A Deeper Look at Wildfire

Sometimes the part of natural hazard mitigation we need to examine most closely is completely obscured by cultural values.

Wildfire is adaptive in Western pine forests of North America, and the pines there are adapted to wildfire (Falk 2017:210). Wildfire restores ecosystem health to forests in which fire suppression and logging have reduced normal resilience to drought and insect damage. This seems counter-intuitive to most people raised in a culture that fears the natural fire that blooms in forest systems once every few decades. So the authors of a study of the long-term impact of a severe burn on the Pine Ridge of northwestern Nebraska, not very far from where I live, began with these words to acknowledge the dominant culture’s view of wildfire: “Fire is one of the most altered disturbance regimes on the planet.” But then they went on to say that in the study area, moderate and severe wildfire created “multidecadal material legacies in forest stand structure and biotic communities” and that “Evidence is building in support of adopting an ‘ecologically informed view’ of mixed-severity fires in forest systems instead of the command-and-control view of the past” (Roberts et al 2019:13/19 online).

The phrase “command-and-control” is so self-explanatory that you might not realize it’s actually a very significant term of art in the field of resilience ecology. It refers to common practices of land management and even land conservation in which humans stage ecological interventions based on understandings that are far more dangerously limited than they realize (Holling and Meffe 1996). When people think about natural hazard mitigation, they generally think about command and control-style ecological interventions that might prevent or lessen the impact of a natural hazard. People are slowly becoming more aware of the ways their interventions may not be as well-informed as they think, however, so they are increasingly at least somewhat cautious about implementing their plans. But once the hazard has manifested and a flood, wildfire, or tsunami has swept through an area, cultural value systems tend to take priority in ways that activate command-and-control remediation and restoration efforts. This is a much more difficult place for ecologists and Indigenous people to influence. That’s because natural hazard events are still primarily seen as unnecessary and unwanted disasters. So their aftermaths are seen as being literally the same thing as clean-up efforts in an urban area after a tornado: remove the trashed material back down to clean ground, then rebuild.

But what if a suburb isn’t a natural ecosystem? What if it hasn’t evolved in and with the storms, fires, and floods that are part of its life, and to which it is adapted? Those things are true of natural ecosystems but not suburbs built by people in a culture that’s estranged itself from nature. It should change how we think about and mitigate natural hazards, and it should also change how we think about and deal with post-“disaster” restoration and remediation efforts. A forest that has burned in wildfire is not at all the same thing as a neighborhood or a town that’s burned in that very same fire. So while it makes sense to clean up and haul away the burned piles of debris in the town, then rebuild houses and businesses from the ground up, “cleaning up” the burned forest by cutting up and hauling away the trees, down to bare ground, and “starting over again” by replanting turns a process that was naturally revitalizing into an actual disaster — a disaster that’s caused by humans, not nature.

Prominent forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala explains: “Although tree regeneration after disturbances in forested areas is important, a narrow view of this issue ignores important ecological lessons, especially the role of disturbances in diversifying and rejuvenating landscapes. Scientific advances in recent decades demonstrate that disturbances are not catastrophes, trees in these landscapes are not wasted if they are not harvested, and post-fire logging is not forest restoration. . . When viewed through an ecological lens, a recently disturbed landscape is not just a collection of dead trees, but a unique and biologically rich environment that also contains many of the building blocks for the rich forest that will follow the disturbance” (DellaSala et al 2006:51).

The context for the research Dellasala mentions is salvage logging. “The Society of American Foresters defines salvage logging as ‘the removal of dead trees or trees damaged or dying because of injurious agents other than competition, to recover economic value that would otherwise be lost.’ . . . These two claims are hotly debated: promoting future forest development and reducing future fire hazard” (Nemens et al. 2019).  Thorn et al (2019) observe that salvage logging is becoming increasingly prevalent globally, and that “Despite potential negative effects on biodiversity, salvage logging is often conducted, even in areas otherwise excluded from logging and reserved for nature conservation.” A meta-analysis of worldwide data that Thorn and his colleagues carried out across 24 species groups revealed “salvage logging significantly decreases numbers of species of eight taxonomic groups . . . [and] salvage logging is not consistent with the management objectives of protected areas.”

