Distillations podcast

Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric
July 20, 2021 Environment

Paradise Is Burning

Our approach to fighting wildfires is a fantasy—and it’s making them even more catastrophic.

Black and white photograph of a man wearing a tie standing in a forest, surrounded by burnt logs.

For decades, the official fire policy of the Forest Service was to put out all fires as soon as they appeared. That might seem logical, but there is such a thing as a good fire, the kind that helps stabilize ecosystems and promotes biodiversity. Native American communities understood this and regularly practiced light burning. So why did the Forest Service ignore this in favor of unabated fire suppression?

In 1910 a massive fire known as “the big blow up” or “the big burn” devastated northern Idaho and Western Montana. It left a huge mark on the then five-year-old Forest Service and had consequences we still see today.


Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer
Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

Resource List

Distillations: The Best of Intentions
Year of Fires

Flame and Ruin: The fires of 1910


News Clip: …whipped by catastrophic winds for a second day. The wildfires in Southern California sound like a jet engine as they explode across Orange County. As massive walls of fire threaten homes, nearly 90,000 people were forced to suddenly flee flames.

Interviewee: I thought the world was ending.

Alexis Pedrick: Over the past few years, we’ve seen apocalyptic images of red skies over the West Coast. In 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, things got especially dire.

Sean Havey: I’m sure everybody saw it on social media, but, you know, literally the sun didn’t come out. It, it couldn’t poke through the smoke that was ensconcing the Bay area. So, you know, people call it the Orange Day.

Alexis Pedrick: This is Sean Havey, an independent filmmaker who lives in Oakland, California. He’s covered several wildfires in the region for media outlets, but one day stands out in particular. On September 9th, 2020, the California sky was orange because of devastating wildfires burning throughout the north of the state.

Sean Havey: That Orange Day was like, I mean, that was a, that was a paradigm shift, right? Because literally like, I mean, not literally, I mean, the sun was still, you know, we were still revolving around the sun, but it didn’t come out. I mean, you know, like, I walked outside. My dog was confused. He’s like, “What the hell is going on here?” I mean, that was sort of novel in some messed up way, but it was, um, writing on the wall that I don’t know how much longer I want to live in a place where I can’t go outside for maybe months at a time.

Alexis Pedrick: People were already wearing face masks to protect themselves against COVID, but now they also had to protect themselves against thick smoke and air particles containing who knows what?

Sean Havey: I don’t smoke anymore. You know, I, I, I just am kind of am cautious what I put in my body. And then here in California, like, the home of the, you know, organic co-op grocery, you know, healthy living, Acai bowl, matcha, oat milk latte California, like, I am inhaling vinyl chloride fumes from, like, you know, vinyl siding melting off people’s houses for six weeks a year. Just knowing how I would feel, like, after smoking a pack of cigarettes, like it was that times 10 on a daily basis for a month. Like, that’s just not good. There’s just no way whatever I’m breathing in is okay.

Alexis Pedrick: Wildfire seasons in California, Oregon, Washington state, and Colorado start earlier, last longer, and burn record acreage every year. And each year the fires get bigger and bring more destruction.

In 2019, the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, California, burning 95% of its buildings and eventually killing 85 people.

Sean Havey: Hearing their stories of how quickly they smelled smoke and then they saw the sky sort of turn red, I mean, how quickly that occurred and the terror in their face and their voice, um, is very disturbing.

Alexis Pedrick: Wildfires are terrifying without a doubt. No one wants their life threatened or their home destroyed. Fires are bad. Each and every one should be put out at all costs, right? This is the logical perspective, and in a nutshell it’s been the US firefighting strategy for the better part of the last century.

Lisa Berry Drago: On paper, it might make sense, but in reality things are far more complicated. The idea that we can or should put out each and every single fire immediately, is, well, a fantasy. And it’s a fantasy that’s made fires even more catastrophic.

I’m Lisa Berry Drago.

Alexis Pedrick: And I’m Alexis Pedrick. And this is Distillations.

Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter one, little Pinchots.

Alexis Pedrick: The way we fight fires in the US today goes back to 1905 with Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was an avid outdoors man. He brought us the national parks we know and love. He created the US Forest Service in 1905 to manage land the US had recently acquired through public domain. Before this, most of the land in the West was just up for grabs, and it was being taken over by timber and rail companies, who were unchecked in their destruction of forests.

