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Fighting Fires the Wrong Way
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If you’re anything like me you probably followed the news of last month’s California wildfires with some interest, particularly the Camp Fire. A name which now seems morbidly ironic given how deadly it ended up being. As of this writing 85 people were killed by the fire and six are still missing. That makes it the sixth deadliest wildfire in US history, and the deadliest since 1918.
I’m not sure how most people feel about that death toll. I saw a lot of posts about the fire, but not many people were reacting to the number of people who died. I get the sense that if you asked, they’d say that 85 sounds like a lot of deaths, but given that it kind of falls in the “Act of God” category, it’s far less tragic than say the Las Vegas mass shooting, even though fewer people actually died in Vegas. I’m not arguing with this, by the way, but it is interesting that there’s clearly a hierarchy attached to how tragic we consider any given death.
Most of the elements in the hierarchy are subjective to the person. It’s obviously far more tragic if someone close to you dies, or even if someone you know loses someone close to them. I think this is entirely as it should be, though there are people who would argue otherwise. Yet another subjective criteria is how the deaths play into your ideology. Gun rights activists probably find Las Vegas less tragic than people who think we should ban all guns. Though perhaps if you’re looking for ammunition (pun intended) to use in your fight over the issue it’s the exact opposite.
The California fires are no exception to seeing events through an ideological lens (is anything these days?) and there are many people who view the deaths as more or less tragic because they fit into a particular narrative. Perhaps, at this point we should broaden the discussion from “tragic” to “important”. The most frequent reason I’ve come across for attaching importance to these deaths, setting aside people actually connected to the victims, is the idea that these deaths are directly attributable to global warming.
I don’t actually want to do another post on global warming, at least not right now. But I think for a variety of reasons it’s not the primary cause of the fires, and even if it were, as I have pointed out in previous posts, it’s the hardest cause to do anything about.
On something of the other side of the issue, there are people who don’t think global warming is the problem, the problem is restrictions on logging. Included in this category is President Trump, which immediately makes the idea completely off limits to a whole host of people. I’m no fan of Trump, but I don’t immediately dismiss everything he says. And in fact I’m inclined to believe that the right kind of harvesting might have helped. I’m no expert on logging or forestry, and at the level of exactly what sort of logging might help, things get pretty muddy.
You’ll see articles with titles like: Dead trees aren't a wildfire threat, but overlogging them will ruin our forest ecosystems. Though a closer reading of the article seems to indicate that the author is mostly referring to the danger of standing dead trees, or snag, not fallen dead trees.
You’ll see a different point of view in an article from the Smithsonian Magazine. (I mention the source this time because these days it’s always more important to quote your sources if you’re supporting Trump, however indirectly, than when you’re opposing him.) This article details the battles waged by a Forest Service ranger, who wanted to use logging to perform some selective thinning, against the environmentalists who opposed it. This ranger, who always considered herself to be an environmentalist, and did a stint in the Peace Corp, spent three years studying the situation, before eventually submitting an 81 page report, but this was when the environmentalists “pounced”. Three years later (so six in total), while her staff was in the midst of preparing what she hoped would be their final rebuttal, a fire started in the area she was hoping to thin and within a week “the whole area had burned up.”
The purpose of this is not to take sides in the logging debate, or to be exhaustive in describing all the possible contributing factors. For example I haven’t even covered the problem of people building basically in the forest, or what’s called the wildland-urban interface. This led the New York Times to declare that Trump is wrong in part because what we just saw in California weren’t technically forest fires, they were fires in the wildland-urban interface. No, putting the silliness of that aside, my point is to discuss one specific contributing factor, the one which I think has the most to do with the current problem: Decades of fire suppression and a lack of preventative burns. And more importantly to discuss how this ends up being a metaphor for everything that’s currently wrong with the world.
