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A Fire Problem or a People Problem?

Judging by news headlines and TV pictures, fire season has become a nearly year-round spectacle in America. It's almost always fire season somewhere, from the Everglades of Florida to the forests of Alaska. Already this year, numerous wildfires have broken out across the country, prompting home evacuations and vast expenditures of emergency funds.

Where I live in southern New Mexico, fire season began in earnest on March 7 — early by historical norms, thanks to an extremely dry winter. On a warm and windy afternoon, the Quail Ridge Fire burned 1,800 acres and destroyed thirteen homes in a subdivision on the southern edge of Silver City. According to initial estimates, the fire cost more than $300,000 to fight and caused as much as $2.6 million in property damage.

There's general agreement that America's "fire problem" is growing worse by the decade: more acres burned, more homes lost, even as more money is spent on suppression — more than $2 billion annually in some recent years. To understand why, it may be useful to call the problem by its rightful name. What we have is not so much a fire problem as a people problem.

To look hard at the issue is to enter a minefield of ironies. Let us begin with the biggest of them: in industrialized economies, we burn on a scale never before seen in human history.To look hard at the issue is to enter a minefield of ironies. Let us begin with the biggest of them: in industrialized economies, we burn on a scale never before seen in human history. Our burning, though, is largely hidden — in internal combustion engines and coal-fired utility plants, for example. Even as our way of life increasingly relies on exhuming and burning fossil fuels, we've become estranged from landscape fire. For most of humanity's time on Earth, we were intimate with open flame. We used fire for agriculture, for hunting, and for jump-starting regrowth on lands grazed by livestock. Industrial civilization rendered marginal these ancient human uses of fire, imbuing them with a whiff of primitivism. Meanwhile, our industrial burning is heating the planet, bringing us hotter and drier summers, thereby increasing the risk of the very type of fire we've been trained to fear.

A second irony: by fighting wildfire so well for most of the 20th century, we created the conditions for fires that can't be fought at all. Wildfire was a crucial piece of ecosystem stability for many thousands of years on the American land. Barring major upheavals — glaciation, earthquakes, volcanic explosions — nature deals with dead organic matter in one of two ways. It either decomposes or it burns. By suppressing fire, in the American West in particular, we removed the major means for keeping a balance between living vegetation and dead in an arid climate. By the late 20th century, the fire historian Stephen Pyne wrote in his book Tending Fire, "scrub, brush, reproduction, and windfall had swollen into a bloated understory of fine fuels that could transport flame from the dead-needled floor to the green-needled canopy, and from treetop to treetop....A full bore fire in such a setting was unstoppable." Now, on certain fires, the only thing initial attack forces can do is run like hell and pray for rain.

For most of the 20th century, the success of suppression efforts convinced retreating urbanites that the hinterlands were safe for settlement. If homes were threatened, hotshot crews would arrive like an expeditionary force, or smokejumpers would descend from the sky and save the day. Government incentives only hastened the exodus from the old, industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Federally backed home-mortgage insurance subsidized suburban and exurban settlement. Interstate highways leveled urban neighborhoods and provided a smooth path out of the cities, enabling longer and longer commutes. Population growth soared in the American South and West — precisely those parts of the country most prone to burn.

We have now entered a period of what some experts call "asymmetric fire." According to the 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review, a strategic assessment of the American wildfire scene by multiple government agencies, 20th-century averages — the number of annual fires nationwide, the yearly total acreage burned — no longer offer much guidance for the future. Due to climate change there will be greater variability from one year to the next and from one region to another, but the overall trend is clear: global warming will reshape fire-prone landscapes in ways that seem guaranteed to make the burns of the future more frequent, more intense, and more destructive of life and property. Meanwhile, residents of the wildland-urban interface, as the fault line of settlement and public land is known, continue to expect, even demand, what amounts to a government bailout when fire bears down on their homes.

There has never been starker proof of the fact that Mother Nature bats last.

÷ ÷ ÷

Philip Connors has worked as a baker, a bartender, a house painter, a janitor, and an editor at the Wall Street Journal. His essays have appeared in n+1, Harper's, the Paris Review, and the Best American Non-required Reading anthology. He lives in New Mexico with his wife and their dog.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Fire Season: Field Notes from a...
    Used Hardcover $11.95
  2. Tending Fire: Coping with America's... Used Hardcover $16.95

Philip Connors is the author of Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

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