It Wasn’t Always This Way: Wildfires in History & Now

As the new-normal generated by the pandemic continues to enact a vice-like firm grip on life in the global village in 2020, with little signs of abating, a parallel series of conditions has taken hold, namely those related to climate change.

Where before devastating hurricanes or wildfires were a generational exception, now the commonality of these events has become an annual risk and point of reference for populations at the front line of vulnerability. In many of these contexts, individuals and communities are being forced to rethink their daily relationships with the environment, perhaps none more obvious than how humans have managed – or mis-managed – fire, for at least the last hundred years.

Fires have existed since time immemorial, bush fires naturally lit during dry summers or caused by lightning strikes during thunderstorms, and historically their frequency was much expanded, just as their severity was reduced. In general, however, over time a few key changes have taken place which have exacerbated the strength and impact of wildfires. Perhaps most notable among these is the generational emergence of private property.

In 2020 in the US, a recorded 44,253 wildfires burned 7,672,398 million acres, reported up to October 1st, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The NIFC has a central database of all active wildfires in the US – for example, in late September there were 70 large fires that have been reported in all 50 states. Out of all of these wildfires, only one was easily contained. Over the past decade, there has been a clear and sharp rise in wildfires, not just in number but in severity: a 10-year average of 48,459 wildfires have consumed millions of acres in their deadly hunger. In other words, more are starting, and what’s worse is that they are getting more out of control than ever before.

Furthermore, as populations have increased and residential areas have expanded, many of these constructions have begun to encroach on what traditionally were fire lands, either directly or at their fringes. The respective importance and value of built space has consequently led to a ubiquitous fear about the destruction of property, leading directly to modern interventionist policies regarding fire management, which can essentially be understood as being fire banishment – or ‘extinguish immediately’. “The perception among European foresters and ecologists was that fire was the enemy,” says Ernesto Alvarado, research associate professor of Wildlife Fire Sciences in Seattle. “Any flame in the forest was bad.”

The policy makes outward sense but is in fact historically counter-productive towards fire management, leading at least in part to the exacerbated global fire risks seen today. Prior to the emergence of these policies, fires would run through summers burning through low, dry brush, on an annual or semi-annual basis, at one and the same time consuming the very tinder it needed to stay alive. In short, the very presence of regular fires meant that they naturally controlled themselves. Now, however, and very much counter-intuitively, the fact that fires have been extinguished-on-arrival since the post-war period means that there has been a build up of brush such that when fires start, they immediately spread out of control. These fires which were once low-level brush burners, now have so much material to consume when they plough through woodland or forest in 2020 they now regularly destroy it in its entirety rather than simply burn away a season or two’s worth of die-off.

“The fact is that fire is a naturally occurring phenomenon,” says environmental filmmaker Mike Alcalde, “and what altered the natural balance was our decision to view it as an evil which must be outlawed at all cost, and ironically generated perfect storm conditions which has made it largely impossible for us to actually control these fires in various parts of the world, right now. It’s another classic example of man-first rather than holistic planning, which inevitably ends up coming back as an incremental self-generated problem.”

In other words, the fires we see today are far from natural, and are instead – as expressed by Yvette Griffiths of environmental NGO Ninth Wave – “a direct result of flawed local planning multiplied by a global emissions fiasco which is currently affecting systems the world over. And, what’s more, there is no evidence at the moment that we are beginning to think differently as a species.”

Development, it seems, isn’t always progress, and increasingly progressive fire advocacy is looking to traditional, indigenous methodologies in terms of how to negotiate and harness the power of fire. “It’s really not about re-inventing the wheel,” says Griffiths, “but about learning and listening to all voices and memory banks. Modern fire practice just doesn’t work, so why wouldn’t policy look to broader solutions? The answers are already out there, we just need to open ourselves up to thinking a little differently.”

For Times Media Mexico
Elena Golubovich and Jon Bonfiglio



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