California blaze spreads debate about fire

Historian says people should be open-minded to benefits from burns.
Thursday, October 25, 2007 | 10:22 p.m. CDT; updated 3:57 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — As fires destroying much of southern California continue to rage, one conservationist urged for a more flexible approach to fire during a meeting at MU on Thursday.

Stephen Pyne from Arizona State University, said the crisis isn’t being handled intelligently. He was the fire symposium’s keynote speaker.

“We are the unique fire creature,” he said. “We have an obligation to get fire right.”

Pyne, a historian whose research focuses on fire history, said there are a number of lessons to be learned from studying fire. The first is that fire fundamentalism should be avoided.

People should steer clear of thinking that fire is completely good or bad. Instead, people should understand fire is complicated and comprises good and bad elements, he said.

“We must also be mindful on our policy on housing development,” said Michael Gold, a professor at MU’s School of Natural Resources. He compared the situation in California to other areas damaged by natural disasters. “Is it right to move people into areas prone to these things? We have to be more careful about where we put ourselves.”

Pyne said the sheer number of evacuations, which The Los Angeles Times estimated Thursday to be about a half million people, is surprising because there is a better way to handle the situation in California. Because these people live in an area prone to fire, he said it would be better to train them to protect their homes rather than evacuate.

“If the fire is too intense, there is nothing you can do but leave,” Gold said.

“Our fire programs focus more on fires for individual homes, not a community scale. But is it possible to teach people how to evacuate properly in the case of large scale fires? Yes.”

Pyne, who spent 15 summers on the fire crew at Grand Canyon National Park and three years doing fire planning with the National Park Service, has written several books about fire.

He said fire is a fundamental part of human life, which means that people need to understand its patterns, benefits and consequences.

Pyne said most of the country’s wildfires are on the East and West coasts. That leaves the Midwest as the “middle ground that gets forgotten.”

He said fire was once as common in the Midwest as it is across the United States. But as the land changed and was sectioned for specific purposes, such as national forest designation that protected the land from man-made fire, burning was excluded. Pyne doesn’t think that is desirable.

“The Midwest is a place where fire could be reinstated, and that’s a story that needs to be understood,” he said. “Fire is ecologically useful, perhaps even ecologically necessary.”

A third lesson to be learned, Pyne said, is that once fire is taken out of an area, it’s hard to reinstate. It would be similar to reintroducing a lost species to an ecosystem, he said. “But fire poses a challenge.”

A lot of coordinated efforts by the private sectors, insurance companies, and from the government at all levels is necessary to help fire-damaged areas recover, Dr. Gold said. “This hasn’t worked so well in some past situations,” he said. “It’s possible, but a challenge.”

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