What's Tony Thinking

It’s Not Just Climate Change


As frightening fires rage in California, Oregon and Washington, it is tempting to fit this issue into the standard polarized, blue/ red, narrative that controls so much of our thinking and acting.

One side says, it’s all about climate change. The longer fire season and higher overall temperatures on planet Earth give us these horrendous mega-fires. The other side says, “B.S., climate change is a hoax. It’s because forest and fire management policy has built up a huge pile of tinder that is just waiting to burst into flame.”

We love to fit everything into this familiar narrative, don’t we? To go off script risks being labeled as a heretic.

But what if both are true? What if it is true that for a century a widespread policy, adhered to particularly in the west, of total fire suppression has resulted in a build up of on-the-ground conditions that fuel mega fires? And what if climate change and the warming of the planet, and the longer fire season, make this an even more dangerous and deadly situation?

At the investigative news site Pro Publica, an extended article argues that — yes — both are true. It’s not an either/ or, but a both/ and. It’s not that my side in the culture wars is all right and yours all wrong. Both sides are right, and both are wrong. The Pro Publica article is titled, “They Know How to Prevent Mega-Fires: Why Won’t Anyone Listen?”

Remember the figure of Greek mythology, Cassandra? The priestess who was condemned to tell the truth to which no one would listen? A series of “Cassandras” are interviewed in the Pro Publica article. They have been telling us for a long time how to avoid the situation in which we now find ourselves — mega-fires that are more costly in every way every year — but no one wants to hear it.

The answer? “The good fire.” As indigenous people knew, there is such a thing as a “good fire.” A fire that is deliberately set, managed, allows for nature’s renewal and mitigates the risk of the catastrophic, out of control blazes we now see. But mostly, and especially in the west, we’ve operated on the assumption that all fire is “bad fire.” So every fire must be, if at all possible, suppressed.

Yes, I understand that this something Donald Trump is saying. Turns out he’s right. But he’s also wrong, as the vast majority of these lands, as National Forests, are under the purview of the federal government and his administration.

Meanwhile, a whole industry of people, companies and technology has been developed for these annual crusades. And God knows, it is taxing and dangerous work. And it also pays really well.

A century ago we stopped the ancient practice of setting “good fires” and now, with climate change turning up the planetary thermostat, it is (mixed metaphor warning) really, really hard to keep our powder dry. There’s just too much highly combustible stuff, made more so by a climate that is warmer and in some key areas, drier.

One more example of the way that, as a friend, likes to say, “The culture wars make us stupid,” and polarization turns us into fiddling Neros.

9/ 15 Update: Reader Roy Howard draws attention to a New York Times article that points to a third factor in all this, building homes and developments closer to wilderness/ national forest areas. Local fire fighters with whom I have spoken cite this as well, and it is true in the Wallowas.

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