think part of it is trying to conform to making your own image of who you are and who you want people to perceive you to be, that you're going to be your own person, you might say, or do your own thing, whether someone agrees with you or not. Just like, "Oh, I'm going to do this because I want to, because I think I'm an adult." A lot of the times with teenagers, they think that they have the skillsets of an adult to make adult type decisions, but they misfire constantly. I think there were, from what I remember reading, some young girls in there too about their age, so I could imagine that maybe there's the aspect where you want to show off for that person too.
Jim Aikman: I was also curious to hear what kind of role social media might have played in this behavior. I can't imagine living under that kind of microscope as an insecure teenager, but kids these days have such a blurry line between their private and public persona, that it may have ceased to exist altogether.
Counselor : Just with most kids, you will find that social media in high school is a big drive of their life.
Jim Aikman: This appeared to be the case in Eagle Creek as the kids all recorded video of the smoke bomb, presumably for their social media accounts.
Counselor : You don't really see kids doing something that they would think is great if there's not proof that they're doing it at the same time.
Jim Aikman: That seems fairly toxic as well.
Counselor : You'll look around at a high school now, a fight will start, and kids are not intervening to go help out. They're standing back and recording it, so that they can have it to share.
Jim Aikman: I know that for me personally, my mind has definitely been warped by social media, and I didn't even grow up with it. And this brought me back to the notion of perception, and how much of this story comes down to the perspective of its many angles. Maybe the kid just wanted to be perceived as invincible by his friends and social media followers, as so many of us did as teenagers. We all want our forests to be perceived as pristine. And finally, the people in the gorge wanted the perception that justice had been served on this young man, and that this kind of thing would never happen again.
Jim Aikman: And for that reason, he was headed to court with a large community of people, deeply invested in him receiving a serious punishment. More on that later. But for many reasons, it simply isn't true that this kind of fire would never happen again. These fires, manmade or not, will likely continue as they have throughout history. And to better understand that, we needed to take a deep look at that long and convoluted history. So we're going to start at the beginning, as Graham takes us back in time to look at the origins of these policies and those that shaped them. But first, a little personal introspection from him as well.
PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:16:04]
Jim Aikman: ...a little personal introspection from him, as well.
Graham Z.: Like Jim, I too am not stranger to mistakes. In fact, as an Alpine climber, I am a strong proponent of trying new things that might have a risk of failure. I think it is actually one of the best ways to learn and progress. However, I always do the research needed in order to make sure that the results are not disastrous because obviously, in the mountains, mistakes can mean death, just as they can with wild fire.
Graham Z.: It's for this reason that I find the young man's decision to throw fireworks on a dry Summer's day to be both relatable and confounding. But more than that, it exemplifies the fact that learning and reflection are vitally important, as they allow us to help ensure that we don't repeat mistakes and that we can progress as individuals and as a society. But it feels clear to me at this point, that our society has not always gotten everything right and is in fact still getting many things wrong, making mistakes of its own.
Graham Z.: I wanted to learn more about the past of how we have managed forests and forest fires so that we can make sure that we have all the tools needed to discuss the future of forest management. At this point, I'm going to pivot away from the actions of one young man, and to the much broader subject of how we manage our forests in general, starting with the history that got us here.
Graham Z.: In order to learn more about the origins of our current wildfire management methods, I tracked down one of the most renowned historians on the subject, a fellow named Steve Pine,. This book, Fire in America, is revered. Science, one of the world's top academic journals, stated that, "On rare occasions, the historical literature is enriched by the introduction of a broad new field for study by a book that dramatically expands the boundaries of scholarly investigation. Steven Pines', Fire in America, is such a book." He sounded like exactly the guy that I needed to talk to. I tracked him down through his professorship at Arizona State University where he specializes in environmental history, the history of exploration, and of course, the history of fire.
Steve Pine: I'm Steve Pine. I'm a fire guy, historian, pyro-mantic, not a pyromaniac. Important distinction.
Graham Z.: With this distinction established, that he loves fire but doesn't necessarily love burning things, we started by chatting about his perspective on why history is important.
