Fire–and arrogance

We’re engulfed in smoke in the Wallowa Valley, more smoke than I can remember in my forty plus years living here. I think there have been bigger fires—Freezeout and the Canal Fire come to mind, but there seem to be fires on all sides of us now: fires in the Imnaha country, up Hurricane Creek and the Minam, and some further west and north. Smoke made the super moon more beautiful last night—and the mountains were just a fuzzy outline over gray. This morning we awoke to smoke.
At the fair this week I heard someone say that they should have been able to put out the Hurricane Creek fire when it was five acres, what with helicopters and hand crews. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know the particulars of that fire, but I have been up Hurricane Creek enough to know how convoluted and wild the place is. Have climbed over sprawling debris left by wind and snow driven avalanches, seen streams change their course. The place seems aptly named.
But the remark stays with me. I think about the Fishtrap session we did on fire some 20 years ago. Stephen J. Pyne told the history of the world in fire, then explained how fire policy in America changed after WW I, when we “made war on fire.” We thought we’d found a moral equivalent of the real war we’d just endured and vowed to put everything out by 10 a.m. the morning after a fire was spotted.
And I think about the University of Washington foresters (sorry I don’t have their names at hand, but can find if someone wants to follow up on this) who have pieced together a history of fire in the Wallowa country that goes back thousands of years. They work with tree rings and cored lake deposits; I recall them discovering 15-year fire cycles in at least part of the country.
We know that the Nez Perce—and most Plateau tribes and many tribes across the continent—burned regularly. They managed an open forest that facilitated growth of roots and berries and game, and later, horses. Nils Christoffersen and Larry Nall at Wallowa Resources are examining the earliest white reports of local forest conditions, trying to decipher those Nez Perce practices with an eye to species and spacing and rebuilding a resilient forest that will serve human needs and accommodate the swings of natural forces.
What was so different about Indian land use practices might not have been the details, but the attitude, theirs being one of accommodation rather than dominion, nudging the spirits and forces that bring rain and snow, wind and fire, wet and dry. As Alvin Josephy and others have said, the most destructive attitude of the Europeans on confronting the Americas was the idea of dominance, that Biblical notion that the rest of everything was put here for the benefit of and at the disposal of good humans.
It seems that scientists were not—are not—immune to that Biblical notion of dominance. The 10 o’clock policy didn’t work, but there is some kind of ingrown belief that trickles down from forestry schools through the general population, that someone, someplace, has a key to make fire policy “correct”—and to put out that five-acre flare-up on Hurricane Creek.
One might even strike a larger note—I love to generalize!—and say that our big cultural failing, our tragic flaw, is the notion that everything has AN answer, as if the world, natural and human and personal, is not one of ambiguity and constant change.

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