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Tom Tidwell, Chief
Big Burn Centennial Commemoration
Boise, ID
— May 22, 2010

It is a pleasure to be here.

I have been asked to reflect on the meaning of the Big Burn for the Forest Service … how it helped steer the course for our agency. The anniversary of the 1910 burn provides an opportunity for us to reflect not only on what happened 100 years ago, but how we responded, what we learned from that response, and how we have applied what we learned.

The fires of 1910 help to tell who we are as an agency. Our story has many chapters, from the story of early conservationists like George Perkins Marsh and Gifford Pinchot … to the story of the first forest reserves … to the story of Theodore Roosevelt and the midnight reserves … to the stories of the CCC and Smokey Bear … I could go on.

No part of our story is more powerful than the fires of 1910. The story of Ed Pulaski alone puts a spring into the step of every firefighter, especially if he or she is swinging a pulaski tool. But Pulaski is only part of our foundational fire story, and I will not try to address every part. I will limit my remarks to the parts that affected national policy for the Forest Service.

Cooperative Fire Protection

In 1910, the need for federal forest protection was still widely questioned. Gifford Pinchot, who founded the Forest Service and served as our first Chief, traveled the country proclaiming the value of forests for protecting water and timber supplies, but he met with skepticism wherever he went. In the West, the forest reserves were widely seen as a federal land grab, and the Forest Service was often held in contempt.

In 1910, President William Howard Taft fired Gifford Pinchot for insubordination. Stunned and demoralized, the Forest Service found itself underfunded, understaffed, and in partial disarray. Emboldened, its opponents in Congress tried to dismantle the forest reserves by cutting off funding for the Forest Service.

But the fires of 1910 were a disaster on a scale that captured the nation’s attention. Scores of people died and whole communities burned to the ground, and the entire country was shocked and outraged. Gifford Pinchot used the disaster to attack the opponents of the Forest Service. Pinchot argued that adequate funding and staffing for the Forest Service would have averted the disaster.

Pinchot’s views about fire were actually more nuanced than that. As a student of forestry, he knew that fire’s role in forests is not only destructive, but also creative. But as a gifted politician, Pinchot also understood the power of storytelling, and the fires of 1910 were a powerful story of death and destruction.

Pinchot’s arguments prevailed, and Congress doubled funding for the Forest Service. Almost overnight, fire protection—under Forest Service leadership—became a national crusade. The nation went to war against fire, and a system of cooperative fire protection emerged involving a full range of public and private partners. In a very real sense, the fires of 1910 set the stage for today’s system of fire protection in the United States.

Fire Exclusion

Stephen Pyne has pointed out that the fires of 1910 affected both tribal lands and other lands, but tribal lands saw less damage. Why? Because tribal lands had been subject to a continuous regimen of light burning for thousands of years. Pyne drew the following conclusion, and I quote: “Fire protection might be better grounded in fire’s calculated use than in fire’s unwitting suppression.”

In 1910, many people thought the same way. Fire was widely used all over the country, from the sugar pines of the Sierra Nevada to the piney woods of the South. From simple homesteaders, to lumber producers, to academics who studied longleaf pine and lodgepole pine, people knew that fire played a useful role for them and a necessary role in many forest types.

The Forest Service challenged that view, and after the fires of 1910 they won the light burning debate. The Big Burn spread the story of fire as death and destruction—and the story of courageous firefighters risking their lives and paying the ultimate price. Three consecutive Forest Service Chiefs were personally involved in fighting the Big Burn. They collectively served from 1920 to 1939, the formative years for our national fire policy, and none of them had any use for fire.

For decades, the Forest Service told a clear and compelling story of firefighting as good versus evil, the moral equivalent of war. For most of the 20th century, fire exclusion remained national policy. The Big Burn of 1910 gave the Forest Service a rallying cry that resonated with Americans across the nation: Put ’em out, put ’em all out, and put ’em all out fast. Fire exclusion in the form of the 10 a.m. Policy became our national strategic response to wildland fire.