Lisa Berry Drago: Teddy Roosevelt wanted the federal government to protect land from being developed, forests from being cut down, and big game from being killed. And he appointed his friend, Gifford Pinchot, as the first chief of the US Forest Service. Pinchot trained in Europe’s Forest Service and wanted to create the same thing in the United States. In simple terms, the European firefighting strategy was this, fire bad, put it out immediately. This is Stephen Pyne, the author of the book, Year of Fires.

Stephen Pyne: Fire was a, a sign as well as a physical manifestation of, of all that was wrong with our reckless use of resources. Uh, we’re literally burning it up and denying the future access to them.

Alexis Pedrick: Pinchot agreed with Roosevelt that timber and rail companies were recklessly destroying our “Forest heritage,” but he also worried about unchecked wildfires. He’d seen the destruction they caused in Europe and didn’t think Americans took them seriously. In fact, before Pinchot and Roosevelt started this Forest Service endeavor, people saw fires as a form of industrial progress, kind of like, you got to break a few eggs in order to make a, an advanced industrial society.

Lisa Berry Drago: Both Pinchot and Roosevelt were known as conservationists. And back then, conservationism wasn’t exactly a pure altruistic effort of preserving the environment. In large part, it was about proving ones manhood out in the wild. Roosevelt and Pinchot were American men and they saw these forests as theirs.

Stephen Pyne: There was a lot of sort of the Eastern establishment, of which both were members, who looked to the West as a sort of way of testing hardihood, uh, manhood if you will. Uh, Roosevelt famously went out, uh, to the Dakotas as a kind of as [inaudible 00:06:30] sickly kid, came back as this robust, rough rider. And that affected a lot of people of their generation. And Gifford Pinchot among them. And so, he saw his own Western adventures as a way of, uh, sort of testing his own hardihood and stamina and ability to take on tough tasks. And so, they were both, uh, keen on outdoor sports, and, uh, boxing. They both did boxing and, uh, Pinchot remarks with some glee that at one point he was able to knock the, uh, president of the United States off his very strong, uh, pegs.

Alexis Pedrick: Pinchot became highly respected as the first head of this new Forest Service. He was building it from the ground up.

Lisa Berry Drago: The young rangers who joined the service were very much like Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt in two ways. They were passionate about conservation and about proving their masculinity in the outdoors. They even called themselves little Giffords, or little Pinchots.

Alexis Pedrick: These guys were committed, which they kind of had to be. Because A, there weren’t that many of them. And B, they weren’t paid very well.

Stephen Pyne: At the time, there was one fire guard or ranger for every 675 square miles of land in the system. So, the idea that they would eliminate fire was just sort of utopian at best, quixotic really. But they were determined to try. One of the early members who was instrumental in setting up a fire program nationally, eventually, wrote a memoir and he said, uh, “What a marvelous thing it was to belong to an organization consisting almost wholly of young men.” So, they were all of young guys. They went in as, uh, as, uh, this guy put it, “Head down and tail up.”

Lisa Berry Drago: However, all of this kind of unraveled when William H. Taft became president. Pinchot wasn’t happy losing his ally in the White House. And frankly, he wasn’t very polite about it.

Stephen Pyne: Just as he was willing to mix it up in a boxing ring with Roosevelt, he was willing to engage public arguments about conservation. As 1910 approached in January, Pinchot got into an argument with, uh, President Taft, who had succeeded Roosevelt, and, uh, Pinchot thought that Taft wasn’t supporting the Rooseveltian agendas vigorously as he should, and managed to push the issue, and Taft fired him for insubordination.

So, now you have this young organization full of people who regard Pinchot as a kind of prophet and seer, and certainly a patriarchal figure, founding figure for their organization, who has now been pushed aside. So, the organization feels politically threatened. And then that summer in 1910, fires start boiling over in a much larger way than had happened for a number of years. And, uh, finally it became all-consuming in August, uh, what became known as the Big Blowup, and the agency had to fight it. And at this time, without a Pinchot there to guide them.

Alexis Pedrick: It couldn’t have come at a worse time, because what had previously been an existential threat was about to become a very real threat. Chapter two, the Big Blowup.

Lisa Berry Drago: The late summer of 1910 in Northern Idaho and Western Montana was dry and there’d been several small fires throughout the region already.

Jim Kershner: There was actually three things that started these myriad fires.

Lisa Berry Drago: This is Jim Kershner, a historian who wrote about the 100th anniversary of the 1910 fires for the Spokesmen Review.

