The Raging Fire of Impermanence

Fire is one of my favorite elements and still, I have been among many who have been saddened and concerned by the raging fires in the Western United States. Yet fire teaches us so much, both anecdotally and literally. Indeed, new research and science has come out to support the fact that wildland fires are actually beneficial for the land and ecology (read on to the end to be in the know). What all this doesn’t help with is the heartbreak that so many are experiencing from losing their homes, livelihoods, and in some instances, their loved ones.

The most challenging part is having to face the inescapable truth of our impermanence. We, along with everything else on this planet, are a moment of time slowed down enough so that we can experience it. Once our moment passes we’re done, just as when fire burns things to ash it’s gone. Yet the cycle of life continues. Every action we take is part of a long chain of evolution. When done well, we live for the legacy we leave behind, not for ourselves, but for those who follow. In this way we honor the cycles of life and death, and our own impermanence.

In our Western ways, we have lost touch with how to embrace death as part of life. We resist, fight, deny, resent. And when death takes some small or significant part of our lives away, we can become angry, despondent, and perhaps vengeful, maybe toward another human, perhaps against nature herself. Though none of this changes the cycles of our natural world.

Life will one day meet death. All we truly have is this moment right here, right now. It’s more than spiritual philosophy; it’s the way this world functions. We don’t get to go backward in time and as much as we plan for the future, we can never really know what will come to pass.

This again does little to give the sorrowful heart solace. Just as the forest will take time to regenerate, it will take time to grieve these losses. And from these losses, new life will come, as that is the natural way of this world.

Fire is a powerful teacher in this way. It turns everything in its path to ash, clearing the way for a new start. The phoenix fire of death and rebirth. When we can accept these natural cycles in our lives, including our own inevitable death, we can allow the fire within to transform us into emissaries of evolutionary living, each moment savored, treasured and celebrated.

Fire is also the spark of imagination that blazes through our nervous system at lightning fast speeds. It is a part of us, fueling our determination to make our way in this wild world, giving us vision and inspiration, hope and possibility. It is warmth on a cold night and we have long joined around the fire to be in community, share stories, and sing songs. Long before our modern kitchens, it was how we cooked our food. And in Native American tribes, fire was utilized to manage the land. There were 11 major reasons to use fire in this way, including crop and pest management, as well as fireproofing settlements.

We may have built our cities and “claimed our territory,” but this land we live on is not really ours, or the bank’s. This land we live on belongs to the Earth. We are the visitors in our temporary meat suits. And all of us at some point will return either to the Earth or go up in flames ourselves once we die.

There are many who believe that we also belong to the Earth, that she is everyone’s mother for she provides everything we need to live. Regardless of one’s beliefs, it is our responsibility to learn once more how to live in harmony with her and all of her children that share her great body, our planet. And we can do this. It is much simpler than we believe it to be. It just requires change; another thing fire is a great teacher of.

It’s true that many are resistant to change, but that’s like trying to be a drop of water in the ocean attempting to stay stationary. A futile effort, no doubt. Since change is the one true constant of our world, wouldn’t we want to be intentional with how change happens in our lives?

When it comes to change, we have a choice – it can happen with intention, direction and care or it can happen in uncontrolled, erratic and dangerous ways. The difference is how we engage it. We when we attempt to suppress something, we withhold our ability to direct how it happens when what is inevitable comes to pass. And when it comes to fire, the “cut our way out of it” approach to forest management has failed.

As Dr. Michael Medler, member of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE) and professor at Western Washington University, recently testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, “By working with fire in many areas, we can also create a mosaic of reduced fire hazards that will be safer and cheaper to manage.” He goes on to make additional recommendations that would also create good local jobs and keep communities safer. It’s a quick and worthwhile read.

My heart is full of prayers for everyone who has been intimately impacted by the wildland fires. May you give yourselves fully to your grieving hearts and give praise for the life you still have to live.

And as promised, here are some key facts to expand your understanding of the benefits of wildland fires and why we should intentionally use to them manage the land…

Key findings by 25 fire scientists from around the world who released a new publication “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix” published by Elsevier, a world-leading provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services.

