|Gary W. Mullins|
BLM/National Interagency Fire Center
Where do we start discussing wildland fire history-with the beginning of the Earth, with the first hominoid use of fire, which may have occurred well over a million years ago, or with the evolution of prescribed fire beginning in the 1930s in the United States? Or do we define prescribed fire in terms of the Australian Aborigine ancient "firestick" land management practices where fires were started continuously to cleanse the land.
Where we start to tell the story is appropriately defined by those who are listening to our story. The stories of wildland fire, while often having great entertainment value, are told primarily to convey critical resource issue messages.
Fortunately our literature has a wealth of wildland fire knowledge catalogued in books such as Stephen J. Pyne's World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth (1995) and other Cycle of Fire books written by Pyne for the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series (William Cronon, ed.).
The story of the history of fire is fascinating. It is a story of how fire has shaped the landscape, our human history, our cultural evolution, and the natural and built communities in which we reside. It is a story of building up and burning down, of shaping and reshaping. While natural wildland fire has exerted its own shaping forces, humans using both native wisdom and scientific knowledge of fire ecology and fire management have also shaped fire regimes.
As we tell the story of fire to illustrate the science of wildland fire management, we also need to tell stories that promote coexistence with wildland fire. We are reminded each year as the fire season manifests itself that fire has been with us since the beginning of time and will probably be with us throughout time.
North America has a rich wildland fire history illustrating human coexistence with fire, the impacts of fire suppression, and the ravages of wildland fire. The Forest History Society, among others, catalogs such conservation history.
North American wildland fire history is usually interpreted as events, mostly conflagrations. However, wildland fire should be interpreted as an ongoing organic event. The process is often only interpreted based on recent events. Although human settlement of North America is relatively young, the history of wildland fire is not. Fossilized fusian, or fire scars in fossilized trees, as well as other mineralized materials, help tell more ancient stories.
The earliest European settlers to North America noted indigenous peoples' use of fire for clearing land, hunting and gathering activities, and in warfare. The American Bison (buffalo) arrived on the eastern shores of what is now the United States about the time of the arrival of the Mayflower. This migration of bison has been attributed in some part to the opening of grazing areas by Native American practices of burning the land.
Native American oral history is rich with stories about fire and how fire came to humans; their drawings depict the use of fire. William Bartrum, noted naturalist, during his travels in Florida in the 1700s, reported fires burning somewhere every day. While Native Americans had fire firmly rooted in their way of life, post-Columbian immigrants in the new world sought a new order which did not embrace fire as a natural process. Suppression became the call.
Agricultural crops and communities of wooden homes were not adapted to the natural cycle of fire. While many Native American groups were relatively nomadic, the new settlers were not. To the new immigrants, flaming fire meant the loss of everything, while Native Americans simply relocated their communities in concert with this natural force.
The new culture in North America, while seeking to control fire, did use fire for land clearing, cleaning areas of snakes, brush, and briars, and to enhance wildlife propagation. However, the practices were ill-conceived by today's standards and often resulted in conflagrations, not enhancements.
By the advent of the American Revolutionary War fire regimes had begun to change. European perspectives of fire were crossing the Allegheny Mountains. Within 100 years they would reach to the west coast. By the post-Civil War period the last of interior Florida wildland was being settled, the last open ranges in the Dakotas hosted extensive herds of cattle, and the last great virgin forests were beginning to fall. With the spread of human activities, the booming American population began to spread fire.
Often careless or ignorant use of fire resulted in conflagrations. The Peshtigo, Wisconsin, fire of 1871 left 1,300 dead and over one million acres charred. Newspaper headlines and government debates flourished. So did wildland fires-many became data points for disaster (e.g., Yacult, Washington burn in 1902; Virginia's Dismal Swamp burn in the 1930s; Oregon's Tillamook burns in the 1930s and 40s).
So great were the fires of 1880 that Pyne in America's Fires: Management on Wildlands and Forests (1997) called the period "The Great Barbecue." Essentially North America was on fire, not under a natural regime, but as a result of human ignition sources and shifting land practices.
