Editor’s Note: Stephen J. Pyne is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and the author of “Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America” and “To the Last Smoke,” a series of regional fire surveys. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In October 1918, a swarm of smoldering fires flared and rode rising winds through 1,500 square miles outside Duluth, Minnesota. The flames incinerated cities, killed at least 450 people, and overtook evacuees as they fled in cars. It wasn’t the last fire of a cycle that began in 1825 in Maine and migrated through the Lake States before moving on, but it was the last in which the fallen numbered in the hundreds.
Then, over several decades, the scene calmed.
That former era of firestorms was sparked along the frontier. Settlers and logging companies felled the forests and left lands lathered in slash. They used fires widely to work the land into agriculture. They built houses and towns out of wood, and they lacked much incentive to prevent burning, or the capacity to fight the fires that blew up. Railroads cast sparks with abandon.
Year after year, decade after decade, the sorrowful scenario repeated. But after the 1918 eruption, the rising tide ebbed.
This did not occur spontaneously. Cities gradually adopted fire and building codes and enforced them. They zoned in ways to halt fire spread and ensure egress. They installed a fire protection infrastructure.
Individual buildings and a town block burned here and there, but fires in cities no longer spread like fires in forests. The countryside also changed. Settlement ceased, and logging and its slash heaps were more or less domesticated. The wild and the settled were untangled into separate realms, routine burning on the landscape yielded to internal combustion, and firefighting agencies matured.
By the mid-20th century the horrific fires had faded, replaced with occasional outbreaks more akin to seasonal flu than an epidemic on the order of the Spanish flu (which, incidentally, had begun earlier in 1918).
Now the flames are back. Why? Because the conditions that spawned the era of frontier fires have found modern surrogates. A new wave of settlement is recolonizing our formerly rural lands, this time converting to towns or exurbs, often out of materials similar to that of their surroundings. Building codes and zoning are often feeble, or have come decades after indifferent attention. Fire protection has strengthened, but it also eliminated, as a consequence, the “good,” smaller blazes that had formerly pruned back fuels that might otherwise feed a conflagration.
The countryside matured, sometimes in unhelpful ways because of the success of fire exclusion campaigns. Geographies that had been painfully segregated remixed as suburbs and pushed against wildlands, while urban enclaves and exurbs found themselves amid revanchist woods. Climate change lengthened fire seasons and worsened some of the conditions that allowed vegetation to convert into fuel. It assumed the role of performance enhancer that slash had earlier previously served. The fires mutated from occasional nuisances into menaces.
The problem manifested itself most dramatically in postwar California and was dismissed as a California quirk. Then it infected much of the American West with flames rushing around Spokane, Reno, the Wasatch Front, and – with particular venom – Colorado’s Front Range. Then they moved into the Great Plains, then outside Austin, Texas, the coastal plains, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
At first, the prevailing narrative was one of dumb Californians (or westerners) putting houses where there were bound to be fires. Increasingly, thanks to climate change and land use, the narrative is becoming one of fires going to where the houses are.
What can we do to turn the tide again? We can relearn the lessons of that last-century plague.
Most basically, we need to define the problem correctly.
The “wildland-urban interface” is a dumb, geeky name coined in California in the early 1970s. It viewed the problem of wildfires from the perspective of wildlands. By then the wildland fire community – that is, the federal agencies (such as the National Park Service and Forest Service) and some state and private institutions that were concerned with fire on landscapes – had admitted the self-destructive folly of trying to exclude all fire from all lands and had committed to restoring “good” fire.
It defined the problem as one of encroaching houses and the loss of a rural buffer zone. It knew it could not eliminate all fires, and couldn’t afford to, since in most landscapes fire was both inevitable and necessary. But it saw those fires getting more savage and knew that new houses compromised attempts to contain fires as a wildland issue.
But we might equally view the problem from the other side of the interface, that is, from cities and sprawling towns. Suburbs and exurbs are fringes and fragments of cities with peculiar landscaping. They are amenable to the methods that tamed America’s urban blazes in that earlier era: fire codes, life safety codes, building codes, zoning, an infrastructure for urban fire protection.
Such a redefinition makes sense because plenty of research, not only in the US but in Australia and elsewhere, points to ember swarms as the primary ignition source in threatened communities. Blizzards of sparks from an advancing fire act on the structure itself and on the flammable material – shrubs, mulch and pine needles –immediately around it. This “home ignition zone,”as it’s called, holds the critical points of vulnerability. It’s where fire enters the built environment.
Similarly, we know that fires occur in patterns – as do winds, such as those blasting California – and like flood plains, they map zones of high risk. They help identify what communities need the most urgent attention. (Malibu has burned so often, for example, it might make sense to highlight decades without a “disaster” fire.)
Yes, the countryside needs treatment as well. We can dampen the ferocity of the flames – the size of fires will depend mostly on the winds, but their intensity will depend on the fuel characteristics of the landscape. The home ignition zone has a counterpart around whole communities – a “community ignition zone.” There are lots of techniques for treating such areas, for fashioning the fire equivalent of greenbelts around communities and municipal watersheds.
We can also begin to substitute prescribed, semi-tame flames for the feral fires that now result from accidents, lightning, and power lines, which function today as railroads did a century ago.
But we need to choose solutions that make sense in terms of how fire behaves and kindles structures. Felling the woods will worsen the scene, unless you clean up afterwards. This can be expensive and brings its own hazards from burning the slash, which can lead to other fires and noxious smoke.
We can’t stop winds and abolish vegetation and eliminate fires. We can make communities sufficiently resilient to accept those outbursts without burning to stone and killing residents.
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We can go beyond thoughts and prayers, and the misbegotten sense that mass burnings must echo mass shootings in their random destruction and our helplessness to stop them.
A century ago the horror of the 1918 outbreak marked a tipping point. The flames were tamed. And they can be tamed again. Let’s hope this fire bust, piling on top of those in August and last fall, announces the ebb.