Wildfire Episode Four: A Retrospective


Only a few days after it started, the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge was only seven percent contained, so a sudden increase in the wind could cause it to once again continue its approach toward Portland, Oregon, a heavily wooded city of 700,00 people that hadn’t seen any measurable precipitation in 50 days. Everyone was skeptical that anything but rain could put this fire out, and it was nowhere in the forecast.

In episode four of Wildfire, we’ll look into our wildfire management strategy as an institution; to learn from 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 lead to this overwhelming strategy of suppression, and where has that left us now?

Regarding the young man who started the fire, we’ll reveal everything we know about him, from press releases and news articles, to hopefully make some sense of his crime. And from there, we’ll look at the birth of the National Forest Service in the beginning of the 20th Century, the pioneering efforts of Teddy 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.

Listen to Wildfire on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Key takeaways:

  • 0:24 – The wind had finally died down, and for a moment, the fire had finally stopped spreading.
  • 1:40 – The government elevated the fire from a type two incident to a type one incident. There were now more than 1,000 firefighters in the Gorge to fight this fire and stop it before it went nuclear…
  • 6:55 –On September 2, 2017, a teenager in the Pacific Northwest walked into the woods and made a really, really big mistake.
  • 8:45 – “Having a catastrophic event happen in the middle of a traditionally busy weekend obviously had an impact on every single business here in town. Our customers didn’t have a reason to come out anymore, because there weren’t any trails to run on, bike on, play on…”
  • 12:15 – “From a developmental standpoint, working with teenagers, they’re with a group of friends, trying to look cool, trying to get that social acceptance, wanting people to think you’re a ‘badass’, and feeling like you’re invincible.”
  • 15:27 – It simply isn’t true that this kind of fire will never happen again. These fires, manmade or not, will likely continue, as they have throughout history.
  • 18:54 – “If you look back at the history of conflagrations in the United States, they pretty much align with the wave of frontier settlement….” – The history of wildland firefighting strategy, and the history if Smokey Bear
  • 25:27 – It all fell apart in the 1980s, when full-suppression tactics came back into vogue.
  • 29:00 – “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?”
  • 31:49 – “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.”
  • 32:35 – The logging industry grew by 1,000 percent at the end of the 20th century, and clearcutting 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.
  • 34:27 – “We had a human-caused fire, an abandoned campfire, way up in a dead-end drainage, and the fire became very active and took off… and some individuals were trapped… and four perished, and two were badly burned. It’s not worth it, at all. It’s not worth a life.”
  • 36:34 – “We need to learn to live worth fire, because it’s not going away.”
  • 40:00 – “We’re never going to live in a world without fire, and we wouldn’t want to. But how would the legal system hold ‘The Kid’ accountable, and make a statement about his actions?”


More about the Wildfire podcast

When a wildfire arrives at our doorstep, it’s a tragedy. This is especially true when these fires are human caused. But fire has always been an immense and immovable part of the natural order, particularly in the forests of the western United States.

Forest fires and the destruction they cause are not black and white phenomenon, and they cannot be understood without looking closely at the issues that swirl and mutate around the subject of wildfire as much as the fires themselves.

In Wildfire, hosts Graham Zimmerman and Jim Aikman explore the natural forest habitats in which wildfires burn, and how humans have historically interacted with forest fires and fire-susceptible terrain. Graham and Jim lead us into wild places impacted by forest fire; into history books; into conversations with scientists, naturalists, firefighters and politicians; and into the story of the destructive 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, a human-caused forest fire that forever changed Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, one of the most unique and beloved scenic areas in the Pacific Northwest.

Guided by the story of the Eagle Creek Fire—and the ordeal of the 150 hikers who were unexpectedly trapped behind its towering flames—Wildfire explores how, over the last 100 years in the United States, we have demonized and sought to suppress wildfire in an effort to preserve natural resources, scenic spaces, and, of course, human civilization.

Connect with the team

You can see more of Graham and Jim’s work through their production company, Bedrock Film Works.

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