Steve Pine: You're always having to deal with that question, who cares? I think what the reason we ought to care is because it helps us understand the problems we have today and address them.
Graham Z.: With that, we dove into the history itself. One note before we do. The word conflagration means an extensive fire which destroys a great deal of land or property. Personally, I didn't know that before I started the podcast.
Steve Pine: If you look back at the history of conflagrations in the United States, recorded ones, they pretty much align with the wave of frontier settlement because there was so much land clearing and a lot of that land clearing was also associated with logging.
Graham Z.: To place this in the overall American history, most of this frontier settlement was taking place as part of the westward expansion, which includes the famous Oregon Trail, and lasted from approximately 1830 to 1870. As this expansion slowed down, the US government passed the Forest Service Organic Administration Act of 1897 in an attempt to manage and stabilize the harvest of forest resources. Eight years later, this movement towards management of these forests took another huge step forward.
Steve Pine: Then in 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt, by an executive order, transferred the Forest Reserves to what was then a minor agency in the Agriculture Department, the Bureau of Forestry. This became the US Forest Service and the Reserves became our national forests.
Graham Z.: The Forest Service, then run by Gifford Pinchot, used systems that were based on European forestry, but these systems were not a perfect fit. Not even close.
Steve Pine: It's certainly the case that Forestry was wholly inadequate to the task it took upon itself to manage fire in these reserves. Forestry grew out of, basically, France and Germany, out of temperate Europe, as really a part of European agriculture. It was about plantations. It was about managing an agronomic approach to it, in an area that has no natural basis for fire. There's no wet / dry season that's typical. You don't have dry lightning. Fire is just a social issue.
Graham Z.: So when huge fires sprang up in these areas designated to the newly formed Forest Service, the organization was wholly unprepared. This particularly came to a head in the Great Fire of 1910 known as The Big Burn.
Steve Pine: Something like three and a quarter million acres burned in the northern Rockies, most of it in a two-day period, August 20th and 21st.
Graham Z.: The fire burned a third of the town of Wallace, Idaho to the ground. Incredibly, during the fire, hydrocarbons in the sap of the Western White Pines that covered most of the area boiled out, resulting in clouds of highly flammable gas that then spontaneously detonated dozens of times, sending tongues of flame thousands of feet into the air, and creating destructive, rolling waves of fire.
Steve Pine: Apart from the magnitude of the complex, 78 firefighters were killed on six different incidents scattered across that complex, which was something that was totally unanticipated. The agency spent a million dollars over budget fighting this and it traumatized the agency.
Graham Z.: By the time of The Great Fire in 1910, Henry S. Graves was running the agency, having taken over from Gifford Pinchot.
Steve Pine: Not only was this a huge crisis for Graves, but his three successors, all the way through 1939 were all personally on the fire line in one capacity or another, and were all deeply influenced by it, so it was a kind of Valley Forge or Long March experience for this whole generation. Throughout that period, they were determined that they would never allow another 1910 fire to happen on their watch.
Graham Z.: By the Spring of 1935, this had developed into what was called the 10 AM Rule.
Steve Pine: That was to stop the fire by 10 o'clock the morning following its report. That's a pretty easily identified metric. It's very attractive administratively, almost wholly impractical in the field, but this spurs special fire crews. It leads to smoke jumping. It leads to an interest in aircraft, lots of other things, as a way to sort of meet that standard.
Graham Z.: During the same time, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was being implemented in order to combat the Great Depression.
Steve Pine: The New Deal was a huge escalation in fire fighting.
Graham Z.: This policy employed thousands of citizens to work for the Forest Service, dramatically increasing the resources available to the organization, and decreasing its ratio of manpower to acres of forest. It made implementing the 10 AM Rule seemingly possible. Fire suppression in the west was now a function doctrine that continued to grow.
Steve Pine: There's a re-militarization of fire during World War II. The first national fire prevention campaigns, Smokey Bear, grows out of that program. Smokey himself first took shape in 1944.
