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Experts Say It Is Time To Update Fire Suppression Policies


Forest ecologists say 2020 should be a wake-up call. This year's fire season has affected tens of millions of people. The last fire event to do that was more than a century ago. Here's NPR's Nathan Rott.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: In 1910, Ione Adair was 27 years old, homesteading near the Montana-Idaho border.


IONE ADAIR: I got up one morning, and it was quite hazy.

ROTT: This is from an interview of her in 1976. Hundreds of fires had been burning in the Northern Rockies that summer. Then, on August 20, hurricane-force winds caused those fires to explode. Adair, who had been conscripted into cooking for firefighters, started to notice men coming back from the fire line.


ADAIR: They said, there's no way of stopping it with this wind.

ROTT: So, she asked, what should she do?


ADAIR: And they said there's only one thing to do that we can tell. And that's to take your blankets and go down to the stream.

ROTT: Adair, thankfully, never had to get in the water. But by the time the winds died down, more than 3 million acres had burnt and 87 people had died.

JAMES JOHNSTON: The big burn of 1910 was a big wind event.

ROTT: James Johnston is a fire ecologist with Oregon State University. And he says if that sounds familiar, it's because the same thing just happened again. Hot, dry winds have caused fires in Oregon, Washington and California to explode in size this summer. The difference is what happened after the big burn.

JOHNSTON: The big change after the 1910 fires was a conviction that we needed to overcome fire.

ROTT: That fire could be prevented - it was an enemy to be vanquished. That attitude permeated the national culture around wildfire for most of the next century, from Smokey Bear ads to educational Forest Service videos like this one from the '40s.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: In truth, the best forest fires are those that never happen. As for those that do, it's everyone's business to know your enemy...

JOHNSTON: That strategy was a colossal failure, and those chickens are coming home to roost today.

ROTT: Today, we know what Indigenous people knew before - that fire is as much a part of many Western landscapes as wind and rain. And our efforts to prevent it have only made fires more difficult to manage because there's that much more vegetation left to burn. Instead, Johnston says, we need to adapt to fire and invest in ways to live with it. It's a lesson, he says, we're learning again in the big burn of 2020. Unfortunately...

STEPHEN PYNE: It's not a given that this is going to change things.

ROTT: Stephen Pyne is a fire historian, and he's frustrated because he says we've been here before. In 2017, fires burnt into Santa Rosa, Calif., up and down the state. And people said surely that would change things.

PYNE: 2018 comes along. We've got a fire tornado in Redding. We burned down Paradise.

ROTT: And this year, more of the same. The big burn of 1910 was formative, Pyne says, because of a confluence of events. It was a progressive era. The Forest Service was young and impressionable. There was an easily understood narrative that played into the way that we all tell stories - brave firefighters battling demon flames.

PYNE: What's the equivalent for prescribed fire or restoration?

ROTT: Pyne says we need that new narrative. And while he's doubtful it will happen at an institutional level anytime soon, Sarah McCaffrey, a social scientist for the Forest Service, says people on the ground are ready, in many cases, to embrace fire.

SARAH MCCAFFREY: There's a much more nuanced view of fire - that people who live in fire-prone areas know those areas are fire prone. They also know that it's part of that ecosystem and that it's a necessary part of that ecosystem.

ROTT: Change will happen, she says, but it will take time.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.


Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.