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Fighting Fire With Fire

America’s most progressive forest management program may be the solution to the wildfire crisis. So why isn’t it being replicated?
Aug 19, 2016· 13 MIN READ
Kyle Dickman is the author or On The Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It and a contributing editor at Outside.

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, California—It’s the morning of June 13, and Ben Jacobs, a former elite wildland firefighter, is hiking through a forest in California’s Sequoia National Park. Though smoke is all around him, and fires are working through bushes and trees nearby, Jacobs is unconcerned. So are the rest of the almost 90 firefighters under his command who are spread around this part of Redwood Canyon. Nobody is doing anything to extinguish the smoldering embers underfoot. One is warming a tinfoil-wrapped muffin in the coals. Another, lounging against a tree that’s around 3,000 years old, stops Jacobs to commiserate over the Dodgers’ most recent loss. “F--king Giants,” Jacobs says. He’s in a bit of a mood.

In a few minutes, Jacobs, a small man of 58 with glasses and sharp features weathered by a life outdoors, meets up with Tony Caprio, fire ecologist for the park. Caprio stares blankly at the white smoke bubbling up from a mat of pine needles. The burn looks scabby. Some needles are ash, but most are only partially blackened. A log next to him hasn’t caught fire at all.

“Hoping this takes off some,” Caprio says to Jacobs. “I’d like to see some of these heavies get going.”

Jacobs and the firefighters’ cool can be explained by the fact that they want the canyon to burn. He and Caprio are the architects of one of the country’s most progressive prescribed burning programs. A couple days ago they set 40 acres of America’s most treasured forest ablaze. Their goal today is to light another 720, a pinhole on the quilt of flammable Western lands, on fire, but with the woods damp from an un-forecast thunderstorm that hit two nights ago and the humidity up around 60 percent, nothing is quite going to plan.

Prescribed fires are human-lit blazes designed to mimic the effects of natural wildfires by thinning out forests. After a century of a national policy to aggressively extinguish wildfires that would have burned saplings and brush, saving larger trees from exposure to hotter flames, America’s woods have grown thick with plants. The extra fuel is adding to a mounting crisis of climate change, beetle infestations, and human incursion into wildlands that is busting budgets, destroying billions of dollars’ worth of property and killing firefighters like the men and women working for Jacobs and Caprio. Most fire managers consider prescribed blazes, such as this one in Sequoia National Park, the single most effective antidote to pending disaster. But for a mess of ecological and political reasons, they’re incredibly hard to pull off.

Planning this burn took Jacobs, a fuels management specialist, 13 years—a third of his career. Apart from the bureaucratic tangle, the conditions for a prescribed burn need to be just right. Around us, manzanita thickets, incense cedar, and white fir create a ladder of flammable material that reaches from ankle height 285 feet to the top of the sequoias. Caprio says regular fires here used to keep the number of trees to around 50 per acre. Now, he estimates, there are around 3,000. To burn off some of that excess fuel without killing the sequoias and creating a megafire like the Rim, which rendered 250,000 acres of forest 70 miles north of here into spent matchstick in 2013, takes a light touch and weather conditions—warm, not hot; dry, not drought—different from what Jacobs faces this morning.

Jacobs gives Caprio a what-a-mess head shake and swings his rhino—a hoe-like tool—into a rotten log. He grabs a handful of punky wood from inside and twists it like a dishrag. Water squirts out, and the ash at Jacobs’ feet hisses. Jacobs came out of retirement to execute this burn. Now he has only three days remaining in the window given him by the San Joaquin Valley Air District, which has to approve all prescribed fires in the area, to finish the blaze. There’s nothing to do but wait for the weather to dry out.

“Maybe this afternoon,” he says hopefully.

FULL COVERAGE: Fight for the Forests

When the U.S. Forest Service instituted a policy of immediate suppression of all fires in the early 20th century, it upset a natural cycle of burning and rebirth. Giant sequoias, for example, won’t release their seeds until a fire’s heat opens up their cones; some species of beetles breed only in smoldering wildfires. Nowadays when forests burn (and all forests eventually burn), the fires are hotter than the forest species are accustomed to. Hotter flames penetrate thick bark that withstood fire for centuries; trees that shed their lower branches so they don’t catch in small fires see their high branches ignite, which spreads the flames farther and faster.