It is interesting that so much of the media is focused on global warming and dry conditions. (Though if you read close enough it’s a wet spring followed by a dry summer that’s really causing the problems.) Though of course this goes back to the subjective nature of prioritizing the importance of deaths. Though I haven’t bothered to look, I am sure that on some website somewhere there is a list of “Deaths Due to Global Warming” to which the 85 deaths of the Camp Fire have been added. All of this is to say that there is definitely also going to some subjectivity in my fire suppression explanation. And the subjectivity will get even greater when I then transition to using it as a metaphor. But this also doesn’t mean that it’s not an accurate description of the world.
In fact it’s telling that even the guy who wrote the article claiming that dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat is the co-editor of a book called: The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature's Phoenix. In other words he may be anti-logging, but he’s pro-fire. In fact the phrase “Mixed-Severity” makes it sound like he’s pro-fire across the board. And, I would argue, for good reason.
It’s past time to explain what I’m talking about when I claim fires are caused by fire suppression, and by not having enough fires, though for many of you it may already be obvious. The Smithsonian article I referenced actually has a great explanation of the history of the problem.
Forests across the west are primed for catastrophic fire, in part by a government policy put in place after the “Big Blowup,” in 1910, a two-day firestorm that incinerated three million acres in Idaho and Montana and killed 85 people. The fire was so ferocious that people in Boston could see the smoke. The U.S. Forest Service, then five years old, decided to put out every fire in its domain, and within three decades the agency had formulated what it called the 10 a.m. policy, directing that fires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As fire-fighting methods improved through the years, the amount of burned forest and grassland declined from about 30 million acres annually in 1900 to about 5 million in the 1970s.
But the success of fire suppression, combined with public opposition to both commercial logging and preventive tree thinning on federal land, has turned Western forests into pyres, some experts say, with profound ecological effects. The vast ponderosa pine forests of the West evolved with frequent low-intensity ground fires. In some places, land that had as many as 30 or 40 large ponderosa pines scattered across an acre in the early 1900s, in grassy parklike stands, now have 1,000 to 2,000 smaller-diameter trees per acre. These fuel-dense forests are susceptible to destructive crown fires, which burn in the canopy and destroy most trees and seeds.
Now this article was written in 2003, but it doesn’t appear that much has changed since then. We can certainly see the opposition to logging and tree thinning, but it also turns out that recreating the low-intensity fires the trees evolved with, is difficult as well. If you do a search on controlled burns in California you’ll mostly get articles wondering why they don’t happen more often. This one from a local California public radio station published earlier this year is representative: Why California's Best Strategy Against Wildfire Is Hardly Ever Used. Which explains that controlled burns are costly take a lot of effort and people don’t like the smoke.
However if you don’t do controlled burns, if you fight every fire, then you end up steadily increasing the fuel load because the deadfall never gets burned up, and eventually, even if you wanted to suppress every fire, you’d eventually end up with a fire that’s so hot and so terrible that you won’t be able to fight it.
As you might imagine the idea of a controlled burn is very antifragile, you’re paying a small, known cost (ideally) in order to reap a large unbounded benefit later on (i.e. avoiding the huge out of control fire that kills people.) Of course there’s the cost of the personnel to actually set the fire and make sure that it’s controlled, but there’s also the cost to those who will suffer worse air quality while it’s happening, and the cost of people who don’t like the way the forest looks after it’s been burned, etc. All of these are costs which people have proven unwilling to bear even if it makes things better in the long run. This introduces fragility (as we saw) and here is where we transition to fire suppression as a metaphor for modern society.
Of course, the fight over whether to blame things on global warming or insufficient logging is already a reflection of some of the ills of our society, but the ills I want to talk about run even deeper. I often talk about how technology distorts things and, as I mentioned in my last post, when we’re talking about fire we’re talking about probably the first technology ever developed. Accordingly, whatever benefits can be derived from fire, and whatever it’s harms we’ve been dealing with them for a very long time. The benefits are legion, in the last post I mentioned the alleviation of suffering, but it uses go far beyond using a fire to keep warm at night. Once you discover a great multipurpose tool like fire, you immediately search for as many ways as possible for using that tool.