Graham Z.: So at this point, we had super robust and militarized program focused on putting out every fire. We construct lookout towers all over the west so fires could be spotted and extinguished immediately. Through the 1950's, these policies reflected and ideological perspective of mankind's relationship with nature that pitted us against it. It was a zero tolerance policy against any and all fire in the forest, which left forests pack to the gills with burnable fuel like sticks of dynamite. It wasn't until the 1960's that we started to realize this.
Steve Pine: All kinds of things change, and so by the 60's, beginning 1962, up through 1978, the federal agencies change. They all have new charters. They have new purposes assigned them. They tried to find a fire policy accordingly. The National Park Service breaks ranks in 1968 and decide that the real issue is putting good fire back in. The former era was indiscriminate. It took out good fire as well as bad fire. We need to get good fire back, in preferably started by nature, but we will do prescribed burning if necessary, where and when.
Graham Z.: It's worth nothing that this was not an idea that had been entirely absent from the conversation. As far back as 1910, people famously, including Aldo Leopold, has been arguing that finding a way to live with fire akin to the Native American methods that we described in episode two, was the best way forward, but this had been ignored by the larger establishment until the 1970's.
Steve Pine: By '78, everything is sort of in place, but it didn't get rooted as widely or at scale as it should have.
Graham Z.: It all fell apart in the 1980's.
Steve Pine: The Reagan Administration wants to roll back a lot of environmental reforms, reopen the forests to big tree logging, introduced all kinds of stuff, which really caused the Forest Service in particular, to become increasingly dysfunctional.
Graham Z.: Preventative measures went to the wayside and full-scale logging went into full effect. Fuels began to pile up as full suppression tactics came back into vogue.
Steve Pine: The Reagan era ends with the Yellowstone fires of 1988, which were a major media event.
Graham Z.: So this 1988 Yellowstone fire is really interesting to me for a number of reasons. One is that it's the first wildfire that I remember in my life. I was a little kid and it was all over the news. It started as many smaller individual fires, and due to drought conditions and increasing winds, it all combined into one massive conflagration, which burned for several months over a total of nearly 800,000 acres. That's larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Graham Z.: Thousands of firefighters were brought in to quell the flames, alongside a fleet of aircraft using the latest in fire retardant technology, all at a cost of $120 million dollars, which in today's dollars is about $250 million. While the burning of the park with its massive flames was a huge media event, the most important and challenging element was that in the end, there was consensus that all of the effort and money put into the fire fight was deemed to have little or no effect on the fire. This forced the public to start reconfiguring how they thought about firefighting and fire management.
Graham Z.: It strikes me that while the fighting of the Yellowstone wildfire of 1988 was wholly unsuccessful, that it did gain so much press and really alerted the public to this issue of wildfires in the west, and really kind of put that on the front page and at the front of people's minds. It has had quite a bit to do with what has driven us into kind of our modern age of trying to figure out how to deal with forests in a modern way.
Graham Z.: In the wake of the 1988 fires, much was to change. To pick up that story, Jim is going to dive with a firefighting expert who started in the Forest Service in the 1990's. I'll let Jim take it from here.
Jim Aikman: As you know, I've been approaching a different side of this issue than Graham, the human side, studying the effect that wildfires have on people on a personal, emotional level, which has turned out to be even more interesting than I expected. After all, fire is a highly emotional subject and it always has been.
Jim Aikman: A long, long time ago, fire became an important tool in our evolution to become the sophisticated creatures that we are today. But it also has the power to take away and to destroy. We've done incredible things to control fire, harnessing combustion, and connecting our planet like never before, but wildfires are something all together different.
Jim Aikman: Back in the beginning, after the turn into the 20th century, wildfire was vilified. To quote Gifford Pinchot, "fire has always been and seemingly will always remain the most terrible of elements." As we've learned from Graham, we waged a war on wildfire as a nation, but is wildfire really terrible? Can we attach such a subjective and human label to something so far beyond us? As Pinchot suggested 100 years ago, it might not be something that we'll ever be able to live without.