Jim Kershner: One, probably the most common one was the lightning strikes. The second one was there was people out logging and, you know, they would do slash burning. They would pile all the branches into piles and set them on fire. Well, a lot of these fires would get out of control. And the third thing was is that right in this very area, where this happened, the Milwaukee Railroad had just built a new line over the Bitterroots and these, uh, steam locomotives … I mean, somebody described them as like gigantic Roman candles throwing sparks out as they went along. And during that summer, they’d already realized that the f-, trains were causing a lot of fires, to the extent that these, uh, poor forest rangers had to buy special bicycles, which they would pedal behind the trains and put out all the s-, sparks that they found behind the trains.

Alexis Pedrick: This was the job of Joseph [Halm 00:11:02]. He was a 25 year old star athlete at Washington State University who took a summer job working for the Forest Service. Imagine it, chasing trains in a hand-pump cart, on the lookout for sparks caused by train wheels, preventing those sparks from growing into bigger fires, that was up to this guy.

Lisa Berry Drago: But that job, putting out the train sparks, was necessary and important.

Alexis Pedrick: On August 20, 1910, a strong wind rushed through the mountains and transformed some of those small fires into one giant fire.

Jim Kershner: I mean, normally August is fire season, but even as early as April there were some fires starting. But it wasn’t until late August that the real crisis occurred, a huge windstorm came in from the Southwest. And it’s, this wind whipped all of these smaller fires into one gigantic firestorm. And then the firestorm itself causes these huge, uh, winds of its own, which just exacerbates the problem. And there was, you know, towering clouds of smoke 2,000 feet high and just walls of fire that were 30 miles across.

Alexis Pedrick: It’s hard to overstate how epic this fire was.

Jim Kershner: It was an unbelievable roar, roaring sound. Trees falling by the hundreds. But it was mostly because of the oxygen … You know, huge fire just consumes all this oxygen and it all has to be sucked in to the fire. And it was a sound that people described to wh-, 1,000 locomotives or, or the roar of Niagara Falls. I mean, one person said it sounded like 1,000 trains rushing over 1,000 steal trestles. Uh, there could’ve been huge fires in the distant past, but this was the first, this big one, as anybody had ever seen. And the conditions just all lined up.

Lisa Berry Drago: It was known as the Big Blowup, or the Big Burn. While this was going on, 25 year old, Joe Halm, was traveling down the Bitterroot Mountains with a crew of 18 men.

Stephen Pyne: So, he had a crew, which he managed to keep safe during the Blowup by getting them into a sandbar and a creek bed. They, they buried a lot of their gear and survived. So, this was sort of a coming of age experience for him as well, but he was another sort of folk hero. And because he was known, because of his sports exploits, uh, there was a lot of coverage regionally on where he is, “He’s disappeared. No one knows where he is. His whole crew was gone.” I mean, you don’t have cellphones here. You don’t have radios. You don’t even have telephone lines, really. And most of those were burned if there were. So, people just disappeared into the smoke and fire and then they either came back or they didn’t.

Jim Kershner: It turns out that he was able to lead his crew sometimes by gunpoint, because people were scared and didn’t want to do what he told them to do.

Alexis Pedrick: Keep in mind, this is this guy’s summer job. Imagine trying to earn some extra pocket money and the next thing you know, you’re holding your crew at gunpoint while the fire of the century is raging around you.

Jim Kershner: I think he was trying to find a burned over … A place that had been previously burned over. And they had to shelter there for like six days, but because they were out of touch for that long, the, uh, newspapers and everybody had written them off as dead. I mean, for good reason. Most of the other fire crews were dead. So, they ran a story, um, early, you know, a day or two after the fires, talking about how Joe Halm and his crew didn’t make it, and it’s just so sad, and he was a hero, et cetera. And then, a week later they had to … They wrote a story basically saying, “Oh, he’s alive. The, he and his crew just stumbled out of the St. Joe country burned, but alive.”

Lisa Berry Drago: And Halm wasn’t even the only forest ranger who had to hold his crew at gunpoint to keep them from fleeing. There was also a guy named Ed Pulaski who joined the Forest Service in 1908 at age 40. Pulaski was stationed in Wallace on August 19th. The next day, the Big Blowup started and his crew was on top of a mountain a few miles outside town.

