FOCUS ON FIRE
IN THE FOREST
FUNCTION OF FIRE
A GRASP ON SMOKE
BEYOND THE BLAZES
By Chris Bryant
A couple years before the 2000 fires, Jim Burchfield, associate dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation, led a field trip into the Bitterroot Valley. During the outing, he met a couple who had recently moved from the Chicago area and built a home neatly tucked into the forest. They had no idea, until the construction was already complete, that their new home was outside the boundary of the rural fire district. Fire wasn’t part of their planning process — it was something that happened far away, out in the woods.
The fires of 2000 no doubt made an impression on the newcomers. In fact, that year’s burn went a long way to change many Westerners’ perceptions of wildfire. These fires were different than those that had come before. They burned in such an extreme manner that firefighters went from an aggressive policy of direct attack to creating defensible space around structures.
“The stakes have risen,” says Burchfield. “These fires aren’t something remote anymore.”
People in the West are seeing more, costlier and bigger fires. Among the causes are a legacy of fire suppression, forest management decisions, the effects of a warmer and drier climate and more development in once-remote areas. Technology used to detect and fight fire also is changing rapidly — as are the tactics used by firefighters because of all-too-real safety concerns. Even the public perception about the role of fire in the vast tracts of public land in the West is undergoing a change.
“We’re living in a dynamic time for fire research,” he says.
Burchfield, along with several colleagues at the University, works to answer some basic social questions about people and fire. Recently, he and some colleagues traveled to communities that had experienced large blazes in Colorado, Arizona, Montana and Idaho. There, they interviewed a wide cross-section of people about their experiences. They were seeking to answer one central question: What are the effects of these fires on society?
“We’ve recognized that there are a series of
actions before, during and after a fire,” Burchfield says.
“People can be motivated by a sense of civic duty or aesthetics,” he says.
Many land-owners go out and limb-up trees and thin areas near their homes — and feel good about what they see when they are done.
However once a fire begins, the social dynamic changes. When fires reach a certain size, highly trained specialists from an “incident command” team, often from outside the local area, are brought in to manage the complicated effort to minimize the damage. These firefighting professionals deal with the incredibly complex logistics involved in a modern wildland firefighting event, and often are the ones to make the call about evacuating homes and allocating resources to certain areas.
Fires are unique among natural disasters, Burchfield says, in that they can last weeks. The buildup of stress among residents and agency folks can become intense. The sense of control that a resident might have gained while out limbing trees and clearing brush can get lost quickly when an evacuation order is received. Steve McCool, a UM forestry professor and Burchfield research partner, learned this firsthand when his own neighborhood was evacuated during the 2003 Black Mountain Fire. “When that happened I wasn’t thinking academically,” McCool says. “I was thinking, ‘I’m getting out of here.’”
Communication problems and stress can result in the kind of tension seen between locals and federal fire officials during the 2001 Rodeo-Chediski fire — the largest wildfire in Arizona history — which burned 535,000 acres.
Once the fire is out, a whole new set of social questions spring up, such as how to handle insurance claims, how to prioritize restorative measures and deciding how well local resources dealt with the challenges. The before-, during- and after-fire periods all present unique social challenges in terms of organization and planning. “What we are discovering,” says Burchfield, “is that between the phases there are not a lot of strong linkages.”
One thing Burchfield and others are trying to do is to find the connections between those periods of time in order to see how the groups can function better. All the things that go into living in fire-prone areas — from planning to zoning to who gets certified to drive certain trucks to what trees get thinned — are all part of a system, says Burchfield, even if people don’t often think of them as one.
The U.S. Forest Service is the main source of funding for fire-related social science research, but the results go on to help management personnel at all levels of government — local, state and federal. With the skyrocketing costs of wildfire in the West, agencies and communities are pressed to figure out how best to deal with the “before” and “after” of the annual calamity.
Burchfield hopes that policymakers pay attention to the complexity of dealing with dynamic communities surrounded by fire-prone forests. “Putting out a fire is a major public expense,” he says. “Are there better ways to do this?”
Planning subdivisions, increased regulation and zoning for development, fuel reduction — all are issues surrounded by great social tension in communities in the West. A “decay function” of memory adds to the problem — if a couple years go by without a fire, people begin to forget. Plus, the rapid influx of newcomers who may not have experience with fires increases the need for education.
“All of a sudden there is an explosion of people on the landscape,” says Burchfield. “We have the ability to live just about anywhere we want. A whole generation is growing up thinking these are nice dense forests that just carpet the mountains and that they will always be that way — but that’s not the way they have always been.”
For more information, e-mail Burchfield at email@example.com.