Here in the good ol’ U.S.A., we live in a deeply militarized society. This has been true, since the end of WW2 with the establishment of the military industrial complex. President Eisenhower warned of the creeping influence of the haters and bomb makers in the last speech of his tenure. A distinctly large portion of our GDP comes from weapons sales, and as the self-proclaimed stable genius (who says that about themselves that isn’t deeply insecure?) currently serving as our President likes to point out in characteristically unedited style, and I paraphrase here, “We’ll do arms business with any tyrants, hell-bent on genocide (a.k.a. the Saudi Royal Family), ‘caus that’s how we roll in ‘Merica.” Filmmaker, Michael Moore, got it right in Bowling for Columbine, when he posited that America’s children can hardly help but come to the understanding that all conflicts should be decided with deadly force. It’s in our movies, our video games, and Dad goes to work every day at the missile factory, just like low prices at Wal-Mart. We have been involved in foreign conflict and undeclared war endlessly, since 911. Even the Vietnam War was a “conflict,” with Congress completely capitulating in their role as a check against Executive power. The House’s weak effort to stop the genocide in Yemen is weak tea against a backdrop of death, destruction, disease and starvation.
The war on wildland fire is simply an extension of our country’s extreme militarism – a place where veterans of foreign wars, wanna-be cops, and other conservative-minded men, mostly, can assemble, bond, and wrap themselves in a narrative of strength, heroism and sacrifice. There is a place for men and women to suppress fires near homes and vulnerable infrastructure. However, claiming glorious victory when fires are easiest to suppress, go out on their own, or when a break in the weather moderates conditions is disingenuous.
When the warming planet is most in need of those who see humanity as a part of and dependent upon nature, our answer is bigger engines, larger aircraft and more firefighters that have scant understanding of the natural sciences. It’s not as if respect for the natural world and all the world’s creature is some communist plot or pagan religion challenging Christianity. These beliefs are fully compatible and inherent to most of the world’s religions. It is the challenge to the selfishness of consumerism and capitalism that is the problem.
There is a counter narrative. That is returning fire to appropriate landscapes, and particularly for indigenous peoples, it is returning fire into the hands of the people. There was a renaissance in prescribed burning and allowing natural fires to burn that started at the dawn of ecology, as an accepted science in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and it peaked prior to 911. More and more wildland firefighters were becoming fire foragers and land stewards, rather than simply emergency first responders. After 911 the cult of hero allowed firefighters who cared little for the land to wrap themselves in the flag and bask in public appreciation for doing nothing more than deferring fires to a later date.
Scientists have known that a war on fire and attempts to eradicate fire from the landscape were wrong-headed for fifty years or more. Now public fear of fire and climate disasters writ large has the public predictably seeking simple narratives to complex problems. They look to first responders to feel safe, in an increasingly unsafe world, as limits to growth and overshoot begin to manifest themselves amidst an empire in decline. They want to hear that things are going to get better, that problems can be solved through unfettered market fundamentalism, when that has never been further from the truth. So, we make war with nature and war on fire. Al Gore has said that wildland firefighters are on the frontlines of our “war” on climate change. But the awakening is well underway, with traditional ecological knowledge being married to our increased understanding of fire ecology. Fire will be returned to the people one way or another. All that remains to be determined, is if it can be done absent ecological collapse and mass human die-off.
To that end, that is, the end of the fire exclusion paradigm, I offer this paraphrased adaptation of Medea Benjamin’s recent Counterpunch article, entitled 10 Ways that the Climate Crisis and Militarism are Intertwined. I would suggest reading that article first, before you continue, as it is excellent.
1. The US wildland firefighting apparatus protects Big Oil and other extractive industries. The presence of poorly maintained energy infrastructure in remote flammable wildlands prevents greater use of natural ignitions to reduce fuels. Or at the very least, the presence of oil-based transportation corridors, powerlines and pipelines is one of the more often used excuses to suppress fires in remote areas. A great example is the current PG&E imposed blackout throughout Northern California. Because of their attention to shareholder profits rather than infrastructure maintenance over time, they are now punishing consumers. This is likely an attempt to coerce favorable legislation limiting their fire liability in the future. In a perfect world, we would have local, decentralized renewable energy production and distribution, relying less on inefficient long transmission lines. We can’t get off the fossil fuel treadmill until we stop our military from acting as the world’s protector of Big Oil.
