The ancient Greek story of the Gift of Fire is often viewed as literature’s most archetypical double-edged sword. As the story goes, the Greek god Prometheus brought the fire of the gods down off of Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind. Prometheus was duly punished by the great god Zeus by being chained to a rock to have his liver eaten out by a large eagle. However, Zeus could not take the fire back from humans. While fire was a great and useful technology as Prometheus had hoped, it was also extremely dangerous to its human masters, since it could bring light and heat, but also death and destruction.
I’ll never forget the sight of my first wildfire. It was July 4th, and I was at a party on a hill overlooking the small town of Burns, OR. We were eating delicious blueberry cobbler and watching the boys next door shoot off a regular arsenal of fireworks. It was getting late, and we were getting ready to leave when someone exclaimed that there was a fire. All at once, everyone was up and straining to see the orange glow and when I saw it, I thought the town was done for. It danced eerily all along the top of a long ridge just out of town, close to the BLM office where I work. It looked huge and out of control. Little did I know how tiny it was.
The fire was out by the next morning, and I was informed that it had only burned a couple hundred acres. By contrast, the Miller Homestead Fire, whose aftermath we have spent a lot of time monitoring, burned more than 160,000 acres before it was brought under control. In an area with such large fires, management necessarily occurs on a huge scale. Tens of thousands of acres are reseeded with various mixes of seed dominated by the non-native yet potentially useful crested wheatgrass. Despite the valiant Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation (ES&R) efforts, thousands of acres are also home to vast swaths of invasive annual grasses, primarily cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and medusa head rye (Taeniatherum caput-medusae).
Before arriving in the west, I had learned something about fire ecology in the midwest, specifically fire dependent Ozark Glades. These patchy south facing slopes characterized by naturally thin soils are hosts to a wide variety of endemic plants and animals. Historically these areas were kept free of eastern red ceder (Juniperus virginiana) by regular fires. Fire suppression by white settlers eventually resulted in invasion of Ozark Glades by eastern red cedar which threatens to destroy almost all instances of this unique ecosystem.
Funnily enough, when I was talking to one of the range conservationists I learned that fire suppression in the US is best personified by a cartoon character. Smoky the Bear first appeared in 1944 in an advertising campaign to educate the public about the dangers of wildfire. His slogan, “Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires” urged people to avoid providing a source of ignition for wildfires, and ushered in an age of fire repression in America. The attitude that spawned these advertisements, the attitude that wildfire was undeniably bad, accompanied an unprecedented suppression of natural fires across the country. This policy resulted in the rapid accumulation of juniper trees (Juniperus occidentalis), brush, and other fuels, which eventually led to devastating fires far worse than those the policy had tried to prevent.
While returning fire to the ecosystem on a regular schedule would seem to be a logical solution, the results of fire suppression are playing out on a changed and modern stage, covered in invasive annual grasses. While the solution to the invading junipers is to burn, burning leaves open spaces for invasive annual grasses to recruit. Presence of these grasses increases fire intensity because they are completely dry during the summer fire season, unlike perennial grasses. The higher fire intensity results in more death of desirable perennials, increasing the population of invasive annual grasses. Controlled burns might help prevent larger fires, but such projects are prohibitively expensive for such a large amount of land. Increased cattle grazing decreases fuel loads which helps slow fires, but also provides disturbance that invasive annual grasses need to spread. Getting cows to graze on the invasive annual grasses is nearly impossible, as they are only palatable for a few weeks annually, and are low in nutrients. Juniper trees can be chopped down, but this too is prohibitively expensive.
Thus we come to an impasse. Sagebrush steppe covers a huge area of the US, and much of this area is threatened by fire and by lack of fire. People have their favorite solutions to the predicament, and each solution has its problems. But as the storms blow over the steppe, billowing clouds punctuated with bolts of fire-starting lightning, the fires rage on and the sage grouse populations fall steadily. Maybe research will come up with a solution. Maybe management will be enough to minimize presence of invasive annual grasses. Maybe someday we humans will learn to better control the gift of fire, but until then, it will remain one of nature’s greatest double edged swords.