Firestorms and Land Use

Another in the emerging “XYZ and Land Use” Renewing the Commons meme. We were talking about fire the other day, and then my friend sent me this incredible video. Watch:

Fire tornadoes and other truly scary and bizarre fire weather (like floating bubbles of flaming gas!) feature prominently in Under a Flaming Sky, a history of the Minnesota firestorm of 1894 that consumed an entire town. Read it!

What this book touches on, but I think doesn’t really fully explore, is how land-use-based these phenomena are.  Fire has played a major role in Midwestern forests since the return of trees following the retreat of the glaciers, as evidenced by the prevalence of fire-tolerant trees like jack pine and oaks.  As well, native people managed both prairies and forested landscapes throughout the region with light surface fires, which both benefited their food ecosystems and greatly reduced the risk of catastrophic larger fires.

But when European-American colonization moved West of the Appalachians in the 1800’s, large-scale industrial forestry to build and fuel the new mega-cities of the Midwest (i.e. Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, etc.) began.  And that new clearcut-based form of land use left a landscape which was: a) densely regrowing in early-succession trees like white pine; b) covered in huge, dry, resinous slash piles; and c) still in a natural cycle of drier summers and occasional serious drought years.  So the whole region was an enormous tinderbox waiting to go up, and go up in firestorms it did numerous times between the 1860’s and 1890’s.  In fact, this was the (rarely discussed) cause of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  The “cow kicked a lantern over” story is persistent but a complete myth – the larger environmental story unfolding was the real culprit.  By the beginning of the 20th century, nearly all of the Midwestern forests to be cut had been cut, and the epicenter of large-scale logging in the US was West Coast old-growth.

I think the land use directives here are obvious – reduce fuel load, use prescribed fire when & where appropriate, manage for patchier forested environments, and don’t build houses and infrastructure in severe fire sectors!  Fortunately the US Forest Service has, in the last 20 years, moved strikingly away from their zero-tolerance wildfire policy that defined most of the 20th century.  Now, though, we’re still dealing with the consequences of a century of fuel load built up all over the arid West because of the full-suppression policy, and climate change that’s making fire seasons everywhere more severe on top of that.  Wildlands firefighting is definitely good work if you’re physically up to it, but how much of it there is to do only reveals just how unbalanced and destructive our land use choices have been.

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4 Responses to Firestorms and Land Use

  1. Ben says:

    – But has anyone seen it luminous?

  2. Pingback: Monday Link Roundup | Renewing the Commons

  3. It’s incredible how site-specific fire management is. In southern California we had mountaintops that weren’t burning enough, and hillsides 1000 feet lower that were burning too much. It’s quite a mess.

    Another thing going on, as referenced by the other post I made here, is that fire-following invasive annual grasses have come into a lot of areas and have changed the fire regime…

  4. grousedrum says:

    Yup, totally. I think basically everything about responsible land use is knowledge-of-place based, but fire quadruply so. Re: grasses, a lot of the native perennial bunchgrasses are super fire-tolerant – were those species already removed when the annuals came in? I would guess so if you’re still talking about SoCal – flax farming and cattle ranching did most of the coastal bunchgrass prairie in in the early and mid 20th century.

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