Stephen Pyne: There’s just this dense pile of smoke and they’re sort of scurrying down trails. He had about 45 men. One, one man lagged behind, was later discovered days later, they mistook him for a burned stump. The others, Pulaski got into a mine shaft and then somebody in the back of the mine shaft, uh, shouted, “To hell with this, I’m getting out of here.” Pulaski pulled the pistol and threatened to shoot the first man who tried to leave, knowing they would have no chance outside.

Jim Kershner: And at one point, the next morning, one or two of them were able to sort of stagger out and one of them went in and said, “Oh, the boss is dead.” And Pulaski sat up and said, “The hell I am.” But he was, like many of the other men in there, he was blinded and, uh, had burns over a lot of his body and they were able to stagger painfully back into town.

Alexis Pedrick: Also stationed in Wallace, Idaho, were the famed Buffalo Soldiers, an African-American US Army unit immortalized by Bob Marley. They were initially sent to Idaho in 1900 because of labor conflicts in the timber industry. But, once fires became more of a concern, they shifted duties and became fire rangers. When the Big Blowup started, Marshal law was declared, and the Buffalo Soldiers were trying to organize people to evacuate.

Jim Kershner: Because it was really in danger. I mean, you got to understand, this is a town, it was a pretty big town, but it’s way remote. And the fire had … And it’s on the railroad line. But the fire had burned out the railroad line in both directions, so they were stranded. And it was, you know, the Buffalo Soldiers who at first, you know, kind of organized people to go to the river. Then when they realized the river wasn’t [laughs] safe, they, you know, had to evacuate to a different place. And then, eventually they were able to get everybody onto a train.

They had repaired enough track going to the West that … It was so hot, this was even on the second day, the paint was blistering off of the locomotive. The people that were driving the train couldn’t stand up, because if they stood up, they would get burned. So, they had to lay on the floor and be protected by the sides of the cab. Um, and all the people in the box cars had to lay flat. They were able to kind of load people onto this train and they made this just terribly harrowing journey. But it was these Buffalo Soldiers who really were credited with saving dozens and dozens of people by getting them organized and getting them onto that train and getting them out of there eventually.

Alexis Pedrick: Joe Halm, Ed Pulaski and the Buffalo Soldiers were the names that made it into the history books. But the majority of people who fought the 1910 Big Burn remain anonymous. Remember, the Forest Service had one trained firefighter for every 675 miles. The rest of the labor was made up of immigrants and hired hands, many of whom had come West to work in the timber and railroad industries.

Stephen Pyne: So, they were simply going and collecting, rounding up these people, just sort of raw labor. Not necessarily skilled in firefighting. They had no particular training in firefighting. They were just skilled in using axes, and saws, and shovels, and rakes, and they would go out and they would make fire lines and, uh, you know, it was just a, a huge kind of work gang.

Lisa Berry Drago: There are 78 recorded deaths, but it’s unclear exactly how many people died, whether in the fire or fighting it. Three million acres burned in the span of two days. That’s the size of the state of Connecticut. It was one of the most deadly fires on record in terms of people killed and acreage burned.

Jim Kershner: At least three or four towns were completely obliterated. And of course, for the forest, it was just astonishingly horrible because they’re people that traveled through the country like a week or two later and basically said, “There was nothing green for 20 miles. You could go 20 miles and all you would see is ash and black char.”

Alexis Pedrick: Up until this point, newspapers on the East Coast hadn’t paid much attention to the West Coast. But suddenly, they were printing front page stories about the fires. It left a huge impression on those who survived and shaped their views on fire suppression.

Lisa Berry Drago: Fires were now public enemy number one. Remember Gifford Pinchot? Now the whole country was on board with his philosophy that all fires were bad and had to be put out post-haste.

Alexis Pedrick: Chapter three, the 10:00 AM rule.

Lisa Berry Drago: The 1910 fire helped legitimize the Forest Service. It no longer had to rely on college students with bicycles to fight fires. It got the resources it needed to declare war on all fires.

Alexis Pedrick: In 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act, which made an official national forest. It promoted Pinchot’s philosophy and made it easier for state and federal government to cooperate in fire control.

Lisa Berry Drago: By 1933, a man named Ferdinand Silcox became the head of the Forest Service. Silcox was part of that founding core of fire rangers. He was in the Big Blowup back in 1910. In fact, he’d been the number two man in charge of the response, and it left a huge impression on him.