The research includes many surprise findings compiled from western North America, central Europe, southeast Australia, and sub-Saharan Africa, such as: • Thinning in the backcountry does not improve homeowner safety, and does not meaningfully influence large, weather-driven fires. • The mosaic of fire patches in large fires (unburned to severely burned areas) produces ideal habitat for scores of plants and animals. • Large, severe fires restore habitats for fire-dependent species. Post-fire logging, tree planting, and herbicides most often degrade the biologically rich post-fire landscape and increases future big fire risks. • Contrary to what many think, large and severe fires are not currently increasing in western North America compared to historical times. • Climate change in dry forest regions may increase the frequency and extent of large fires this century. • People can live safely with fire in the backcountry by building with fire-resistant materials and reducing flammable vegetation nearest homes. • Large severe fires contribute much less carbon dioxide to global warming than the burning of fossil fuels or forest thinning over large landscapes. • Record fire suppression is doing little to stop large fires during extreme weather events. It is best to prepare for fire by reducing risks to homes and proper zoning that limits sprawl into fire-prone areas.

And here’s an informative FAQ on wildland fires from BARK with links to evidence based research and science (Thanks BARK!): Q1: Does fire destroy forests?

A: Nope! Smokey got this one wrong. Fire ecologists recognize that fire is an essential part of most forest types and many species actually depend on fire for their survival. According to Dr. Dominick DellaSala, co-editor of The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, there are countless ecosystem benefits of large and severe fires as, “the post-fire landscapes created by these fires are not ecological disasters, rather they are rare ecosystems that have a unique role to play in the long-term health of our forests.”

Q2: Are fires burning larger and hotter because of a hundred years of fire suppression?

A: Not necessarily. While a century of fire suppression has left specific ecosystems in conditions that are outside their natural range, this does not automatically mean a fire will burn more intensely. Fire ecologist Chad Hanson found, “contrary to popular misconception, areas that have missed the greatest number of natural fire cycles, due to fire suppression, are burning mostly at low-and moderate-intensity and are not burning more intensely than areas that have missed fewer fire cycles.”

The intensity of a fire is based both on the fire cycle of the area, and the specifics of each particular fire – with weather being the most important factor influencing fire behavior.

Q3: Is climate change resulting in larger, non-natural fires?

A: This has yet to be determined. It is true that the West is in a period of drought, resulting in more fires. However, there was a similar drought from 1920-35, in which very large fires burned across the West. As both climate patterns and fire behavior are unpredictable, the facts don’t yet establish a simple connection.

Despite the smoky haze in Portland (and accompanying media hysteria), this has not been a particularly severe fire year taken in the context of the last century. As of last week, approximately 8.5 million acres in the U.S. have experienced wildland fires, with 63% burning in remote Alaskan tundra. In comparison, in the U.S. in 1930 and 1931, over 50 million acres burned each year and during the 10-year period from the late 1920’s to the late 1930’s an average of 30 million acres burned every year.

Q4: Because of climate change, shouldn’t fires be suppressed so that they don’t add additional carbon into the atmosphere?

Wildland fire releases about 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which may sound like a lot but is only 5% of the CO2 the U.S. releases annually through fossil fuel burning. Even the most severe fires transfer only about 15% of the forest’s carbon into the atmosphere. The rest is returned to the soil or released via the respiration of decomposition in a natural cycle that replenishes the forest with nutrients and feeds new growth. In contrast, logging releases over 60% of the stored carbon in forests.

In addition, researchers recently found that the highest carbon sequestration levels were in forests that had previously experienced considerable occurrence of high-intensity fire.

Q5: If fire is good for the forest, why is the Forest Service spending so much money fighting it?

As observed by OSU professor John Bailey, "right now we're spending billions of dollars to prevent something that is going to happen sooner or later, whether we try to stop it or not, and something that can assist us in sound land management.”

Why is this the case? Because the U.S. Forest Service has a policy of suppressing all fire ignitions outside of designated wilderness, coupled with a blank check from the Federal Treasury for firefighting. These two policies combine to create a reactive system that wastes millions of dollars, and sometimes firefighter lives, to fight fires that may have significant ecological benefit.

Q6: How should the government plan for wildland fire management on public lands?

We need to learn to co-exist with fire! For individuals and communities who live in the wildland-urban interface, fire is a real threat to home and livelihood, and this could be proactively addressed by making more firewise homes and towns. The federal government could help support these efforts with technical and financial support.

The Forest Service could also end its outdated full suppression policy, and make plans to use wildland fire as a management tool to restore fire-dependent ecosystems. This, coupled with fixing the broken “blank-check” approach to fighting fires on National Forests, would result in a much more grounded approach to wildland fire management.

If this Q&A sparked your interest in learning more about wildland fire science and policy, read the excellent testimony Dr.  Michael Medler from Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology recently gave the U.S.  Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.