The task of forest managers today is figuring out how to make America’s woods resilient in the face of an uncertain future. Climatologists predict the West will get between four and six degrees warmer by century’s end under a business-as-usual emissions scenario. In California, a single degree of warming is associated with a 35 percent increase in fire activity. Most experts think there’s little hope of returning the woods to their historical fire regime but aim to get as close to it as the public will tolerate. The lodgepole forests outside Nederland, Colorado, for instance, only burned every 100 years in their natural cycle. But those fires, like the one that leveled eight homes there in July, destroyed entire forests completely, which is not an environment people move to Colorado for.

Ben Jacobs worked for years to put out fires before he switched careers and began lighting them. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

“The longer we keep fire from the landscape, the harder it is to get it back” has become an adage in the fire services, one that Dan Buckley, the National Park Service’s fire director, echoes: “We have to manage the overstocking of fuels we have now, or we’re liable to cook off ecosystems that are never going to recover.”

One method of restoring forests is with partial logging. The administration of George W. Bush floated that idea as the Healthy Forests Initiative in 2003 and was pilloried by environmentalists and others who saw in the forest management strategy a nefarious plot by timber companies that had donated to his campaign; it never got off the ground. Another way is mechanical thinning—going in with tractors and chain saws. But that’s expensive, and half-tracks don’t leave a light footprint; nor can they go just anywhere. Managed fire—letting naturally occurring fires burn under close supervision—is less of an option as there is zero appetite for torched houses and $237 billion worth of homes tucked into nearly every forested pocket of the West. That leaves prescribed fire.

But it’s the most controversial of these landscape fuel treatments.

One problem is the public doesn’t trust that firefighters can control the flames they light. In Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 2000, an escaped prescribed burn destroyed 400 homes and cost $1 billion by the time it was all done. Tight budgets are creating even less wiggle room for forest managers. Last year was the costliest ever for firefighting, with the most acres burned on record. It was also the fifth time since 2000 that record has been broken and the 16th year in a row the Forest Service has spent very near $1 billion or more fighting fires. As the federal agencies pour money onto wildfires, they have less of it to spend on the preventive measures—prescribed fires, thinning—that scientists say are the best way to control fire size and limit firefighting spending. These days, there are no easy answers.

“There’s all this criticism and fear about prescribed fire—it’s too smoky, too dangerous. Everybody has the luxury to sit back and complain about the smoke in the air,” says Mark Finney, a research forester for the Forest Service. “Professionals bear all the responsibility for trying to persuade the public that we have to take actions today or see extreme wildfires tomorrow.”

A firefighter monitors the Goliath Burn. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

Wet clouds are piling up against the Sierra foothills. “Yeah, those f--king things,” Jacobs says. It’s noon, and the humidity has to drop another 20 percent before the woods become dry enough to carry fire. Jacobs and a small group of firefighters are perched on a granite outcrop with a long view of Redwood Canyon transitioning into the grasslands of the San Joaquin Valley 5,000 feet below and 20 miles away. While Jacobs waits for the conditions to dry out, he kindles a cooking fire and brews a cup of coffee in his Sierra cup while he fields radio calls.

“We need bar oil,” he tells a dispatcher, requesting that chain saw fuel be helicoptered in for the firefighters. Then, to clarify, he says, “Like, I go to the bar and order oil.”

Jacobs says he found prescribed fire like others find religion. After a decade as a member of a hotshot crew—firefighters who may spend 120 days out of the year fighting the most destructive blazes—he grew disillusioned with the job: “We were putting out fires that we should have let burn.” Fed up, he accepted a position at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks in 2002, managing fuels through landscape treatments instead of keeping them from burning, and stayed in his “dream job” until he retired last year. Two weeks ago, when the weather conditions aligned, the Park Service flew him back to Sequoia from his home in Washington, D.C., to burn this patch of forest. He’s one of just 218 firefighters nationwide qualified to ignite prescribed fires of this complexity.

“We really ought to be burning all of this,” Jacobs says, pointing down Redwood Canyon but meaning most of the West. Why land managers can’t is no mystery to him. Today’s operation, named the Goliath Burn after a log that could plug a train tunnel, is the final piece of a 3,500-acre prescribed fire project in Redwood Canyon that Jacobs and Caprio started back in 2003. They broke the area into seven units, about half of which hadn’t seen fire in 120 years of recorded history. Each was already partially circumscribed with trails, roads, or creeks, which serve as fuel breaks, and was close enough to roads that firefighters could access the unit on foot. They made each unit smaller than 1,000 acres to minimize smoke and maximize control and planned to burn one at a time, moving clockwise around the canyon so that each fire created a fuel break to help control the next. Once the perimeter was secure, Goliath, the most remote of the units, would be surrounded by blackened fuels and lit last. “We wanted to call it the Big EZ,” Jacobs says. “But management thought that was a bad omen.”

