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Burn This

I spent the last few days at a “controlled burn” conference in Lake Tahoe, and it was pretty fascinating. First of all, fire is cool. Or hot. A controlled burn is a fire set on purpose and not by a kid in the backyard. The reason fire ecologists say we have to have more controlled burns is that for thousands and thousands of years, the landscape evolved with fire methodically set by Native Americans. Native burning promoted crops like acorns and in general took up a functional role in the long-run seasonality of what grows, where, and when. Fire became a key part of the agricultural cycle, and the rest of the ecosystem evolved along with it. Lots of bird species, for example, are “fire adapted,” and depend on scorched ground for habitat. Periodic fires act like a booster shot or a cleanse or some other metaphoric equivalent of a reboot to the system.

Along the same time-frame we spent assiduously wiping out wolves and grizzly bears, from the 1800s til even now, we have with equal determination suppressed fire on our landscapes. This doubly wrong-headed idea contributed to catastrophic big fires, like the one Tim Egan so entertainingly tells about in The Big Burn. When you suppress what have become natural cycles of fire on the landscape, what the ecologists and firefighters call “fuels” accumulate – deadwood and underbrush – and it gets so bad that when these fuels do ignite they go ballistic. Many will tell you that we have suppressed fire for too long and are at a point of no return – our fires now will burn too hot, destroying the ecoystem instead of rejuvenating it. The fire ecologists and land managers and fire fighters I listened to in Lake Tahoe don’t think we are beyond hope in the matter, not at all, but they do passionately argue that we have got to get burning. They admit it’s hard to get the public to put its mind around fanning flames, and indeed, controlled burns can “escape,” their term for going out of control.

I was riveted at the conference by two presentations from Miriam Morrill, who works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. You would not think a fire-head would have such trenchant things to say about how to use visuals and social media to tell a story, but I put Morrill’s presentations up there with the famous Robert McKee’s advice on how to write a screenplay. Emotions, narrative structure, back story, conflict, resolution – all applied to fire. Let’s face it, most people preoccupied with narrative structure want to tell a story so other people will know how they feel, how they see things, what’s going on in their heads. The idea that we can purpose all the tools we have honed for ever more careful calibration of our self-obsession and communicate about a process that helps keep life on Earth going – well, that makes me happy. And frankly, I have always wanted to know how to conduct a controlled burn.

The artwork above is made by the multi-talented Ms. Morrill, and shows how life rises from the ashes.

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