Jim Aikman: Of course, in the beginning, these policies were laden with good intentions and most people would have no idea what kind of world they were creating until the 80's when we started having catastrophic fires, like the one we've just heard about in Yellowstone. In fact, most firefighters, particularly the earliest ones, felt called to the job by an interest in conservation. They just had no idea what the affects of that would be a century later.
Jim Aikman: Which brings us to Richy Harrod, a lifetime veteran of wild land firefighting and an expert on fire science, who has seen dramatic changes over his 30 year career, which began right after the pivotal Yellowstone fire. He grew up in eastern Oregon just a few hours from the Columbia Gorge where he volunteered at the local fire department before getting a master's and PhD in ecosystems science. It's safe to say that RJ is an expert in his field.
Jim Aikman: After devoting his life to understanding fire and its effects on a landscape, Richy realized that getting everyone else to accept the science would be a major challenge.
Richy Harrod: For a really long time folks, even when I started my career, that the notion was put fires out. Fire is bad. Let's put it out. We weren't really thinking about fire intelligently, I would say then.
Jim Aikman: Even in the 90's, when Richy did most of his field work, suppression was still the name of the game.
Jim Aikman: Why do you think it took so long for people to come around to the idea that fire is a natural part of the ecology of forests?
Richy Harrod: Well, I think that for those that had worked in natural resource management for a long time, this concept wasn't new. However, in practice, that's a different beast. A line officer, you know the decision makers in the Forest Service, the public, what they view of fire, even to this day, is that it's a forest that needs to be tamed. It needs to be put out and for a line officer, the risk associated with loss of timber value or the fire coming to town and having an impact on a private resource or a private structure, that's where a lot of the pressure comes from and why it's kind of hard to put your mind around, "Hmm, some fire might be good because in the future, that might change the way fire burns in a landscape and actually make it easier for us to protect those values at risk."
PART 2 OF 3 ENDS [00:32:04]
Richy Harrod: You can actually make it easier for us to protect those values at risk.
Jim Aikman: Convincing the public that some wildfires are good is tricky, but convincing the government could be even harder. And wildfire management in the United States is inextricably attached to timber. Forests are inherently a natural resource and we all use paper products. In fact, much of the forest in the Pacific northwest, especially Western Oregon, is owned by lumber companies who provide timber for those products.
Jim Aikman: But in Richie's opinion, the forest service became a little distracted from its original mandate to set aside and preserve our forests in order to protect this natural resource. The forest service became interested first in preserving trees as a commodity and reducing the severity of high intensity fires second, and that lasted until the end of the 20th century. The logging industry grew by 1000% and clear cutting went into full effect. You can't drive through Oregon without seeing the scars of this unfortunate era. Every tree in America had a dollar sign on it, which seems antithetical to the very existence of the forest service. But timber is obviously essential to all of us and that creates an interesting paradox.
Jim Aikman: Additionally, not only were our policies out of alignment with our forests they were not in the best interest of our firefighters. These young people would sign up essentially to fight for their country, similar to joining the military and they were hungry for the action and excitement of the job
Richy Harrod: As a young individual it was exciting because we were on call, and you're up late at night and a lightening storm would come through and you'd get a report of a fire, and you would go to it and it was exciting. But I think the mantra was, "Keep your head down, son. All we want to see are your elbows and assholes. Do what you're told."
Jessica Kilroy: The whole situation was suppress, suppress, suppress.
Jim Aikman: That's Jessica Killroy, the hot shot firefighter from the last episode.
Jessica Kilroy: We used to fight fire and try to suppress it as much as we possibly could, going in, fighting fire for 49 hours straight, doing these initial tacks that were really insane. So, unlike the Native Americans who used to have a very incredible process where they would do these under burns and burn certain parts of the forest to create these really healthy habitats, we just kind of stopped it. We weren't aware of that, those repercussions, until, "Hello, our cities are on fire."