Stephen Pyne: And after the fires, he wrote an article. He said the big lesson was that they were controllable, if we’d only had enough trails, and lookouts, and telephones lines, and enough people to attack them when they were small, then we could’ve controlled all these fires. Which at the time was a pretty outrageous kind of observation to make.

Alexis Pedrick: Silcox’s dream for more forest fighting resources came true, aided by the new deal. The federal government was throwing money at all kinds of infrastructure, and there were actually funds to build all of these trails, lookout towers and telephone lines.

Stephen Pyne: And suddenly, he has thousands, tens of thousands of enrollees who can be used to put in those roads, and trails, and lookouts and telephone lines, who can be used to staff fire lines. And I think that that was the deciding element. That suddenly he had the means to make possible a trial of what he had announced in the aftermath of the Big Blowup.

Lisa Berry Drago: One of the reforms that Silcox enacted was what’s known as the 10:00 AM Rule. This stated that whenever a fire was detected, no matter how small, it should be put out by 10:00 AM the following day. No exceptions. And this is what they set out to do. But, there was a problem.

Stephen Pyne: There was no discrimination in the 10:00 AM policy between fires that were bad or good, near or far. All fires were treated equally. There was one standard universally applied. And that led to an over-emphasis on suppression, such that we took out good fires as well as bad fires. How do we discriminate good and bad fires? I, I think bad fires, it’s pretty easy. They’re, they’re fires, they kill people, burn houses and cities, trash ecosystems and watersheds that we value. Uh, good fires are the reverse. They’re, they’re fires that actually help stabilize ecosystems that promote biodiversity, enhance ecological goods and services, and so forth, and help protect against bad fires.

Alexis Pedrick: While putting out each and every fire might seem like a good idea, it’s actually two simplistic. When you don’t let any fires burn, underbrush and dead trees build up and become fuel, which makes the forest more vulnerable to even larger fires. This is Jacob Roberts, a writer for Distillations Magazine.

Jacob Roberts: It’s kind of like a fault line, you know, in geological sense. Like in the Pacific Northwest, the idea that these tectonic plates are pushing into each other and creating all this pressure, and that is building up and building up. And eventually, the longer it takes to have an earthquake, the worse the earthquake is going to be. So, it’s a similar thing with the forests, where the more fuel you let accumulate there and the more you stop even, you know, what would’ve been random natural burns, right?

Like a lightning strike might cause small forest fires if nobody intervened, but we’re intervening for all of those fires basically. And the next time that one happens and we don’t respond fast enough, or it goes out of control, it’s going to burn a lot more, it’s going to hurt a lot more people. And on top of that, like we’re actually building towns and cities, you know, that are encroaching into these forests, and, you know, so when the next Big Blowup happens, more people are potentially are at risk.

Lisa Berry Drago: This whole period of Pincho-esk firefighting and the 10:00 AM Rule, there were people trying to point out that their method was not realistic. Universal suppression was a pipe dream.

Stephen Pyne: So, even as the 1910 fires are blowing up in August, 1910, there’s a counter argument being mustered being a group that became known as Light Burners, who suggested that instead of following that kind of European model, we really should emulate American Indians who regularly burned, under-burned most of the woods, not all of them, and used fire very widely in grasslands, and shrub-lands, and, and forests. And if we emulated them, we would have a much better policy.

Alexis Pedrick: Remember how Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot looked out at the vast, uninhabited American West and saw a blank wilderness theirs for the taking, well, that too was an obvious fantasy. Because we all know that there were in fact already people who had inhabited that land for thousands of years. And guess what? They’d been managing fires just fine throughout that whole time. Bill Tripp is the Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk Tribe of Native Americans in Northwest, California.

Bill Tripp: Over, you know, thousands of years of, of living, um, here in Karuk territory, we became a-, adapted, uh, to how the animals benefited from fire, and how we could also benefit from fire, and that, you know, led us to fine tuning practices, uh, that we could safely use to achieve these, these beneficial effects, uh, enhancing of food, fiber and medical resources while also having things burn frequently enough to where we’re relatively protected from wildfire occurrence.

Lisa Berry Drago: Native American, like the Karuk, practice burning regularly, both as part of ceremonial practice and also as a way to keep the forest healthy.

Jacob Roberts: Even up until European colonization, a lot of explorers wrote accounts of seeing indigenous people in both the Americas and in Australia and other parts of the world who were enacting these purposeful burns, basically to clear out shrubs and trees and make room for grassland, which then would attract large herbivores, and something like bison or buffalo, which then they could hunt. So, there’s one theory that even believes that the Great Plains themselves were created and maintained by Native Americans burning trees away and allowing these enormous herds of bison to roam.

