Admittedly, growing up in the suburbs of Massachusetts didn’t provide me with the best perspective on how impactful wildland fires can be. I honestly can’t remember ever seeing or hearing about any wildland fires when I was a kid. At that time, all I knew was Smokey the Bear, and I just assumed that out west, in the mountains, the woods must burn. But they sure didn’t burn in New England.
Even as I was gearing up to start my first season, I secretly questioned the point of stopping the forests from burning. I had come to learn that fire was a natural process, a destructive force, true, but one that helped revitalize and restore the forests. Why should we be messing around with this natural process?
That was before I went out into the mountains of Northern California. Before I spent three summers working across public lands throughout the west. It was only after that I realized the situation is far more complicated than “Should we interfere with a natural process?” A situation made far more complicated by the presence of people, and the things we build.
I naively thought that Federal lands would be like wildernesses. Free from development, untouched, pristine lands filled with roaming bison and wildflowers. I quickly learned that’s not the case. I also learned that there is a major difference between the way the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service manage the lands under their control compared to the National Park Service. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, combined, control 440.2 million acres, while the National Park Service controls just 79.6 million. If you include the Fish and Wildlife Service (who manage 89.1 million acres of federal land), the share of land managed by the National Park Service is just 13% of all federal land.
So what happens on federal lands? Well, a lot of things. Our forests and ranges are ‘working lands’, while our National Parks are 'preservation lands'. This can be clearly determined by the differences in the missions of these different agencies.
The mission of the National Park Service is to “[preserve] unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” (Bold & Italics are mine). Compare that to the Forest Service, whose mission states, “"To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations." The mission of the Bureau of Land Management reads similarly, “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America's public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.
So, what are our needs? Well, for starters, energy. Whether that be pipelines, power transmission lines, hydro-electric power, etc. many of our national lands are used to facilitate those needs. Imagine if we had to re-route power lines around national forests? Global industry requires raw materials to make things, so mining operations are permitted on public lands. Most houses are framed with wooden 2x4’s, and all the Americans I know enjoy the comfort of toilet paper. To satisfy our desire for the comforts provided by wood products, we need to harvest our forests, and the Forest Service sees that is done in a sustainable way. Ranchers also lease the land to graze cattle and other livestock.
And finally, our public lands offer the opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities and suburbs. Generations of Americans have sought refuge and serenity in houses and cabins in the mountains, and along the lakes and rivers, of our public lands. Parents have taught sons and daughters how to hunt, fish, and camp on these lands. And they have been able to do that without a membership. It’s one of the many collective benefits we enjoy as Americans.
Of course, all this activity requires a network of roads, trails, and railways that must be built and maintained to allow for vacationers to get to their cabins, lumber to be transported to the mills, minerals to be hauled for processing, and cattle to be loaded up for transport to market.
We depend on our public lands for more than just postcard vistas. Our economy relies upon them. It is for that reason why wildland firefighting is so important. It protects not only the economic interests of our nation, but the people in these communities as well.
As I write this, the 2018 season is at its peak. California has experienced it’s largest fire on record, the Mendocino Complex Fire, that has scorched over 375,000 acres. Americans watched, stunned, as the Camp Fire literally destroyed Paradise, CA. Over 18,800 structures were damaged by the fire. One hundred seventy miles to the southwest, in Silicon Valley, I woke up to the smell of wood smoke in the air. For days, the Bay Area's air quality was among the worst in the world. You could feel its presence, even from such a distance. And we had it good compared to the thousands of residents of Paradise, many of whom lost loved ones and homes.
The year before, the pristine beauty of California’s famed wine country was dramatically burned over by the Tubbs Fire, the Atlas Fire, and the Nuns Fire and others. Over 245,000 acres burned, and as many as 44 people were killed. 90,000 people were forced to evacuate from their suburban neighborhoods while over 10,000 firefighters from all over the country rushed in to battle the firestorm.
There is no debating that wildland fires are growing more frequent. They are burning more total acreage every year, and what was once a seasonal threat is becoming a constant specter. Wildland firefighting isn’t just being fought in the wilderness. As the terrible fires in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino highlighted, the suburbs, once thought to be idyllic and immune from the threat of a wildland fire, are increasingly at risk. Until that trend reverses, and who knows when, or if, that will ever happen, we’re going to need brave men and women to heed the call, to pick up a tool, and helped defend that place we call home.