DellaSala’s work and that of the Nebraska team headed by Robertson challenges the supposed benefits of salvage logging and even lays out the harm it does in terms that are overwhelming clear if one reads the meticulous research of the vast body of literature they cite, that’s accumulated over the last few decades. At the same time, the salvage logging industry very aggressively defends its interests and its financial bottom line, both politically and through pressure it applies to wildfire researchers through their places of work. The salvage timber company value system is based on profit and jobs. But the value system they extol to property owners in post-fire areas is one of tidiness that appeals to others in the community, community safety from falling trees, and a story told in public fire-recovery meetings that explains fire has ruined the forest and it cannot heal or restore itself. Then the salvage logging company offers a windfall one-time profit to the burned-land owner, who can at least get some benefit from the fire if they permit salvage logging. Of course, the most lucrative lands for salvage logging are federal and state properties that are much larger and often, as DellaSala pointed out, in areas usually restricted from logging. Salvage operations require bulldozing roads into areas that previously did not have them, which adds another level of non-natural disturbance to an already reeling system. The same values of tidiness, safety, and the story of impossible forest recovery are used to gain public acceptance of salvage logging on state and federal properties. The general rubric used is, “It’s such a terrible shame it happened, but we’ll clean it up for you so it can be replanted.”

Phoenix plucking at vegetation (left) and lying in flames waiting to be reborn from the ashes (right), 12th-century Latin bestiary. Encyclopædia Britannica

Here’s the thing: When the forest burns in a way that seems so catastrophic, it is enacting the ancient Old World story of the Phoenix bird . If left alone, a new forest will arise from the ashes of the old one. That’s what the wildfire ecologists I’ve cited here have clearly demonstrated. But salvage logging vacuums up the ashes, hauls the burned nest off to the sawmill, and the Phoenix bird — and the forest that is its alternate identity — wind up gone forever. It is too bad that people of Western culture don’t pay more attention to the wisdom in their own ancient stories. Mythic ways of knowing carry a lot of power.

And it’s not just wildfire that isn’t the disaster we humans judge it to be. Menominee forester Jeff Grignon explains that after a tornado knocks down trees in a forest, other plants grow up in the spaces opened to sunlight and air. Most foresters (which is not the same thing as forest ecologists) see these plants as invasive weeds and remove them. But in fact, these plants take up certain kinds of chemicals, and add them to the soil through their growth and then, once they die, through their leaf litter. These chemicals, present in the soil but in a form that’s not available to the trees until these little “weeds” take them up and put them in an available form, are “medicines that help heal the forest” (Grignon and Kimmerer 2017).

Lindsey Gillson and her colleagues addressed the issue of applying human ethics to ecosystems that exist in a different value system. “Attempts to impose stability to inherently dynamic systems are widely recognized by the scientific and conservation communities as futile, given the rapid pace of current changes in climate and land use and the ubiquity of disturbance as an organizing force in ecosystem dynamics (Holling and Meffe 1996)” (Gillson et al 2019, italics and bolding added for emphasis).

Of course, humans are ontologically a part of the natural world. So “attempts to impose stability to inherently dynamic systems” does not merely bring a new value system to forests “out there.” It applies to us too, and “the myth of safety” that determines the lives we live and the risks we’re willing to take (Surjan et al 2016:42).

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

What is the role of an “organizing force” in a complex system?

What is the significance of saying that “disturbance” is an “organizing force” in natural ecosystem dynamics? How does this view impact the way we see disturbances in ecosystems?

How might the “myth of safety” (Surjan et al 2016) relate to natural hazard mitigation efforts that have a documented correlation with loss of resilience such as that seen in “the levee effect”?

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