And, for a time, it seemed to work. As the nation poured resources into the war on fire, fire prevention and suppression dramatically improved. Today, the Forest Service suppresses 98 percent of the fires we fight during initial attack, at very small sizes. Where fires once routinely burned tens of millions of acres per year, by the 1990s it was around 3 million acres per year on average. For a time, the vision of fire control—that fire can and should be minimized across the landscape—seemed within reach.

Accordingly, fire control is what Americans came to expect. As the story spread of firefighters winning the war against fire, people expected to see aircraft on “bombing runs” over wildfires each summer. They expected firefighters to successfully protect their homes, even when those homes spread into areas programmed by nature to burn every few years. And as those homes and communities spread into the woods, our firefighters naturally did their best to protect them.

Coming Full Circle

Then fire exclusion hit the wall, and we are still paying the price.

Here’s what happened: Fuels are naturally self-regulating. They accumulate as vegetation grows, sequestering carbon; and they burn when weather and moisture conditions are right, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere. Then the cycle begins anew.

But firefighting success, coupled with homes springing up in the woods, broke the cycle. At lower elevations, the ecosystems that were historically most dependent on fire missed multiple fire cycles. As fire retreated across the landscape, fuels that normally would have burned continued to accumulate, and sooner or later something had to give—and when it did, large fires occurred.

Climate change added to the mix. Changes in temperatures and precipitation, in the timing and magnitude of weather events, are altering ecosystems and fire regimes, adding weeks to the fire season in many areas. Milder winter temperatures create an environment for bark beetles to reproduce faster and spread upslope and northward. Today we have over 17.5 million acres of dead and dying pine trees in the Rocky Mountain Interior West.

The Yellowstone Fires of 1988 signaled the gathering storm that finally broke in 2000. In 2000 and 2002, for the first time since the 1950s, more than 7 million acres burned in a single year. In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned; in 2006 and 2007, more than 9 million. Today, some fire managers foresee the possibility of fire seasons on the order of 10 to 12 million acres or more on all lands, not just the National Forest System. And with all those communities mushrooming on the forest edge, nearly 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings have burned in wildfires in the last 10 years.

In a sense, we have come full circle. From 2000 to 2008, at least nine states had record-breaking fires, megafires on a scale rarely seen before. And the only reason that Idaho and Montana aren’t on that list is … you guessed it … the fires of 1910. Those fires burned 3 million acres in the Northern Rockies alone. And during the August blowup that trapped Ed Pulaski and his crew, 1 million acres burned.

I was recently asked whether the Big Burn could happen again and what we would do if it did.  In some ways … it already has happened again, or today’s version of it. On the Biscuit Fire in Oregon or the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona—or on the Murphy Complex here in Idaho, where over 650,000 acres burned in 2007—we had conditions very much like the Big Burn.

And, just as in 1910, you can’t really suppress fires like that. Gifford Pinchot was wrong. All you can do is get people out of the way and use point protection to defend high-value resources like homes and communities, then position resources to be effective when the weather changes and/or the fire burns into fuel conditions where suppression can be effective.

Today, unlike in 1910, with our modern means of communication and transportation and with our vastly improved firefighting resources, we are fully prepared to provide a large measure of protection. Today, a megafire on the order of the Big Burn isn’t likely to have the same catastrophic results. That is partly due to our smarter, broader, more experienced, more capable approach to fire today.