I recently finished the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. And one of the things he pointed out was the way the indigenous Americans used fire, particularly on the Great Plains, where they used it to create a “prodigious game farm”. And so, similar to our last discussion, we once again have a situation where humans have been artificially controlling their environment, in this case the incidence of fire, for hundreds of years, why are things different now? And once again the answer is we’ve crossed some sort of tipping point, one that may even be more stark than the line crossed by college students in 2013.
1491 doesn’t mention if the Indians ever tried to put out fires, but beyond extinguishing an out of control fire in their actual dwellings I doubt it. This is the stark difference, the difference between setting fires and putting out fires. But why is the latter so different from the former? They’re both meddling in the “natural” cycle. And once again the answer takes us back to the concept of supernormal stimuli, though more particularly the idea that things can be bounded in one direction by reality, and thus ignored by evolution.
Yes, when you set fire after fire to clear trees and encourage grasslands, and by extension bison, then you’re messing with nature, or rather with the way things worked in the time before humans. But wherever plants grow, and whatever form they take, they had to learn to cope with fire. You’re certainly altering things if you set fires more often than they would occur just because of lightning, but in the whole sweep of evolutionary history, I’m sure that multiple fires happened in quick succession even without the intervention of humans, and those plants that couldn’t deal with this didn’t survive. So yes, the Plains Indians may have been messing with stuff, but they were doing it in a way that wasn’t outside of the bounds of what evolution had prepared plants to tolerate. What plants are unprepared for, because it doesn’t exist in anywhere in the historical record are long periods of no fires.
Thus far, this may appear less a metaphor and more a lecture, but we’re getting there. The point I want to make is that everything has adapted around certain natural processes, even humans. And when we mess with these processes, things can change in unexpected ways (and yes I would include in this a precipitous increase in the amount of atmospheric C02). This leads to the questions: What processes have humans adapted around? What’s our version of fire?
The most obvious candidate is war. Humans have more or less evolved in the presence of constant warfare, and it’s only recently that we’ve largely eliminated it. I talked about this in a previous post, but it’s worth revisiting in the light of the fire suppression metaphor. Once we decide to start drawing parallels then it’s only natural to ask what represents the deadwood accumulating on the forest floor? Are there individuals or maybe ideas who are metaphorically dead trees? Where, having a few scattered here and there is fine, even useful, but when half the forest becomes dead trees any fire becomes catastrophic? And, if war is fire, what would a controlled burn look like? Does sports fit the bill or is it closer to being equivalent to someone chopping down a tree for use in heating their home? Yes it’s a controlled burn involving the forest, but not anywhere close to the scale required to do any good.
A discussion of war as a reset button for humanity, similar to fire being a reset button for a forest puts me in mind of another past post, the post where I reviewed the book The Great Leveler, by Walter Scheidel. Once again there are very interesting parallels. To return briefly to the book 1491 and it’s section on fire. Mann points out that, “if ecological succession were unstoppable, the continents would be covered by climax-stage vegetation:a world of great trees, dark and silent.” Scheidel makes basically the same point but with respect to wealth inequality, the great trees are the super rich. And in the absence of violence their numbers and the associated inequality increases until all you are left with are those super rich, and the, far more numerous, small forms of life which are able to exist in their shadow, but nothing in between. And just as there are more ways than fire to interrupt ecological succession, there are more ways than war to interrupt the rise of inequality, but none of them are particularly pleasant. Or to put it in terms of my last post, they all involve suffering to a certain degree.
As you can imagine, if very large trees had a say in the matter they would prefer that there be no fires, though just like the wealthy, to whom we’re comparing them, the great trees do fine if there are small fires, it’s only the huge fires from years of pent up resentment, I mean deadwood, that threaten the truly large trees.
It may be easy to see where the metaphor lends itself easily to things like war and revolution, but it’s interesting to extend it in scope and imagine that it applies in other places as well, for example, banking.
Though, to begin with, it needs very little imagination to picture the 2007-2008 financial crisis as an out of control fire. An inferno caused by a lack of liquidity. This fire was put out by an unprecedented injection of cash into the system. Cash that mostly went to those, who by all accounts, started the fire. Incidentally the resentment this cased provided fuel for the other kind of fire we just mentioned. I think thus far most people wouldn’t object to the parallels I’ve drawn, but things get a little more controversial when I start taking about what represents deadwood and water in this example.
