MINERAL, CA – If Sierra Nevada granite is built of slates and blues, then Lassen’s volcanic rock is painted in roses and golds, I think as I watch the National Park’s iconic peaks flush at sunset from my perch by Manzanita Lake. The sun-warmed pines beside me scent the air with vanilla, and a few whiffs of smoke drift my way from across the lake.
Though I know the charred notes come from nearby campground fires, it’s easy to imagine that they come from the pieces of blackened wood that surround my lakeside perch. The forests of Lassen have always been shaped by fire: Almost everywhere you can find scarred trees, half-burned branches, and other signs of wildfire disturbance.
This year, especially, evidence of fire is rampant. Last summer, the Reading Fire burned through the park. I remember watching helicopters dance with plumes of smoke from the lightning-ignited forest fire when I summitted Brokeoff Mountain in August. Today, a large portion of the park’s trail system remains closed, pending damage and safety inspections.
It’s easy to see these fires as little more than harbingers of destruction. The devastation they leave in their wake is undeniable and, when people’s lives and homes are involved, deeply personal. And for many years, our country’s forest fire management policy reflected these attitudes, especially after devastating wildfires like the Wisconsin Peshtigo Fire, which killed upwards of 1,500 in 1871. When the United States Forest Service was established in 1905, one of its primary missions was suppressing forest fires. This mission served two purposes: protecting lives, and protecting resources. During World War II, the loss of valuable timber to wildfire was deemed unconscionable; in general, wildfires were seen as wasteful.
But over the decades, accumulating scientific evidence began to change authorities’ minds. Beginning in 1924, Aldo Leopold – an ecologist whose writing became a foundational part of the American conservation ethic – began arguing for fire’s critical role in many North American ecosystems. Scientists studying fire suppression noted dramatic changes to the plant and animal systems involved. Without fire to press a “reset” button every once in a while, certain plant species might come to dominate a landscape in which they historically had been rare. As vegetation changes, so too did habitat for birds, insects, and mammals: Some might receive a glut of food, others a shortage of nesting space. And, since fire helps release and recycle nutrients locked up in woody debris, in its absence the function of an entire ecosystem could change.
Besides these changes to the natural system, there were also increasing safety concerns. By actively – and often successfully – fighting fires, the Forest Service and associated agencies had inadvertently allowed dry, dead organic matter to accumulate where it might otherwise have been periodically burned off. That meant that, should a fire actually ignite, it would have plenty of fuel. So fires were burning hotter, longer, and subsequently becoming more dangerous and harder to control.
By the 1970s, to their credit, the Forest Service realized the flaws in their fire control plans, and started to change their ways.
They started by changing their language: from “fire suppression” to “fire management.” Management today focuses on ecosystem restoration. Where manpower is available, fuel on the forest floor is reduced using prescribed burning in well-contained fires, or physically gathered up and removed. When wildfires do ignite (usually by lightning strikes), they are allowed to burn unless they threaten human lives or property. And the National Park Service and other agencies are working to change our attitudes about fire, noting its important role in ecosystem restoration and highlighting the amazing adaptations that many plants and animals have to wildfire.
As our open spaces slowly return to a “natural” fire balance, though, we have to ask ourselves what exactly that word means. Given the long history of humans on the continent, some ecosystems’ fire frequency has long been controlled by human hands. Today’s managers must choose their goals carefully. What baseline are they trying to re-create? How will increasing human usage of all these spaces continue to change the land, and its ability to sustain and recover from fires?
Even if we wanted to, we cannot remove the hand of humans from these landscapes. And, looking out on Mount Lassen at sunset, as a human myself, I’m glad that we are here.
Holly welcomes a firestorm of reader feedback at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.