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An interview with Gary Ferguson of Land on Fire

by Timber Press on May 4, 2017

in Natural History

In possibly the most famous wildfire photograph ever taken, elk observe a wildfire in
Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest. Most animals don’t run from walls of flame, as old
Disney movies might have us believe. U.S. Forest Service, photo by John McColgan.

“While the effects of climate change vary greatly region to region, the entire planet is being affected to some degree.”

You trekked hundreds of miles across the country while writing your previous books, each brilliantly researched and focused on a specific aspect of the American wilderness. Tell us about the traveling you did for Land on Fire

The urge to write this book actually has a lot to do with my hiking treks throughout the American West—some 25,000 miles in all. Since the late 1970s, I’ve had lots of opportunities to see firsthand how the landscape is shaped by wildfire—through processes that have greatly intensified over the past twenty years. In a sense, writing Land on Fire brought me out of the woods, giving me a chance to sit down with some of the nation’s best fire experts—from local firefighters to fire behavior specialists to meteorologists—in search of a deeper understanding not just of how fire is currently fought, but also of the future of our wild lands in the face of this growing wildfire severity.

What was the most eye-opening experience of your research?

Having been so long and often in the woods, on many occasions stumbling and crawling through downed timber, I’ve known about the problem of over-zealous fire suppression efforts. While fallen trees may turn back to soil in western Oregon, in the much drier Rocky Mountains or parts of California, it can take eighty to one hundred years for this downed timber to decompose.

What was most startling to me in working on this book the kind of “perfect storm” going on right now: lower snow packs, extended drought, increased winds—much of this because of climate change—coming together with those heavy fuel loads of downed timber. Despite our human firefighting power, weather prediction skills, and fire behavior apps, firefighters told me again and again that wildfires these days are often beyond any real control. And it’s going to be that way for a long time to come. This is a troubling fact given the astonishing number of homes being built in western forests.

Of the many scientists and firefighters you interviewed, who had the greatest impact on the way you understand wildfire in the west?

It’s really hard to choose. I had an amazing team of people teaching me about everything from fire behavior research, to firefighter safety, to climate modeling science, to fire ecology, to incident command structure and strategies for building safer subdivisions in the wildland-urban interface. But one of the most impressive experiences I had was spending time with firefighter and crew boss Jon Trapp from Red Lodge, Montana. Jon and his fellow firefighters are in many ways the heart and soul of wildfire prevention and suppression. Like many experts, Jon does often fight fire for state and federal agencies, but much of his work is under the umbrella of the local community fire department.

Jon and his colleagues spend an incredible amount of time training in firefighting techniques, equipment operation, and EMT and other medical classes, not to mention the hours they spend talking to the public about the best ways to safeguard people’s homes. Then, of course, there’s the fact that on any given summer day, you may find them rushing to the fire line, working in the heat and smoke and dust with more vigor than most of us could even imagine.

An air tanker drops fire retardant to slow the advance of the Chelan Complex Fire, which consumed nearly 89,000 acres just south of Chelan, Washington, in September 2015. Photo by Ben Brooks.

Although your work covers the ecology, causes, and impacts of wildfire in the West with great specificity, what can people in other regions learn from Land on Fire?

While the effects of climate change vary greatly region to region, the entire planet is being affected to some degree. The recent devastating wildfires in Tennessee, for example—burning in dry conditions with eighty-plus mile per hour winds—may have been so severe due to human-caused climate shifts. It’s more important than ever for fire-prone regions to implement intelligent land use planning and neighborhood fuel reduction programs to limit loss of life and property. In addition, we now have a pretty good idea of how to use fire itself (and in some cases, forest thinning) to reduce fuel loads, and thus lessen fire severity. But even with these strategies, it’s important to remember that nature is anything but uniform, which means we have to apply our remedies (especially given dwindling financial resources) to the places most in need. A dry ponderosa forest, for example, may need thinning and prescribed burning to restore it to the park-like, low-density growth we might have seen in previous centuries, before we launched eighty years of aggressive fire suppression. A moist, high-elevation forest, on the other hand, where fires naturally burn less often but with much greater intensity, may not need any treatment at all.

It’s impossible to talk about issues like natural disasters, fire prevention, and environmental conservation without dipping into social, economic, and political concerns. How do you think the practices of wildfire prevention will change under the Trump administration? Are there choices we can make to limit the impact of climate change in terms of the rising risk of megafires? 

I worry a great deal about the current push to defund many of the federal agencies that play critical roles in managing wildfire. The millions of acres of forest in need of fuel load reduction, for example, will probably go without treatment because the agencies responsible for those efforts have had their budgets cut. Their small funds are often gobbled up by fighting the very fires such work is meant to moderate. Likewise, cuts now being made to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will compromise the weather forecasting abilities that are so critical to our on-the-ground firefighting efforts. Meanwhile, budget cuts to NASA will reduce the many satellite-based climate study tools we have at our disposal, thus reducing our ability to learn from wildfire behavior and predict where resources need to be staged in advance of any given fire season.

As for what we can do in our daily lives, several changes come to mind. For starters, we can elect local politicians who understand the need for fire-resistant land use planning and are willing to support and promote national programs like Firewise and Fire Adapted Communities to protect people already living in high-risk areas. But beyond that, wildfires are getting worse because of the human-generated carbon being released into the atmosphere. On one hand, this understanding calls us to live our daily lives more sustainably, paying attention to the resources we use—especially our carbon footprint from fossil fuels. It also means supporting efforts like regenerative agriculture, the planting of forests as carbon sinks, and reducing food waste. And finally, it means creating economic and political conditions whereby cutting edge climate-change solutions—in areas like transportation (such as electric and hybrid cars), renewable energy (solar, wind, and geothermal), energy storage technologies, methane capture in our landfills, and the development of bioplastics—simply become woven into how we live. For a brilliant and ultimately hopeful primer on what can be done, check out Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken.