First does the continual extinguishing of financial crises create any deadwood? Stuff which should have been beneficially burned out during the crisis but wasn’t? During the most recent of these crises the term “too big to fail” got tossed around a lot. The term implied that a given institution should have failed, but could not be allowed to. That however much failure would have represented the natural consequences for their irresponsible behavior in the years preceding the crash, the short-term damage would have been to great. Just as we have to fight fires in the wildland-urban interface I mentioned earlier, these institutions had become so intertwined with the rest of society that they could not be allowed to burn, however much they might deserve it.
Of course “deserve” is a loaded term, but just as fire represents a natural process which helps to clear and refresh forests, one of the benefits of capitalism, many would argue, is that it has its own inherent checks and balances, among the biggest of these: risk and return should go hand in hand, When you remove the risk you end up creating strange and unpredictable after effects as you interrupt the natural flow of capitalism.
So what about water? Well if cash in a financial crisis is equivalent to water in a wildfire, then the next question is, do we have unlimited cash with which to put out our financial fires. I talked about the people who believe this is the case in a previous post, and perhaps they’re right. But if we’re accumulating deadwood, i.e. increasing our fuel load, every time we extinguish one of these fires then we had better hope the supply of water is infinite, because if it’s not, the minute we run out, we’re going to end up with a fire/revolution that is going to put all previous ones to shame.
Outside of banking I also think this metaphor has some merit as a description of politics. There are of course many political fires burning at the moment, basically everywhere you look. And people desperately want to “put them out”. I understand the impulse, but I also think that if you put it out too quickly you once again end up in a situation where you’re accumulating deadwood, and increasing the fuel load.
As an example take any of the battles in the current culture war. I have argued in the past that people rushed to “put them out” as quickly as possible, mostly by way of the Supreme Court, rather than using the more laborious method of holding a vote, or the even more laborious method of passing a constitutional amendment. Doing it this way may have seemed like a good idea, but it also certainly came with some costs. Among these costs, I would argue, is that it increased the “fuel load” of a certain class of people. Which is to say, do you get the anger and annoyance necessary for Trump to be elected if you hadn’t been so quick to put out each and every cultural “fire”? To dismiss and shove aside what might have been legitimate complaints?
If there’s a single issue Trump has been associated with, it’s immigration, and for years polls showed that only a tiny minority wanted an increase in immigration, the vast majority wanted it kept at it’s present levels or decreased. At no point since polling started has the percent of people who want it increased been greater than the percent who wanted it to decrease even today when anti-trump pro-immigrant feelings are at their highest. (As excellently documented by Slate Star Codex recently, Trump may be very bad for Trumpism.) Despite this, what we have ended up with is a de facto policy of increased immigration despite support for it being in the teens or single digits up until very recently. Now it may be stretching the metaphor to describe the way the pro-cheap-labor Republicans and the pro-civil-rights Democrats joined together in ignoring the problem as “putting out the fire too quickly” but I have definitely seen a persistent pattern of promising to do something when the election is on, and then failing to do anything once in office. In other words putting out the fire before it removed any of the accumulated deadwood.
We’re seeing it again now. If Trump promised anything he promised a wall, now whether he actually meant it is another discussion. And yet nearly two years in it hasn’t even been started. But imagine, regardless of whether you think it’s a good idea, if we decided that elections have consequences and one of those was that we would see this thing out and build the wall. Does this remove some of the “fuel load” of the angriest portion of our population? Does it allow the current fire to burn in such a way that it puts itself out? Is it in fact a controlled burn, something we can manage? (Certainly a wall doesn’t result in the end of all immigration forever.)
Is it in fact a controlled fire that helps us avoid the out of control inferno that might be coming otherwise? Or as they’ll refer to it in the history books of the future when the bloody tale is finally written, the Second American Civil War.