2. While the amount of fuel utilized by land management agencies pales in comparison to the consumption of fossil fuels by the Pentagon, when one adds the Dept. of Interior, Dept. of Agriculture and GSA, which provides vehicles to many agencies, the usage is just below the Postal Service, which uses the most of all civilian agencies. And this doesn’t even get at the fuel consumed by state agencies and private contractors that provide the vast air force supporting the fire industrial complex. Even the lighting of needed fires, usually involves pouring a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel across the land.
3. The money spent to suppress fires monopolizes the funding we need to seriously address forest fuels accumulation.
So much of the U.S. Forest Service budget is spent on fire suppression, that other important programs like recreation, restoration, fisheries, botany, and most importantly, fuel reduction, are strangled to the point of collapse. Measures have been taken to alleviate that problem, but it does nothing to change the open check book, “money is no object,” mentality, especially when fires threaten communities. The Green New Deal should include large sums of money for crews to reduce fuels and conduct prescribed burning, crews that are dedicated to this work and that are unavailable for suppression assignments. Today’s crews and equipment that are earmarked for suppression are tightly controlled, and the Generals of wildland fire become enraged when their “resources” are tied up doing the preventative medicine of prescribed burning or fuel reduction and are unavailable for treatment of the symptom – wildfires. An example of the difficulty in diverting resources away from suppression is CalFire’s stated desire to form new “fuels crews” across California top do this work. Word from some of those that were hired under this new fiscal authority report little progress towards the stated goal – no training program, little organization, and now they are being offered jobs on CalFire engine crews. There is so much organizational inertia toward the suppression end and lost expertise on the prescribed burning end, that CalFire is having a hard time imagining a different way of doing business.
4. Wildland fire suppression operations leave a toxic legacy in their wake.
Suppression operations despoil the landscape, fragment habitat, pollute the soil, and contaminate the drinking water. It is known that fire retardant is toxic to fish life and a major court settlement mandated no retardant within 100 feet of known rivers and streams, but the use of larger and larger aircraft makes precision drops impossible. Unsupervised private aircraft contractors, driven by the profit motive, rather than any motive to actually stop the fire, paint ridges miles from the main fire with thousands of gallons of toxic retardant. Oftentimes, retardant application maps are doctored to show that precision was possible with exactly 100-foot breaks in continuous retardant lines that go for miles along ridges denuded of vegetation in swaths hundreds of feet wide that are often ineffective under extreme fire behavior conditions. Bulldozers routinely desecrate native spiritual sites and destroy fragile archeological sites. (See FUSEE’s 2018 report “THE SKY’S THE LIMIT: THE SOBERANES FIRE SUPPRESSION SIEGE OF 2016” for more information.)
5. Wars ravage fragile ecosystems that are crucial to sustaining forest health and climate resiliency.
Efforts to exclude fire often involves the destruction of the environment, through the use of heavy equipment and toxic chemicals, but it is the exclusion of fire also makes forest ecosystems vulnerable to fuel build-up and uncharacteristically severe wildfires that destroy large legacy trees. In dry pine forests, scientists have been warning for years that old-growth trees, like Giant Sequoias are made vulnerable to fire, because of the surrounding fuel accumulation. Thousands of acres of old-growth trees have been protected from recent large fires, like the 2013 Rim Fire, by prescribed burning. Similarly, human communities should use fire and other fuel reduction strategies to become more resilient to climate-influenced wildfires burning at the hottest time of year.
“[Fires] are going to get bigger and more expensive if we continue this war metaphor, which is the worst of all metaphors for fire. We are not at war with fire, and that’s good, because if we were, we’re going to take a lot of casualties, we’re going to spend a lot of money, and we’re going to lose.”