Alexis Pedrick: Which raises the question, why didn’t these fire rangers like Silcox or Pinchot follow the Native American practice of controlled burning?

Jacob Roberts: So, I guess it might’ve been part of the, the hubris that this relatively young country, the United States, could control nature, control the environment and basically just decide what was going to happen and ignore all of history, which implied, you know, if they had bothered to look at the historical record, that it was going to burn regardless and that maybe, you know, continuing the policies of the Native Americans, you know, and a lot of the [laughs] other technologies that we stole from the Native Americans, you know, like farming practices and learning which resources were valuable and which weren’t, I guess, in retrospect we probably should’ve paid more attention to burning as well.

Stephen Pyne: I think at the time, [they] wanted an easy graphic message to sell the larger program and fire seemed it. Fire’s visceral. Fire is graphic, it gets people’s attention. I mean, people see photos of the aftermath of some of these large fires, particularly when, uh, entire communities are wiped out and hundreds of people killed. And it’s pretty easy to say that, you know, “We’re going to stop these from happening.” So, there’s not a, a, a sort of nuanced discussion, “Let’s try this technique at this place. Another place, maybe something else.” No, it was, it was, “We will clamp down, double down, and, and have one policy that doesn’t confuse people. A simple message will be easier to sell.” And that’s true. It is, but it’s not necessarily the correct message.

Lisa Berry Drago: By the 1920s, this message, “Universal suppression,” became widely accepted. People who questioned it were running against the grain.

Stephen Pyne: In fact, at, at one point, the Forest Service actually hired a psychologist to investigate why people insisted that fires could be good, because the evidence was obviously against them. They, it, it was irrational. One needed some other kind of way into their mentality. And it turns out that the foresters were wrong and many of the locals were correct on this.

Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter four, Paradise is burning.

Donald Trump: I get the call, “California’s burning. California’s burning.”

Alexis Pedrick: This is former president, Donald Trump, speaking during a presidential debate.

Donald Trump: If you had forest management, good forest management, you wouldn’t be getting those calls. You know, in Europe, they live … They’re forest cities. They’re called forest cities. They maintain their forest, they manage their forest. I was with the head of a major country, it’s a forest city. He said, “Sir, we have trees that are far more … They, they ignite much easier than California. There shouldn’t be that problem.” I [crosstalk]-

Jacob Roberts: For all of his horrible faults, Trump might’ve actually defended the controlled burns thing when he caught a lot of flack for saying that like, “All these fires are to blame on the lack of cutting and burning and stuff.” It’s like, is that the one actually accurate thing Trump has said? I don’t know. But it sounds like kind of a conservative talking point, right? But in this case, maybe it is actually right [laughs].

Lisa Berry Drago: Let’s back up. First, we should point out that climate change is the number one factor in wildfires in the West. Land management practices do play a role, but climate change can’t be ignored. But back to Silcox. His 10:00 AM policy, putting out every single fire ASAP remained in effect for decades, but by the 1960s, there began to be a backlash because it was becoming obvious that it had some serious flaws.

Stephen Pyne: Fuels are stockpiling, woodlands are rearranging themselves in ways that make them more vulnerable to large fires. And sort of the, sort of ecological integrity and health of these systems, many of these systems degenerating.

Alexis Pedrick: Evidence was mounting that there was in fact such a thing as good fires. One example has to do with Sequoia trees. In the 1960s, the National Parks Service was getting worried because it noticed there were no new Sequoia trees in the state of California. They commissioned a study that found that the trees actually needed fire to thrive.

Lisa Berry Drago: Sequoia seeds are housed inside pods, and interestingly, the seeds can only be released through fire. These seeds germinate best in ashy beds and they don’t like competition. Extinguishing fires so quickly meant that for one, Sequoia seeds couldn’t get out. And two, too much underbrush was growing around the Sequoias and was competing with the tree seeds.

Alexis Pedrick: The report recommended that forests and wild ecosystems would benefit from, “Natural processes,” including letting fires burn. So, in 1964, the Wilderness Acts encourage leaving some fires in certain designated areas.

Lisa Berry Drago: In 1978, the Forest Service officially abandoned the 10:00 AM policy. It seemed like the US Forest Service was finally adopting a more comprehensive policy towards fires. But then, the pendulum swung back in 1988.

