Smokey Bear’s Conundrum: Should We Let Forest Fires Burn?

Author's Note: The story can be found near at the end of this article.
Even if you don't read both pieces, definitely check one out!
Smokey Bear's Conundrum is a 5 minute read (1,240 words)
The two-parter fiction is a 10 minute read (2,634 words)

Fire is dichotomous in nature. It can not only be employed by nature to devasting effect by incinerating anything in its path, but it can also be utilized to provide warmth and safety among other things.

The prevalent belief in popular opinion regarding wildfires is to extinguish them as soon as possible. It seems painfully obvious to many; fire must be suppressed. In terms of putting out fires, we’ve done quite a good job statistically speaking. In the U.S., 98 percent of these fires are suppressed early. This is before those fires reach 300 acres. What’s the problem then? The measly-sounding two percent that isn’t successfully contained accounts for around 97 percent of firefighting costs and area burned.

This partly feeds into the push by some to increase spending on fighting these fires. However, this is not the optimal way to deal with every forest fire. Unfortunately, it seems the greater the effort we put into extinguishing these wildfires, the more extreme they seem to get. The size and intensity of fires, year over year, have increased significantly. As a matter of fact, six of the worst fire seasons in history have occurred since 2000.

Environments that are fire-prone are more likely experience wetter winters and longer droughts during the summer (*cough* California *cough*). The water from the considerably wetter season fosters the growth of plants in the Spring. During the droughts, this population of fledgling plants now has the risk of drying out and becoming highly flammable.

As far back as 125 million years ago, it’s possible to find the consequences of fire in plant genomes. Grasslands and shrublands are more susceptible to fire since the plant stems are thinner. In places such as the savannahs of Africa, fires are quick, moving swiftly through the grasses minimally affecting the soil below. Due to such minimal temperature increase of the ground, the plants’ root systems are able to survive. The burned areas experience a rapid regrowth of grasses. Various life forms are usually able to survive the fires, and return when the burned areas begin restoring. The young, fresh vegetation summons the grazing herbivores to begin rebuilding an ecosystem in the grasslands (secondary succession! -thanks, Mrs. G!). Without the fires tempering the growth of the vegetation, succession occurs. Trees would eventually, in a sense, take over the ecosystem. The grasses we mentioned earlier? In a stable ecosystem, they wouldn’t be able to compete with the trees for resources. In an area with frequent fires such as the savannah, the gradually growing tree sapling would have minimal chance to survive.

Nonetheless, it is important to consider that not all forest ecosystems are adversely affected by fires. In fact, there are some that are fire-adapted (meaning they thrive in these seemingly grueling conditions). The Ponderosa forests (found in the western US and Canada) contain pine trees with thick bark that offers the tissue within protection from the heat. The branches also drop when at risk to prevent the canopy from catching fire. For these forests, natural fires flow through every five to 25 years. In some areas, this figure can go past a hundred years like in the Alaskan tundra, or Olympic National Forest. This is an essential event for the forests since the fire burns low growing plants and leaf litter, preventing a buildup of forest-floor vegetation.

There are several species dependent on fire as well. The heat released by the flames could stimulate certain fungi to release spores. The ramifications are compounded near the top of the food chain since larger organisms, like predators, rely on these smaller ones (biomagnification!). Fire suppression could also endanger species such as the Kirtland’s Warbler. This songbird hails from Michigan and inhabits young jack pine forests. The pines’ cones only spread their seeds in a fire. Thus, no fire means less habitable locations for the warbler.

Early firefighters would exhaust resources and funding trying to suppress every fire. However, we eventually recognized that we were making fires worse through this suppression. Older forests usually contain a greater population of black spruce (or a stand of black spruce) which are readily available to catch aflame. These fires are much worse and pose an even greater challenge to control as they can cause more property damage. That’s the way things were done before 1988 when modern plans were developed.

Individual forest fires were originally fought with funds appropriated by congressional appropriations as well as emergency funding. This was problematic because the budget for fuel breaks and prescribed burns is taken out of a separate, limited budget reserved for each national forest.

To add fuel to the fire, the “suppress everything” stance proves to be problematic. Dead plants and dry wood accumulate on the forest floor. With each suppression, the underbrush gets thicker. When they catch fire, and they do eventually, they will fuel a stronger fire, much harder to control. Bark boring beetles are one of the major pests that thrive due to a large amount of large unhealthy trees left standing. Wildfires are responsible for keeping these trees out of commission and keep the ecosystem stable.