Jim Aikman: Should we have put so many firefighters' lives at risk for the sake of a misguided agenda? Should these young soldiers be sent into battle for a war they couldn't win? Or should they simply step out of the way and let nature run its course? Neither of those seem like a great option.
Richy Harrod: We would expose firefighter to risk to put out fire in the very upper parts of the wilderness and not really give it a second thought, because that's what we did. We put out every fire. And so we were exposing people to great risks during that time, but that's what it seemed like, that we were doing battle and that was a normal thing.
Jim Aikman: Everyone we've spoken with from the Wildland firefighting community has had close calls and has lost friends. It comes with the territory.
Richy Harrod: We had a fire that was a human caused fire, was an abandoned campfire, way up in a dead end draining. And the hot shot crew was diverted there and was on that fire throughout the night, and they needed to bed down. The fire became very active and took off. I was in the valley when it happened. I could hear all the radio traffic and I knew what was going on. It was explosive fire conditions, and some individuals were trapped, and they ended up having to deploy their shelters and four perished. Two are badly burned as a result of that. And so it kind of hit me personally.
Richy Harrod: We still hadn't learned some of those lessons through the previous decade of why were people fighting fire where they were? If you think about again, where they were in that landscape, no value at risk, and not a place we're going to log, and not a structure nearby, no private land, anything. And so-
Jim Aikman: And four people were killed trying to stop that fire.
Richy Harrod: And four people were killed trying to stop that fire. And so that kind of hits hard, and it's hard to swallow. Got these young individuals that they're not going to be able to go on and do the things that they'd hoped for in life, and that's extremely sad. Their families experience a great loss, and there you are. And so in the end, as a fire manager, I always felt like it was our duty to sort of become more intelligent about what we're doing. It's not really worth it at all. It's not worth a life. So we need to learn to live with fire, because it's not going away and we can wish all we want as a society, that we just put them out and make that smoke go away, but they're simply not. Unlike a hurricane or another natural disaster, people often have this opinion that we should be able to stop every fire. And in fact, that is just not the case.
Jim Aikman: So now the question becomes how do we convince the public that fire isn't bad when it's burning in natural spaces? It might not be threatening their property, but it's affecting their air quality and visibility, and their perception of nature. But it simply has to happen.
Richy Harrod: The longer the smoke durations, the more pressure there is from the public to go back to what we used to do, which is, "Can't you just put out all those damn fires because we're sick of all this stuff."
Jessica Kilroy: I think back when we were doing the fire suppression the way we were, it was a lot easier to talk to folks because people were getting paralyzed and killed, and truly were in the middle of the fire just like doing your darnedest to get it done. And so there wasn't really as much of a, "Why aren't you doing something?" Because we were.
Jim Aikman: And so how do we solve this paradox? For now the best solution seems to be information. Create a more informed public in wildfire strategy and the rest will follow. And thankfully we're already seeing progress.
Jessica Kilroy: It's not that they're doing less. It's that they're doing it differently. It's super complex. The way that they fight fire now is they use the air ops and the communication between the folks on the ground and the folks in the air, and they are working together to burn as much fuel as they can, as slowly as they can, between the structures and where the fire has begun. There's a lot more science involved, and instead of just putting people in there to get them killed, there's a much more safe approach, and it's also just a lot better for the environment.
Jim Aikman: These changes that Jessica is describing demonstrate that we are actually learning from 100 years of fighting fire in the enormous forests of the American west.
Richy Harrod: I think we fight fire much more intelligently than we did those days.
Jim Aikman: Richie made it sound as if the only way to truly fight wildfire was to prepare for it.
Richy Harrod: It's not only preparing the landscape for when it happens, but it's preparing us. People have to understand that fire in the landscape is "natural." It's happened for eons.
Jim Aikman: And Richie's vision for the future of wildfire management includes every one of us.
Richy Harrod: We have to prepare our landscapes, prepare our communities, and do a better job of learning to live with fire. I think that's really what it comes down to. And we need to come together as a society about how it is that we're going to go about fighting fires. It would certainly be better for the firefighter, I can tell you that much. And it'd be better for our landscapes.