Cohesive Strategy

Today, our Cohesive Fire Management Strategy has three parts:

  1. First, restoring ecosystems on a landscape scale—in other words, building fire-adapted natural communities. We’ve already made a lot of progress. From 2001 to 2008, the federal land managers jointly treated 29.1 million acres, an area larger than all of the national forests in the Northern Region. More than half of it was in the wildland/urban interface.
  2. Second, building fire-adapted human communities. A good example is the national Firewise program, which encourages individual homeowners to take responsibility for making their properties firesafe.  The Forest Service administers a grant with the National Fire Protection Association to provide support and educational materials for the Firewise program, and the number of designated Firewise communities—communities able to survive wildfire without intervention—is growing y leaps and bounds. It grew from 400 in 2008 to nearly 600 last year.
  3. Third, responding appropriately to wildfire. That includes putting out wildfires that threaten lives, homes, and critical natural resources, no matter what the cause. In this connection, we are using new decision support technology designed to display options that fire managers need to consider to ensure the safety of firefighters and the public, protect structures and natural resources, and use firefighting resources effectively.

These three parts of our strategy—restoring ecosystems, building fire-adapted communities, and responding appropriately to wildfire—form a triangle. Remove any one side, and the whole thing collapses. We will work with state, local, tribal, and other federal partners to implement all three sides of the triangle.

The challenge is huge. We now have around 70,000 communities at risk from wildfire, and only 6,000 of them—less than 10 percent—have community wildfire protection plans. We have got to do better. Above all, people who live on the forest edge have got to take responsibility for themselves.

I believe that individual homeowner responsibility is key. Americans have a long and proud tradition of individual freedom and private property rights, but with those rights and freedoms comes responsibility. The main responsibility for fire protection in the wildland/urban interface lies with individual homeowners and communities. And the best way of protecting homes on the forest edge is the combination of addressing fuel conditions, restore resilience to forests, and helping individual homeowners and communities take measures outlined in programs like Firewise.

Policy Shift

Today, the Forest Service fully recognizes that fuels will burn sooner or later, and so should everyone else—and everyone should act accordingly, especially if they live on the forest edge. It is not our job to keep fire out of the woods, not everywhere all of the time. We simply can’t, and even if we could, we shouldn’t. It’s not good for the resources we manage or for the people we serve.

Over the decades, as we have gained new insights into fire ecology, our national fire policy has changed.  In 1995, the federal land managers adopted a common policy for wildland fire management based on the appropriate use of both prescribed fire and lightning fire.

Lightning fires are often the most appropriate means—often the only means, given our limited resources—to achieve our restoration goals on a landscape scale. Last year, we gave fire managers the flexibility to manage a lightning-caused wildfire to achieve multiple objectives. They also have the flexibility to change those objectives in response to the way a fire spreads across the landscape.

Our policy is based on the recognition that fire has a necessary and beneficial role to play in the backcountry. We are fully committed to managing fire in a way that benefits forest and grassland ecosystems. That includes reducing fuels and using fire to restore healthy, resilient ecosystems. Depending on forest type, our goal is to have fewer small trees and more large trees so that fire and other disturbances, when they come—and they will come—will be less severe, with fewer long-term impacts, including fewer impacts on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

Lesson Learned

Again, we have come full circle. Today, we are the light burners whom Forest Service Chiefs once questioned and disagreed with. They did so partly because of what they saw the Big Burn do—because of what they believed the Forest Service could do: Fire meant death and destruction, but with sufficient resources we could drive it from the woods.

Aldo Leopold probably shared such views when he was a young man working for the Forest Service, when we were a young agency. He held similar beliefs about wolves, as we all did back then. Here’s what he wrote in “Thinking Like a Mountain”:

I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die [in the old wolf’s eyes], I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

As we now know from the overgrown, ailing forests we see all over the country—from the 73 million acres at risk from catastrophic fire on the national forests alone—from the megafires we have seen more and more—we were badly, tragically wrong.

So if there is a lesson to be learned from the fires of 1910 and the foundational story that followed, it is this: We need to increase our efforts to restore resistant, resilient ecosystems across landscapes that are not defined by boundaries on a map. We need to continue to work with states and counties to create Firewise communities. And, too, we need to continue to build on our cooperative approach to fire suppression, working with state and local firefighters to suppress fires where need to—and finding agreement on where and how to manage fire where we need to.

Even more than wolves, our mountains need fire, the right kind of fire in the right places at the right time. It is our job to ensure that they get it.