-A stand is “An aggregation of trees or other growth occupying a specific area and sufficiently uniform in species composition, size, age, arrangement, and condition as to be distinguished from the forest or other growth on adjoining areas.”

It has also come to light that fire is critical in Alaskan forests for incumbent wildlife populations. Since fire burns unevenly across the landscape, it yields significantly more biodiversity and habitat opportunity. While spruce may be more prone to catch fire, trees such as the willow, birch, and aspen among others may grow in burned areas because they are more fire resistant.

These trees are like natural fuel breaks that slow the next fire’s advance, helping diminish its intensity. Speaking of which, fuel breaks have to be built to enable firefighters to protect more property and people. Some of the more recent suggested changes include implementing prescribed burns, tree thinning and less suppression of fires in certain circumstances.

As a result of all of this, recently there has been more funding placed towards complete suppression rather than prevention via the methods of prescribed burns and fuel breaks. Prescribed burns are when a fire is actually used to burn off the vegetation that could potentially accumulate and cause more intense fires. It helps clear out thick, dry brush. Tree thinning is when the branches of trees are removed to reduce crown density (read more here). Parks Canada is often cited as an example of this type of fire management by splitting up the land into different zones, making it easier to control. These methods will hopefully restore forests to their natural state. That way, the burden of more intense fires would be far less frequent and likely.

Contrary to popular belief, fires are a naturally occurring event that can be beneficial for their environment. However, one should not be careless when it comes to fire safety. We must take precautions to make sure that the only fires ripping through the forests are natural and do not pose a significant threat to our society. Some of the suggested changes implemented have been useful, but it’s an ongoing battle. Smokey Bear is still right, he was created to warn of the dangers of carelessness in starting fires, but sometimes, fires are natural and should be left to run free unless they infringe upon human establishments.

STORY TIME

The Fire Cleanses [part 1/2]

A friend of mine often regaled me with the crazy stories her father told her. Most of them were based on his experience as a firefighter so naturally, I was interested when he wanted to share one of his tales with me while I was over for drinks.
“In my 22 years on the job, I’ve seen quite a bit as a firefighter. Now, here in the suburbs, there (thankfully) isn’t much to worry about. Sure it’s a little pedestrian, but I’ve grown fond of it.” He furrowed his brow. “When I first started on the job, I was a volunteer firefighter. Remember this was way back when I was living in California.”
“No way! You used to live in California?” she said with clearly feigned enthusiasm.
“Hush honey, it’s called exposition.” he turned toward me and kept speaking.
“Might as well call it the Land of Wildfire. If the Fire Nation had a home in our country, it would’ve been in California.” He took another sip of his drink.
“Okay here’s the story.”

He spoke for a quite a while, pausing to reflect occasionally on his words. Afterward, I thanked him for his invite and walked back home. His daughter took him upstairs to bed and silently led me out. His story was truly unusual and I thought it was too interesting not to share. With his permission, I’ve typed his story below. Here it is, in his words.
——-
I was hiking around the wooded area, which was notorious for falling branches and vicious wildlife. The rangers and scouts? They loved to call it “Wooded Wonderland” Ironic really. You never knew if you were going to get ambushed by wild critters like bears, and raccoons, and such. Nasty devils. Anyway, I was going on one of my routine checks when I was flanked by a falling branch on my right. The area should’ve been condemned but the thing was all these surveys of the area turned up nothing. No trees were deemed at risk of falling, the wildlife was supposedly timid and tame. It’s like the forest just had a knack for messing with us, you know?

Anyway, there were a couple of homes nearby, scattered around the forest. Three to be exact. There weren’t much to these dwellings. All of them didn’t have a family, rather, they seemed content to be living off the land on their own bearings. Buncha characters if you ask me. They rubbed me the wrong way the first time I met ’em.

You see, Charlie and I were checking out the source of smoke in the woods a few days after I started. The day was coming to a close, and a pinkish hue filled the sky. I was told these guys used to camp around the area and hold meetings over their kills of the day. We were on our way to the site when we heard a whimper not far out. We both instinctively jumped behind a fallen tree and waited. Moments later, a bloody bear, with a stick driven into its side barreled down the thick brush.

“Damn,” Charlie says under his breath and I didn’t blame him. It was utterly unbelievable.
We were quite miffed because the squadron had let these people stay on the land if they followed certain guidelines. All of them were pretty simple.
-No hunting the bears.
-Take proper precaution when lighting a campfire.
-Carry a fire extinguisher at all times.
How could they possibly mess that up? We sent word of the wounded bear back to HQ. Hopefully, nature would have its way with it. At least no one really came through this side of the woodworks.

