Fire Expert Stephen Pyne

More from this show

World-renowned fire expert Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University Regents Professor, will join us to discuss wild land fires and fire policy in light of the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 firefighters in Arizona.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Arizona senator John McCain is vowing to block General Martin Dempsey's nomination for a second term as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. McCain said today that he's frustrated with what he sees as Dempsey's vague response when asked about his personal opinion of Syria. McCain says he wants more answers. Senator McCain earlier this week joined senator Jeff Flake to introduce legislation that gives federal agencies more incentive to hire private companies to clear trees and other vegetation that serve as fuel for wildfires. The legislation comes after firefighters died battling the Yarnell hill fire June 30th. The bill would give the bureau of land management and the U.S. Forest service more flexibility in working with businesses that harvest trees. McCain said in a statement that, quote, "thinning our forests will reduce the fuel load for wildfires and make them more manageable for our firefighters." Senator Flake also released a statement that says, in part, "we must use every resource at our disposal to prevent devastating wildfires." The Yarnell fire is prompting much thought into wildfire policies and firefighting procedures. ASU regents professor Stephen Pyne has spent his career studying and writing about wildfires. And he joins us now. It's good to see you again, thank you so much for joining us.

Stephen Pyne: My pleasure.

Ted Simons: What are we learning about the Yarnell hill fire?

Stephen Pyne: Well, I think so far the evidence seems to suggest that we won't see any unusual fire behavior or anything unusual in the story. It just seems that fire is always surprising us. It's always, coming up with an intensity and a swiftness that we hadn't anticipated. I think it's going to turn out to be a classic definition of a tragedy that the fire did what was prepared to do and the crews were doing what they were told to do and they just clashed.

Ted Simons: So the fire wasn't any larger or more intense than ordinary?

Stephen Pyne: Well, at this point, it doesn't seem to be. It was scaling up by the reports and I don't know all of the details so I can't speak in real particulars. But the historic situations involving these multiple fatality fires are that they are relatively small fires or small parts of big fires or they're fires where there's a rapid transition in the organization and that seems to have been the characteristic here. In other words, they're in a place where a puff of wind, a shift, the fire can react very quickly, it's in grasses, shrubs, brush. If you want to get a fire going in your fireplace, you throw in needles and grass. You don't put in a big log.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, we've heard the forest service say that this thing may have been moving quicker than expected. They're saying up to 15 miles an hour, average wildfire they're saying moves less than five miles an hour. Those numbers make sense to you?

Stephen Pyne: They may make sense. I don't know the particulars here. They seem high to me unless the fire was spawning, that's to say throwing sparks and starting new fires ahead of it. The walla fire was setting fires three or four miles ahead. What you're dealing with is grass and brush here and that can react very quickly.

Ted Simons: Okay. I want to get back to firefighting procedures here in a second but as far as fire and fire policy, you have said in the past that the paradox here is we actually need more fires, just not these kinds of fires, correct?

Stephen Pyne: Yeah. No, we have altogether too much of the wrong kind of fire and way, way too little of the right kind of fire. We're not going to remove fire from these landscapes, unless you can stop plants from photosynthesizing and animals from breathing. This is the way the earth is built. So the problem is that we've created a kind of feral fire. We had over long periods of time people had managed to put landscapes into a more controlled form by doing their own burning. In other words, taking the punch out of lightning-caused fires because they've ignited those areas that they want protected first and they've done that, they've done that under relatively controlled conditions and if you did this for hundreds of thousands of years, you've got this landscape in a form you get the kinds of fires you want. We need probably three or four times more fire-burned area in the state than we're getting. What we don't need are more of these explosive, high-intensity fires.

Ted Simons: How do you avoid the explosive, high-intensity fires?

Stephen Pyne: You're always going to have some in areas and some kinds of biomes need it, that's how they regenerate. You can certainly constrain the areas that that occurs and the rest is by taking control of the landscape, you know. In a sense we've got an ecological insurgency and you're not going to fight it by bombing it. You've got to take control of that countryside and the fundamental way you'll do that is substituting your fires of choice rather than fires of chance.

Ted Simons: It's a big state. There's a lot of forest out there. There's a lot of wild land out there. Can we do this or is this one of these piecemeal things that has to be done over the course of a generation or two?

Stephen Pyne: Unless you're willing to invest in something on the scale of the CCC, you're not going to take care of this in three or four or five years. You're talking about several decades. But we don't have to instantly cover the entire state. Target the areas that are most at risk. Certainly you can clean up around communities. You can make houses responsible for their own protection, home-owners. Then you can take care of the communities, and then you can move out from there, you're talking about private land, property rights, a series of negotiations between individual right and the threat it may pose to neighbors, how are you going to agree on this, who's going to pay, who's going to benefit? Suddenly it looks very political and it is.

Ted Simons: It is it's very complicated as well. Is this the new normal? We're hearing that fires are burning twice as many as acres that they did before, you've got droughts going longer, the winter is shorter, we're not getting the snow pack. It's adding up to this.

Stephen Pyne: It probably is but, you know, a little history may be helpful. If you went back years ago, we had a lot more area burning is what happened is by a series of measures, some delivered, some accidental, fire was pretty much scrubbed out of the landscape and so by the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's, we had a new normal of fire which was fairly low and a really large fire might be two or 5,000 acres. This was a monster fire. And then by the end of the 80's, we started coming back with droughts, we've got a legacy of all this stuff we've done and not done to the landscape, a lot of stuff to burn out there, we're putting houses out there. You change the dynamic, and now, we're seeing these big and damaging fires come back. Well, in some ways we were through this before and we should be able to learn from it but even if we're having seasons that start earlier, go later, that's also an expanded window for doing your own burning.