To prep for every burn, Jacobs writes a 60-page operational plan and wades through “a shitload of other” bureaucratic steps. The burn has to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. The park’s wilderness committee, archaeologists, rare plant biologists, and invasive species experts all must sign off on them. Every one of the 109 “trees of special interest” inside the park, like the Goliath log that some fool burned up in 2014 by lighting a campfire inside it, receives special attention to ensure it remains intact, and the park’s superintendent has to OK area trail closures. With these approvals in hand, Jacobs then asks the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality District for its blessing to burn during six days that are dry enough to carry fire and windy enough to disperse smoke but not fan the flames. These hurdles, which Jacobs jumped through on each of the Redwood Canyon burns, were predictable. “Five years of planning for five days of lighting, that’s my rule,” he says.

Events outside his control caused the real delays. There was the 2007–2008 drought, and the tort claim in ’09 when a local lodge owner filed a suit against the Park Service claiming that smoke from a prescribed fire had caused him $54,000 in damages. “That was a big deal,” says Jacobs. Though the judge dismissed the case on the ground that the Park Service couldn’t control the weather, the tort held up burning in Redwood Canyon for another year and a half. By 2012, another wicked drought had settled over California and the Park Service wouldn’t let Jacobs take a drip torch anywhere near a sequoia. While everybody waited for perfect conditions for lighting prescribed fires, the forest grew thicker and wildfires elsewhere kept destroying houses, costing money, and killing firefighters at three times the rate of just 20 years earlier. Jacobs doesn’t mention that fighting wildfires doesn’t require NEPA compliance or approval from air quality boards, invasive-species or petroglyph experts, or politicians. It also garners no public resentment.

“We either burn it on our terms now, or we let nature pick the conditions,” Jacobs says. “Lately, that’s made for some pretty violent fires.”

A firefighter controls the Goliath prescribed fire. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

At 2 p.m., the humidity still hasn’t dropped much below 60 percent, but tired of waiting and out of coffee, Jacobs tells the firefighters around him to start a test burn. Firefighters light prescribed burn like most kids color. They start on the edges and work inward, a tactic for widening the lines by creating an ever-expanding strip of burned fuel. A few men from the Arrowhead Hotshots spark their drip torches, gas- and diesel-filled metal containers, and fan out into the forest around the granite outcrop. “Be selective about what you’re burning,” one calls out. The firefighters pour flames onto thickets of dead fuel. It takes a minute, but fires start chewing through the underbrush.

Jacobs, who likes what he’s seeing, flicks his lighter on a manzanita bush. A single flame inches down a stem before a breath of wind divides it into two tiny heads. Within moments, I’m shielding my face from the heat of the bush, and Jacobs is a measure calmer, almost giddy.

“It’s burning good in the sun,” he calls to a firefighter he’s teaching to ignite a prescribed burn. The fire isn’t consuming 60 to 80 percent of the vegetation in the plot, Jacobs’ final goal, but at least it’s burning. For the moment, he’ll take it. “This is perfect, man. Just perfect,” he says.

Scientists like to make the ecological case for more prescribed burning, but the economic argument may be even more compelling. It’s cheaper to light fires than fight them. The entire 3,500-acre burn in Redwood Canyon cost less than $500,000, or about $170 per acre. By contrast, the feds regularly throw down $600,000 to protect a single home that may be worth a third of that. The evidence that firefighters can reliably protect houses from worsening megafires is thin and getting thinner. Each year, despite the record spending and cool new technologies like Boeing 747s equipped to carry 20,000 gallons of fire retardant, more than 4,000 homes go up in flames.

U.S. Forest Service research forester Mark Finney's work has demonstrated the benefits of prescribed fire. (Image: Youtube)

And prescribed fire works. “We just don’t have enough prescribed fire on the landscape to generate a succinct figure that says prescribe burns tame wildfires 98 percent of the time,” says Finney. “But from individual studies we have an astonishing amount of evidence—dating back to the 1940s and before—that it has no surrogate.”