We knew we had to quicken our pace to get to the source of the fire. If those people were still hanging around, they would be at great risk, especially at this hour.
We reached the site in 10 minutes. The trio was sitting still, unmoved, eyes closed. The fire was kept in check by the stones around it but seemed to flare up sporadically. What caused them to freeze up like that?

Charlie tried to wake up one of them but he wouldn’t budge. We tried yelling at him and slapping him to see if he was conscious. Still nothing. I placed a few fingers by his nose. Yup, he was still breathing. Everything else seemed normal about this guy and his two buddies. Only problem was…it looked like they were caught in a deep slumber. The fire danced higher as we mused. I couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the whole situation. I checked the center guy’s pulse, and there was…nothing? That’s not possible. I called to Charlie to try to find his pulse. Still nothing. The light of the sky had pretty much faded at this point and a deep navy blue crept over it.

“We gotta go,” I told Charlie. “Let’s radio in for the medic. We can’t drag them back to the site without risking injury.” He simply nodded and made the call back to HQ.
We took one last look at the place before leaving. Not a hair was out of place. No litter or pentagrams, or signs of the devil. To be honest, I just wanted to get out of there ASAP. Before leaving, I extinguished the fire to ensure it wouldn’t spread.

The chief listened to our experience in full silently. His face was stern and hard to read. He got up swiftly as we finished.
“Son, what did you do to the fire?” His gaze pierced my soul and made me more anxious. “Don’t tell me you put it out.” I closed my mouth.
“Chief, I thought–” I couldn’t even get an apology out because he cut me off abruptly.
“Listen very carefully. Do exactly what I say, nothing more, nothing less, and this will all be over. Don’t ask any questions.” Apparently, we weren’t the first ones to deal with this strange situation.

The plan was laid out with precision. Someone had to go back to the site and relight the fire. Zip in. Light the fire. Zip out. Simple as that. At least, I thought it would be. A million things were running through my mind. What was wrong with those people? Would they be waiting there, lifeless, when I got back? Needless to say, the fact that our chief didn’t give us any more info was unsettling.

“Get In, Light the Fire, Get Out” [part 2/2]

I lost what some of what he said because he mumbled some words and got up to get a drink. We had another conversation a few days after, and I got down the rest of the story. It continues from around the point where he last left off.
—–
So, he got up swiftly as we finished. His face was blank for a few seconds before he turned to look me in the face.
“Son, what did you do to the fire?” His gaze pierced my soul and made me more anxious. “Don’t tell me you put it out.” I paused, nonplussed.
“Chief, I thought–” I couldn’t even get an apology out because he cut me off abruptly.
“Listen very carefully. Do exactly what I say, nothing more, nothing less, and this will all be over. Don’t ask any questions.” Apparently, we weren’t the first ones to deal with this strange situation.

The plan was laid out with precision. Someone had to go back to the site and relight the fire. Zip in. Light the fire. Zip out. Simple as that. At least, I thought it would be. A million things were running through my mind. What was wrong with those people? Would they be waiting there, lifeless, when I got back? Needless to say, the fact that our chief didn’t give us any more info was unsettling.

As I prepped Charlie came in. He told me it sucked that I had to see something like that as a rookie. He found it shocking because he’s been at this for a little over a year, but he’s never heard of something like this happening. Before leaving, he wished me good luck and told me not to act like one of those idiots from the movies. How reassuring.
After Charlie left the tent, the Chief pulled me aside.

“Listen up. Whatever you do, focus on what you have to do. Don’t touch anything else. Don’t do so much as look in the wrong direction, you hear me?” His weathered face was just inches from mine at this point. “You go in, you light the fire, you get out.”
I mumbled a “yes sir” before he backed off. The next day couldn’t have been more nerve-wracking.

I set out early because I wanted to get back to the spot with as much light as possible. Truthfully, I didn’t sleep a wink that night. After that bizarre experience, the dark had started to make me uneasy.
My breathing got heavy as I walked towards where I’d marked the site. There were three things I had to do.
-Zip in
-Light the fire
-Get out
It became a mantra I repeated as I got my gear on. Get in. Light the fire. Get out. After what seemed like hours, I got to the log where I’d hidden behind. The same spot where Charlie and I saw the injured bear charging through. We would’ve chastised the hippies for their disregard for our guidelines but seeing they were zombie-like statues of themselves, I think they got a free pass on that one.

