On conflagrations

By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Red Lodge, Montana author Gary Ferguson has written a thoroughly researched, timely book with “Land on Fire: The New Reality of Wildfire in the West.” With the precision of a surgeon, Ferguson carefully dissects the issues that have led to the rise of mega-wildfires and the extension of fire season in our region. With a delicate touch, he deftly presents the increasing destruction these conflagrations cause, while also tempering the negative effects with a more objective, scientific perspective on the benefits of wildfires and their role within our ecosystems.

With clear-eyed focus, Ferguson’s book urges readers to confront the fact that increasingly intense wildfires will be our constant companion for the foreseeable future. Interspersed with stunning photographs, “Land on Fire” lays bare the interconnectedness of ecological, social and economic issues surrounding the burning of large swaths of our forests and our ability to prevent, control and contain these blazes.

In the last half century, there have been four years when over 9 million acres have burned across the United States, and all of them have occurred since 2006. One need not be a data scientist to extrapolate that wildfire season has become more extreme than ever before, and that this trajectory shows no signs of slowing down. The immediate questions arise: “Why are they burning hotter and faster than before?” and “How do we deal with this reality?”

It is important to recognize, as Ferguson does, fire’s role in maintaining healthy forests. It is naive to think of wildfires, Ferguson stresses, solely as forces of destruction that we might somehow eradicate completely. They also sow the seeds, both literally and figuratively, for rebirth and rejuvenation in areas where they burn the most fiercely.

According to Ferguson, under many circumstances wildfire can be “a mighty wand that wipes the land free of disease and insects and fallen timber to create a stage for healthy, altogether magnificent new flushes of life.” Nevertheless, the progressive severity of wildfires complicates these “natural” benefits.

From a historical perspective, the book traces how eight decades of overzealously suppressing wildfires have led to extraordinarily flammable forests, with over 300 million acres of western forests currently suffering from unnaturally heavy fuel loads in the form of dead timber. The rise of wildland-urban interfaces (WUIs), human-caused climate change and the resulting chronic droughts in the arid regions of the West, and the increasingly technological means to predict and combat fires all coalesce into complex issues about how we should proceed to live alongside these seasonal infernos.

While Ferguson doesn’t have all the answers, here is a book that, like a lightning strike from above, might be able to spark a much-needed conversation about the future management of federally protected wilderness and how to prevent loss and suffering in rural areas prone to catching fire.

What is most needed, Ferguson writes, is to “marry the most rigorous science we can muster with a kind of genuine humility and commitment that until now has too often been in short supply.” In the end, he makes clear that Westerners must work together to bring our values and actions in line with ecological necessities, or we will pay the price eventually.

It’s hard not to come away from this book with a better understanding of the complex realities that need to be faced head on, and a deeper appreciation of the beauty and terror of flames. While there aren’t any easy answers, this book clears the ground for a fresh conversation about how we can be better prepared for the fires next time.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.