Last year, the Rough Fire, a 150,000-acre blaze that burned from Aug. 31 to Nov. 6, sent a bolt of 100-foot flames up a valley a couple ridges over from Jacobs’ Goliath Burn. When it hit a patch of forest he had burned with a prescribed fire in 2004 and 2005, the flames sat down, firefighters stopped the head fire, and the park’s treasured sequoias survived. Similar stories abound of prescribed burns protecting towns, including during Arizona’s monstrous 2011 Wallow Fire, Oregon’s 2012 Pole Creek Fire, and California’s 2012 Reading Fire. Finney says that getting our forests back on track would take five times the amount of fire on the landscape every year—roughly 50 million acres.

“The sad thing is that we know exactly how to fix this. You have to accept fire is a natural disturbance. You have to reintroduce fire. You have to restore it. You have to maintain it,” Finney says. As it is, by resisting prescribed fire and suppressing all small and moderate-size fires—the ones we can put out—we’re managing the forest to optimize violent wildfires.

Yet prescribed burns remain rare in the West. It’s taken a decade for all federal land management agencies combined to light the same acreage in prescribed burns—about 10 million, almost two-thirds of it in the Southeast, where prescribed burning is easier because it’s done often—as wildfires torch in a single fire season. The yawning gap has a lot to do with funding. Congress has cut the Park Service’s budget for landscape fuels treatment by $10 million since 2010. The Forest Service has chiseled a quarter off its own budget over the past 15 years. Much of that money is now used to fight fires.

Firefighters set prescribed fires using drip torches. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

When I ask Buckley about this over the phone, his eye roll is nearly audible. “We’re trying to reverse 100 years of fire suppression—that’s not going to happen in five years or 10,” he says. If things keep going like they are, the Park Service isn’t going to have to worry about preserving the ecosystems that we value so much. They’ll be black sticks.

Buckley is addressing the crisis by changing the Park Service’s fire program. Rather than focusing on small, boutique-style prescribed fire projects, like the Goliath, he wants to put a great effort toward protecting an entire park each fire season by creating a buffer between lands that haven’t seen prescribed fire or thinning—where megafires like the Rim or the Rough usually start—and the National Parks. The idea is to keep the worst wildfires at bay while creating a fuel break that effectively bottles natural wildfires inside the park. If that happens, the agency will be able to let fires roam just as wild as everything else inside its borders.

“Fuels treatments have to be on a landscape scale for wildfires to safely return,” says Buckley. “They can’t be postage stamp size to be effective.” But until Congress gives him the several-million-dollar bump in funding he’s requesting, Buckley will have to keep stitching together postage stamps.

Satisfied with his test burn, Jacobs heads over to where another group of firefighters has begun lighting in a sequoia stand. It’s a long walk on a trail that divides one of his earlier prescribed fires from the Goliath unit. Jacobs takes his time.

“Look at that,” he says, pointing the head of his tool toward a stand of giant sequoias he burned 10 years earlier. Growing in their shade is a mat of saplings 15 feet tall. Once fire frees sequoia seeds from their cones, they can only take root in bare mineral soil, the kind left behind by hot fires and almost nothing else in nature. “Now that’s one healthy forest—beautiful. Exactly what we’re trying to do here,” Jacobs says.

We reach the Goliath unit and a particularly majestic stand of sequoias. A few firefighters with drip torches are laying fire parallel to the trail. The rest have their backs to the flames, watching to make sure no embers cross the line.

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The sight of a fire in these trees prompts Jacobs to wax philosophical. It strikes him that this might be his last prescribed burn in the sequoias. “It’s hard not to get emotional about it,” he says. “These trees are screaming, ‘Burn me! I want to have babies!’ Knowing that you’re creating the habitat for something that’s so much bigger than you, it’s special. This is about as churchy as I get, when it comes to finding some deeper meaning in life.… Man, burning in the sequoias. This is it.”

“I sound stupid, don’t I?” he says and slumps to the forest floor beside a dogwood blooming brilliant white. Flecks of ash and smoldering strips of woven bark float up in the rising heat before drifting back down on us. Smoke seems to flow through a few crisp bands of sunlight—Jesus rays—that cut through the canopy, and occasionally, amid the crackle of the wandering fires, the sharp and singular pop of a burning sequoia rings out.

“It’s primordial,” Jacobs says, approaching a whisper. ”What you’re witnessing has been going on for millennia.” Smoke pulses in and out like fog around the pylons of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I watch the fire spread toward a particularly large sequoia. One moment, the tree—ghostly and impossibly large—is visible. The next, it vanishes in the smoke.