What startled me was how quickly the light was dimming in the sky. I literally set out early in the morning. If anything, it should have gotten brighter as it got closer to midday. The only normal thing was the soundscape of the life around me. The occasional snapping and rustling of leaves and branches reassured me. I began to realize the closer I got to the site, the darker it got. Freaking gave me the idea I was descending into the Heart of Darkness or something. Scratch that, it would make Conrad’s story seem like a children’s book.

The chief’s words slapped me into moving faster. Repeat the mantra. Repeat the mantra. Zip in. Light the fire. Get out. Zip in. Light the fire. Get out. I reached the site…and…I don’t know what I was expecting. There was one. The male we inspected the first time around. The others were nowhere to be seen. The smoldering pile of ash appeared as I last left it. He was sprawled on the forest floor. Mustering all the willpower I could I walked past him to the pile of partially burnt wood and scattered ash. I took some extra twigs nearby and doused the thing with some of the gasoline I’d brought. I set the can by the man and set to work. Like a jump scare, I felt something searing touch my leg. I cried out in pain, but there no one else was there. It was just me, the sprawled man, the unlit wood, and the trees. I could probably just limp back to camp from here. By now the dark was unbelievable. It was as if someone turned off the sunlight, and I hurriedly got the fire started up.

It was relieving to see it’s flames bound up, reaching for the sky. Thank god. I stood a while longer, knowing this would make a hell of a story when I got back. Then I got a heart attack when I heard a deep voice saying “light the fire” over and over.

Light the fire. Light the fire. LIGHT THE FIRE. LIGHT THE FIRE. I frantically looked around for its source. The man. His mouth was moving, but it didn’t match the sound. Damn. It got louder and louder.

LIGHT THE FIRE. LIGHT THE FIRE. LIGHT THE FIRE.

Shadows floated from the trees. What the hell? They were like real-life versions of dementors, ready to suck my soul. That’s probably what happened to the other two hippies with the man.

GET OUT.

The Chief’s voice scolded me. He was yelling. GET OUT.
I looked around for a solution. I didn’t know if hippie 1 and hippie 2 were stopping by to visit but I didn’t want to wait and find out. I grabbed the gasoline and tossed it around into the tree line. I quickly fashioned a torch out of a branch and tossed it deeper into the forest.

GET OUT. GET OUT.

The man grabbed my ankle as I turned to leave. My face planted into the dirt. I saw an etched diamond into the stone where the man had sat.
LIGHT THE FIRE. He was screaming louder.
His grip tightened, and he whispered one word: diamond. I broke free and the fire had blazed through a couple of trees. It was hotter than the dang sun in there. My mind began to scream too.

GET OUT. GET OUT. GET THE HELL OUT.

I ran, limping towards where I came from. I forgot my injury, and adrenaline shot through me. I wasn’t going down in that forest.
The fire had somehow spread. The screams reverberated in my skull. I ran. And I ran. And I ran. The light started to come back. The sky started to clear up. The blazing branches fell behind me as I ran.

I didn’t stop until I made it to HQ. I ran into the office. I collapsed onto the floor, but I didn’t care. I was safe.

I was in the hospital for two days. After I got discharged I went to him. I approached him and he turned briskly to face me.
“You lit the fire?”
I nodded in affirmation and he came in to hug me.
“Good work. Take the week off, you deserve it, rookie.” He smiled warmly and left me.
I saw the reports of the fire raging in the area. The whole thing was getting roasted pretty terribly. The fire stayed strong and surprisingly didn’t spread to threaten the local communities. There was a unanimous decision to let it burn. Maybe prescribed burns aren’t such a bad thing after all.

Charlie was glad to see me all better. He was just annoyed he wasn’t sent out to do the task. He listened wide-eyed to my story when I told him. Now that I think of it. It was a jarring experience, but I find joy in the irony of it. A firefighter burning down a forest. Funny how life works huh?

Well, that’s pretty much what he told me. My friend’s father (who I will still not name for the sake of privacy) had a pretty crazy story. I tried to dig further, though. I tried asking him just WHERE exactly he was when this happened, but he wouldn’t budge. He laughed it off saying he doesn’t want me poking my nose around where it didn’t belong. I can’t find anything on where he used to work. It wasn’t like knowing the state helped narrow it down much. California is a pretty big one, you know? A part of me thinks it’s just a scary story meant to scare his daughter. Another part, however, believes his every word. Especially since I saw his old gear torn up. He let me check it out after my last visit when I asked him some questions. It was clearly charred/burned from fires. There was a great deal of wear on it too. I had to check. I looked at the pants. On the back of the left leg, there was a strange tear. It was shaped like a diamond.

Thank you for reading.

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