Jim Aikman: Perhaps Gifford Pincho knew more than he realized about the future of wildfire when he proposed that it would always be a part of the landscape, however terrible. But maybe we don't need to be as terrified today as we were in his time, because we now have a better understanding of it. We're never going to live in a world without fire and we wouldn't want to. Instead, we need to learn to live with it and move away from this unattainable and unsustainable goal of suppressing all wildfire.
Jim Aikman: It's currently spring in Oregon, and we're approaching the next fire season. My perspective on that has certainly changed and I hope yours has as well. But the most challenging part, even for me, is coming around to the idea that it will not be a matter of extinguishing all fires in order to protect my house. I'll actually have to endure the smoke of more frequent, smaller fires in order to protect ourselves and prepare for the future. And that's a tough nut to crack.
Jim Aikman: But still, in this fourth episode of our series, my head is spinning from what a complicated issue fire management really is, especially when we introduce the human element, and a fire that was started accidentally by a teenage boy. And I'm just a humble podcaster. How would the legal system make sense of this head spinning case? How would they hold this kid accountable and make a statement about his actions? We'll get into that in episode five.
Jim Aikman: But for now, having looked into the past of our country's fire policy as well as our own personal pasts, it's a relief to feel that we are hopefully maturing, and I hope that we will all learn from the mistakes that we've made, individually and as a nation, and that goes doubly for the kid that put us here.
Graham Z.: This episode gave us a unique view into the past of wildfire in this country, which is clearly something that we are still trying to understand, because mankind's relationship with the natural world is complicated, and the way we see many natural phenomena has changed over time as we've come to better understand its needs and our own. There will always be more room for progress, but that's a good thing, because there will always be more room to innovate as well.
Graham Z.: Human beings have an amazing ability to adapt. The history of our wildfire management strategies is a perfect study in that. In the beginning of the 20th century when wildfire seemed like something that we could control, we sought to suppress it and manage its impacts on humanity and our forests. But as our understanding of the phenomenon has progressed, so too has our approach to it. Hearing from these experts, scientists, firefighters, and tacticians, we've seen Wildland firefighting gets safer over time, more practical, and more forward thinking.
Graham Z.: We've heard that there is still a ways to go to make this a more perfect system, but Jim and I find great comfort from our exploration and the opportunity for everyone to work together to build a better future, one that might not always be green, but also black and ashy, where forests have experienced fires as a natural part of their existence. Of course, we will never be able to simply accept fire and move out of the way when it arrives. We will always need to do our very best to protect ourselves and everything we've built, but hopefully through education and better management we can prevent catastrophic fires, and manmade accidental fires, and develop a keener, more symbiotic relationship with wildfire.
Graham Z.: And so here we are, at the of our fourth episode, where we've examined the many sides of this complex matter. We've looked at the science. We have looked at the history. We've talked to those who are most closely affected, both civilians and public servants. We've armed ourselves with as much research and perspective as we could pack into the series, and the time has come to look forward, to use these tools and discuss the future of wildfire in this country. And that's where we'll head in the next episode.
Graham Z.: And finally, we will be wrapping up the story of the Eagle Creek fire, which would continue to smolder in the Columbia River gorge for months, but was mostly contained and the incident level was deescalated. But for the young man who kicked this whole thing off, the story was far from over. He was headed into his trial, and the community began to split between calls for justice and calls for compassion. Everyone was wondering what fate held in store for this freshman kid.
Graham Z.: Join us next week for the thrilling conclusion of Wildfire, and stay tuned after that for a special bonus episode that will explore the language and media surrounding wildfire in the United States. Thanks for joining us.
Graham Z.: Wildfire is a production of REI Bedrock Film Works and Pod Peak, and part of the REI Podcast Network. The podcast was written by Jim Aikman and myself, Graham Zimmerman, and it was produced by the two of us alongside Chelsea Davis, and our editor and audio wizard, Evan Phillips. Wildfire is a weekly podcast presented by REI.
PART 3 OF 3 ENDS [00:45:54]