News clip: A natural, but dangerous drama of epic size moved closer to humans, and the humans got out of the way. From Northwestern, Wyoming, Roger O’Neil reports on the latest movements of a 92,000 acre fire.

Lisa Berry Drago: In July of 1988, lightning strikes started a series of small fires in Yellowstone National Park. At first, the park service allowed the fires to burn, because that was the current policy. They even had computer models that told them which fires to put out and which ones to let burn safely.

Alexis Pedrick: But, when a series of small fires got out of hand, it was not a good PR look. The media coined a new term, “Let it burn.” They said the park service had a policy that required all fires to burn, which was a gross oversimplification of a nuanced policy.

Lisa Berry Drago: In the end, the fires went out three months later with the arrival of snow. Congress actually held hearings about the response to the fire and eventually, review of the, “Let it burn,” policy found that it was effective. But it had still lost a lot of credit in the court of public opinion. Remember, simple message are easier to convey, even if they’re not always right. Fire is visceral. Fire is graphic. No one wants to feel the threat of fire. No one wants to lose their home. And if the facts say light burning is best, it’s still hard to argue with the emotional devastation of fire.

Jacob Roberts: I remember covering the Paradise fire a few years ago, which obliterated that town. It was just devastating to see and devastating for that entire community. I was essentially at refugee camps, um, for displaced people. People were telling me stories about having to follow the fire truck out and it was so hot, you know, the flames were so close to their vehicles trying to escape on the two-lane highway out of town, that the fire trucks would have to spray all the surrounding vehicles so they didn’t ignite.

Alexis Pedrick: In present day California, there’s not enough controlled burning to keep big fires at bay. Even though research shows they’d be helpful, there’s a huge hurdle, a risk adverse culture.

Lisa Berry Drago: There are also no accolades for successful controlled burns, but a lot of backlash when there’s a misstep, like with the Yellowstone debacle. There’s also limited money and limited crews. And then there are environmental regulations, which can get in the way. Environmental groups have sued federal and state governments over controlled burning, because they say it violates the Endangered Species Act.

Alexis Pedrick: And there’s one other big hurdle to controlled burning.

Jim Kershner: More and more people are moving out into the, you know, more wild, remote country that are susceptible to fires and so fires that could burn basically … That you could let burn without any damage to property. There’d be no buildings in the way, so, you know, let it go. Are becoming more rare because there’s always some sort of habitation that needs to be protected.

Lisa Berry Drago: It’s a catch 22 that harkens back to Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. The American West beckons people. The California dream lures so many in. They want to be immersed in the magic, and nature or forests are part of that.

Jacob Roberts: I moved to Northern California 13 years ago because there’s beautiful outdoors in, in New Jersey, where I’m from, but it’s not the same as Northern California. It’s magical. I mean, it’s really … Northern California offers a plethora of outdoor activities. And so, that was quite alluring after basically growing up in Central New Jersey, which is one big parking lot.

Alexis Pedrick: But, each year that fantasy gets increasingly chipped away at.

Jacob Roberts: I would hear about the fires and sometimes, sure, I would cover them, but it wasn’t until the smoke from the fires was at my front door and really seeping into my house that it’s become so real that makes me really second guess my decision to keep living in, in California. I mean, as much as I love it here, it’s like, I don’t know how many more fire seasons I can take.

Lisa Berry Drago: At its heart, maybe the real problem is our relationship with nature. We think it’s ours for the taking, ours for the controlling, but it doesn’t actually work that way. We can’t control fire the way we hoped after the 1910 Big Blowup, because fire is much stronger than us.

Alexis Pedrick: We also keep pretending that we can live wherever we want without consequences. But this isn’t going so well either, it’s just, well, another fantasy. Another story that we like to tell ourselves.

Lisa Berry Drago: Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations.

Alexis Pedrick: Remember, Distillations is more than the podcast, it’s also a multimedia magazine.

Lisa Berry Drago: You can find our videos, stories and every single podcast episode at distillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.

Alexis Pedrick: You can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for news and updates about the podcast and everything else going on in our museum, library and research center.

Lisa Berry Drago: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rico Hernandez.

Alexis Pedrick: And it was mixed by Jonathon Pfeiffer.

Lisa Berry Drago: The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/givenow.

Alexis Pedrick: For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.

Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.

Alexis Pedrick: Thanks for listening.

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