The creation of the U.S. Forest Service formalized a national approach to wildland protection, which was heavily weighted toward suppression. As other federal and state land resource management agencies came into being, they followed the U.S. Forest Service's lead. That lead advocated a national perspective of fire eradication and was underpinned by a lack of understanding of managing in concert with natural forces (e.g., predators, fires, floods). As a nation we sought to have "dominion over" the forces of nature.
While the battle was valiant, the battle plan was flawed. Numerous firefighting organizations sprung up at the local levels; fire tool cache boxes were scattered throughout the country; and a national agenda was put into place. The battles were fought from every sector-governments organized, varied firefighting hardware was invented or redesigned, and religious leaders in the southeastern United States, where fire was indiscriminately used more so than in other places, preached of the "evils" of setting fires. While not completely suppressed, there was a great reduction in wildland fire.
The United States moved within less than 100 years from a nation of conflagration to a fire-starved nation. Not only had the great fires been doused but so had the ideas of natural fire, those low burning fires that cleaned excess forest litter and kept prairies open.
As early as the 1930s, land managers in the southeastern United States began arguing for the return of more natural fire regimes. Other fire-dependent regimes were equally in need of fire, but had few advocates. While few could argue, then or now, that the suppression and prevention of extreme fire was not appropriate, few were arguing that the focus should be on maintenance of natural fire regimes.
The Yellowstone fires of 1988 and more recently the benchmark fire season of 2000 have begun to shift public perspective and have opened a revised chapter in wildland fire history. Perhaps we as a society are on the threshold of returning to a state where we understand that ecosystem health and sustainability are based in great part on natural fire regimes. The key question is: Are we ready to return to wisdom held in traditional hunter and gatherer societies that fire is as natural as water; both can be givers and takers of life and property?
Our historical epilogue though can never embrace this ideal state beyond the idea. Not only do we no longer hunt and gather but our landscape is interspersed with fixed human settlements and is dependent upon stability that can no longer accommodate natural fire under a total natural regime.
Even our wildlands are now being transformed to accommodate human settlement. It is the "I-Zone," the wildland/urban interface, that redirects the story we are to tell. As the nearly half million acre fires in Florida (1998) showed, firefighters' primary focus was on the saving of individual homes and communities scattered amongst the shrub and timbered lands, not managing the total fire.
Adding to the complexity of fire management and contemporary history is the issue of smoke management. How does smoke impact human health, transportation, agriculture, atmospheric carbon loading, and global warming? The regulatory community now struggles with atmospheric impacts, weighting them against the danger of reducing prescribed fire.
Our habitations force the decisions out of the biogeophysical fire realm into one of protecting that which we materially value. Thus the history we are living and the history we write will continue to be one of dominion of nature. The history will probably be one of a more passive dominion by seeking to emulate natural processes, such as prescribed fire and other physical processes that control fuel loading.
Our history may be channeled along fairly fixed storylines in that true natural fire regimes can only exist in relatively vast wildlands, mostly in the west. Even prescribed fire management stories are restricted in that human settlement patterns make prescribed fire difficult to use.
Prescribed fire could be a much more useful tool were homes clustered leaving substantial tracts of wildlands between communities. Also, as humans spread over the landscape, issues of wildland/urban interface become exacerbated in numerous resource managers issues, including wildland fire (e.g., smoke impact and regulation, legal authority and legal responsibility for prescribed fire and impacts).
Pyne, in World Fire (1995), shares an idea key to framing wildland fire messages that draws upon history when he writes:
"By studying fire-events, practices, regimes and images-one can extract information from the historic record that might otherwise be inaccessible or overlooked. Just as burning often flushes infertile biotas with nutrients and as cooking renders palatable many otherwise inedible food stuffs, so fire can remake new raw materials into humanly usable history. Around the informing fire, humans tell the stories that make up their history that says who we are."
Wildland fire history is critical to telling the story of our ecological history. Without this historical perspective we are without a baseline perspective to make our story whole.
Without a whole story for society to understand, those who seek to manage wildland fire with a Pulaski in one hand, a set of regulations in the other, and a news microphone in front of them, will continue to find the message wanting.