6. Climate change is a “threat multiplier” that makes already dangerous wildfires even worse. In California in 2018, record high temperatures in July and August caused unprecedented fuel dryness leading to destructive fires like the Ferguson, Carr and Mendocino Complex Fires, each deadly or record-breaking in their own way. Similar climate crises have triggered wildfires in places where fire has no ecological role, like the Arctic and Amazon. As global temperatures continue to rise, there will be more ecological disasters, and it will be difficult for the public to understand the need for fire on certain landscapes, feeding into the existing “war on fire” mentality, that glorifies the human vs. nature conflict and supports the notion that “if only” we had more and larger aircraft and other machines we could “conquer” the problem. It is the very idea that humanity sits apart from nature that drives the climate crisis.
7. Suppression agencies sabotage efforts to increase prescribed burning and use of naturally-ignited wildfires as a tool. In many fire stations, especially those of local and state government there exists anti-intellectual elements. Firefighting is a well-paying job for those without a college education and a refuge for veterans from our unending wars abroad. They feel comfortable and at home in these quasi-militaristic organizations. These are workplaces where those with a college degree or those who might wish to seek further education are ridiculed and belittled by know-nothings that like to believe like there is nothing to be gained from a higher education. This is why fewer and fewer fire managers attend fire ecology symposia or other academic events. The Federal land management agencies attempted to enforce a college degree requirement on their top-level fire managers. The Dept. of Interior, home of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service persisted in that program, while the big kid on the block, The U.S. Forest Service, relented and admitted they could not find qualified people for their leadership positions with a simple undergraduate college degree. Federal wildland firefighters are expected to have a rudimentary understanding of natural science, while local and state agencies don’t even have that.
8. Militarized state violence is leveled against communities resisting corporate-led environmental destruction.
Indigenous communities that fight to protect their right to conduct cultural burning for food and other products, like basket-making material, are often met with state and paramilitary violence. In the early part of the 19th Century, indigenous families were forcefully and violently separated – the men jailed for arson and the children sent to foster homes and boarding schools – for simply utilizing the knowledge gained from centuries of living on the land and gathering everything they needed from the natural world around them. Native people were told to “plant a garden” like their colonial oppressors who, rather than sustainably harvesting what they needed locally, travel abroad to oppress others and take what they need through conquest. Today, most cultural burns by indigenous peoples are still oppressed, but there are some exceptions. FUSEE board member and Karuk Tribal member Bill Tripp is with the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources and works with the Klamath Training Exchange (or TREX) in Northern California doing prescribed burns. Governments around the world are expanding their state-of-emergency laws to encompass climate-related upheavals, perversely facilitating the repression of environmental activists and Indigenous leaders who have been branded as “eco-terrorists” and who are subjected to counterinsurgency operations. Doubtless, any localized uprising in America using fire without all the proper approvals would be treated similarly.
9. While wildfires alone may not pose an existential threat to the planet, unchecked militarism does.
Drought, mass migration, and all the other manifestations of climate changes, including wildfires, are leading countries to close their borders even more than they already are, promote xenophobia and racism, and any of these may be triggers for conflict. Experience shows prolonged expose to smoke makes people feel fatigued and irritable – just the frame of mind to pull the trigger. The environmental movement and with the indigenous burning movement leading the way need to work hand-in-hand to stop these threats to planetary survival.
10. A War on Fire is a War on Nature (when fire can be a regenerative ecosystem process)
The cherished metric for wildland fire organizations is the percent of fires stopped during the initial attack (IA). Perhaps it’s time to only count this as success above the 90th or 97th percentile weather conditions when a start might lead to uncharacteristically large pockets of high fire severity. In some areas, like the goat rocks at high elevation, IA success should probably never be celebrated, as 90% of these fires will self-extinguish. During the shoulder seasons, the metric for success should be acres burned through prescribed burning or through utilization of natural ignitions.
To free up billions of suppression dollars for investing in critical prescribed fire and fuel reduction projects and to eliminate the environmental havoc of fire suppression, movements for a livable, peaceful planet need to put “ending the war on fire” at the top of the “must do” list.