Firefighter Gillian Bowser surveys the damage near Lava Creek in Yellowstone at the end of a long day during the fires of 1988. National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, photo by Jeff Henry.

Great ideas! Thanks. A lot of the great research coming out of the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab is catalyzing new understandings of wildfire in the wildland-urban interface. How can we continue to support institutions like this?

The Missoula Fire Sciences Lab is a function of the U.S. Forest Service, which sadly is seeing its budget slashed. Get involved. Write or call your representatives and explain to them why such efforts are important to you.

You live in both Montana and Oregon. Is your personal relationship to wildfire different in each state?

Much of eastern Oregon—beginning on the eastern slopes of the Cascades—has many of the same fire ecosystems Montana does. What’s new to me are the wetter, more high-density forests in the western part of Oregon. When fires burn in those places, they tend to be incredibly hot and severe. That’s normal. But because of the abundance of moisture, these areas tend to be quicker at reestablishing their vegetative canopies. Since writing Land on Fire, I find myself happy to be strolling through what are some of the great carbon sinks of the northern hemisphere. In addition to the rich beauty of such forest landscapes, about sixty percent of all the carbon stored in the planet’s terrestrial biomass is stored in forests. When I walk through the woods of western Oregon, it’s easy for me to be very aware that, in so many ways, this precious earth has our backs.

In the Northwest, I’m especially excited about the deep, dark beauty of rainforests like the Hoh River Basin in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, as well as the entire reach of the Oregon Coast. One of the reasons I’ve clocked some 25,000 miles walking in nature is because time and again it leads me to a quiet awareness—a state from which beauty, mystery, and the complex miracles of life on this planet can be fully appreciated. Both the rainforests and the coasts are sure bets for nudging me into that state of mind.

You do an exceptional job of capturing detailed information—like the collection of fire scar data, the ecological effects of pest infestations, the study of pyro-forensics, and the specific strategies of the men and women fighting on the fireline—and distilling it into interesting, visual, and accessible prose. How did you craft your work? 

Given that this is my twenty-fifth book, I’m tempted to say “through lots of practice!” A nonfiction writer faces the old maxim, “If you want to learn about something, teach it.” I go into a new project with lots of eager curiosity, combining what personal experience I have with the research I can find in books and other written material. After that, I get busy posing hundreds of questions to experts, and later I humbly come back to many of those same experts, asking them to look at what I’ve written to make sure I got it right.

I also have some advantages writing a book like Land on Fire because I’ve been studying ecology and observing biological systems in the field for a very long time. Before writing this book, I didn’t know nearly as much about the exact effects of wildfire, and certainly not about all the varied skills that go into fighting and predicting those fires, but I have always tended to think in terms of systems. I know that if someone tells me that the snow packs are lower and temperatures are higher, it will likely stress the trees, which will open the door to insects, which will create increase the fuel load, which will burn hotter, which could slow plant regeneration and create conditions for landslides, which could reduce the productivity of the soil—and on and on. Nature writers have the great pleasure of picking a single thread to follow for a story and, as often as not, discovering that it leads to almost everything.

The Payson, Arizona, hotshot crew heads out to a fire line with fire hoes in hand. Forest Service, Gila National Forest, photo by Kari Greer.

Was there a topic you wish you could have covered more fully in Land on Fire?

I would have loved to spend more time with the stories of the men and women battling the big fires—efforts that are nearly always steeped in drama and courage and stamina and hope, and sometimes heartbreak. For more of that kind of story, I’d suggest The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean, and Fire on the Mountain by Norman MacLean’s son, John.

You taught at the Rainier Writing Workshop Masters of Fine Arts program at Pacific Lutheran University for ten years. What’s one piece of writing advice that can take nature writing from good to great?

When it comes to good writing, I’m reminded of a story about the legendary jazz musician John Coltrane: Asked by an early television interviewer how he became so incredibly good at improvisation, Coltrane proceeded to lay out a long recollection of all the various exercises he did from the time he was young—scales and syncopation and octave jumps and slurs and on and on, nearly boring the interviewer to death. After many minutes of that he stopped, leaned forward slowly, looked the interviewer in the eye and said, “Then you forget all that crap, and you just wail.” Writers feed their wailing—their unique voice—by being incredibly curious about the people, the places, the history, and the world around them. But just as was true for Coltrane, they also need to spend years working on their craft—writing and editing, and writing and editing some more—before they can really cut loose and wail. To a reader, great writing seems easy. But for the writer, it’s never easy at all.

You certainly make it look easy! One more question before we go: You explain that nearly ninety percent of wildland fires are caused by humans. What are the best ways for us to practice daily fire safety?

Well, Smokey Bear was right about making sure your matches and campfires are dead, but in especially dry conditions, wildfires can start from all kinds of things, including off-road travel by automobiles or four-wheelers, sparks from chainsaws, setting off fireworks, and the really big one: lighting a burn pile either in dry, windy conditions, or failing to make sure it’s fully out when you leave. Because it’s possible for fire to burn underground and out of sight for a time, then flare up later when conditions are right, it pays to be extremely focused on any fire-related activity you engage in.

Gary Ferguson has written many books on nature and science including Hawks Rest, the first nonfiction work to win both the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award for Nonfiction, Decade of the WolfThe Great Divide, and The Carry Home. His articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. His lectures on wilderness are a culmination of 30 years researching—and experiencing—the marriage of wild lands, history, myth, and narrative psychology. Visit him at wildwords.net.


Click image for a look inside this book.


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