Ted Simons: Uh-huh.

Stephen Pyne: But if you're going to do that, you have to think about liability, who's going to handle that, going to have to think about smoke, how much are you willing to tolerate. There are all kinds of other trade-offs simplest solution, unfortunately, is the one we've got which is to say treat fires in emergency. So it happens, nobody's responsible, you're applauded if you send everything you've got at it and if there are casualties or large expenses well, it's an emergency, you did what you had to do and that's just it. So it begins looking a lot like healthcare. And in some ways it's got the same kind of systemic issues involved which makes it very difficult to solve but we don't have to solve it all. We can identify the areas that are most at risk, target those, we know lots of things to do and if we can reach consensus that yeah, we're willing to do this and we all accept the decisions, then there's plenty we can do and we can't blame this on the feds, this is state and private land.

Ted Simons: Regarding development encroaching on the wildlands here, obviously there has been an issue. Does it continue to be an issue? I mean, is that still becoming an issue out there?

Stephen Pyne: Well, it's reviving. It slowed down with the recession but that's a pretty grim way to solve your problem. We should be able to deal with this in other ways. I think we're looking at a large-scale re-colonization of rural America so you're not living on the land, you're just in it. You're not doing things that a rural economy would have. So during the 19th century, agriculture colonization, we had huge fires, terrible fires burning whole communities down. Well, that went away because we stopped moving. Now, we're moving again, we've got another cycle of frontier burning, if you will. And yeah, there are lots of things we can do but we have to be able to agree on it. But I'll tell you the spooky thing right now, this is presented as primarily a western problem, western U.S., it's not a national issue in a serious way because we're moving houses to where the fires are. But if climate keeps changing and we're starting to see this already in the southeast and elsewhere, the fires are going to start moving with the houses are and that's in the eastern U.S. and at that point we've got a real game change, that's the spooky scenario.

Ted Simons: That's disquieting to say the least. As far as what senator McCain and senator Flake are talking about, the idea of getting private companies up there into the woods into the forests, the four forest initiative, we had you on regarding that, that seems to have stalled, so much promise with the idea of public-private partnership of getting -- why is that not feasible? So many folks say that you can't do it and so many folks like senators McCain and Flake saying you've got to do it.

Stephen Pyne: Well, you've got to make choices. And who benefits and who pays? It's not a new idea. I mean, for the last years, Congress has authorized stuff. Stewardship projects and other programs begin cleaning up around these communities and doing stuff and a lot of that, it's not the federal workforce that's doing it. They're contracting out. So what I sense in their latest proposal is that they found a little pot of money that might be able to be redirected to that but we're talking about thousands of communities. And those are just the communities. That doesn't deal with all the landscape issues.

Ted Simons: Right.

Stephen Pyne: Building some kind of resilience into our wildlands so that we have something left when this wave of fire -- I mean, and the worst scenario, you take the global change scenario, it's sort of star trek genesis device where they set off this thing and it remakes the whole planet within its own matrix, burning it over. That's what's starting to happen in places, we don't know what's going to come back in a lot of these landscapes under these intense fires. So that's sort of one extreme of that. But we're seeing a few patches of that happening.

Ted Simons: Back to the Yarnell hills situation, there's so much to cover and thank you again so much for joining us. From what you've seen and from your experience looking at this, does it look like the standard operating procedures, were they in place?

Stephen Pyne: Well, everything I've seen about it says yes, they were doing what they were supposed to, they had a lookout, they had, you know, meteorological information coming to them. I just don't know what happened in this particular set of circumstances but I think the fire community may respond as it has in the past, not waiting for policy changes or political solutions and simply put in some new operating instructions which is to say we now identify houses that are indefensible, we're not putting engines or crews to defend them. We may step back and start saying there are whole communities here, dispersed settlement clusters that are too dangerous, we're not putting people in. We may decide when you've got extreme conditions, everything from high temperatures, low humidity, possible down drafts and the rest of it, we're not putting crews in. If you can't fly, why do we have crews out? So the fire community itself may start moving in that direction.

Ted Simons: So I know after the dude fire, there were a lot of changes regarding wildfire policy. Are you expecting similar changes here? Because sometimes the act of god, nature, all of this is that you did the best, there's not much more you can do. There's got to be a procedural change here.

Stephen Pyne: There almost certainly will be but at this point, I just have the sense of a classic tragedy. I'm not sure that we're going to learn new lessons, we never realized that before or this was fire behavior we've never seen. I think it's probably going to come down to it was just the collusion of all of these little things that came together and this crew at exactly the wrong time and wrong place. It collided. But I would be surprised if we don't see a kind of pullback by the agencies and simply saying we cannot under extreme conditions defend these places. We're not putting people at risk but those are also exactly the conditions when the fires are most explosive and when they're going to run the furthest and unlike the city fire where a building burns down, you're talking about multiplying by thousands or tens of thousands of acres. So now you've got a huge problem. That brings us back to the question of taking control of the countryside, in effect putting that landscape into a form that now, you can deal with the bad fires that you don't want and you can somehow promote or substitute the ones you do want.

Ted Simons: Thanks so much for joining us. We'll talk about the wildlands in a better form, thank you so much.

Stephen Pyne: You're welcome.

Stephen Pyne:Regents Professor, ASU

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

Earth Day Challenge graphic with the Arizona PBS logo and an illustration of the earth

Help us meet the Earth Day Challenge!

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 12

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

The Capital building with text reading: Circle on Circle: Robert Lowell's D.C.
May 2

An evening with ‘Poetry in America’

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: