As climate change continues to exacerbate wildfire intensity across the western US, it has become devastatingly clear that the suppression-oriented management strategy of the past century is deeply misguided. It has long been time to reintroduce and re-imagine fire—to think of it as a biological agent to be respected and guided, as opposed to a mere chemical phenomenon to be controlled and fought.
Returning fire (or allowing its return) to the landscape presents its own challenges, however. The Wildland-Urban Interface continues to expand, thereby putting communities at greater and greater risk. Fuel is already overloaded, or, as fire historian Stephen Pyne puts it, "messed up forests only yield messed up fires." And many within and without the fire management establishment, including vested political and economic interests, still favor the status quo. One thing is for sure—the young men and women in yellows and greens are going to be kept busy. Whether they continue to function as the firefighters of old or evolve into something less like soldiers and more like stewards, they will need all the support they can get. Many are already being pushed to the mental and physical brink.
I moved to Oregon in June of 2020 and promptly joined a wildland fire handcrew. Occasionally, I overhear talk of longer and longer fire seasons, poor land and fire management practices, and mental and physical burnout. In slow moments, I find myself wrestling with the cognitive dissonance generated by the knowledge that my work is often unhelpful—even harmful—to the landscape that I love. Still, big-picture concerns are, for the most part, drowned out by the day-to-day experiences and interpersonal aspects of firefighting. Most of us are out there precisely because we relish a mental and physical challenge—because amidst the discomfort and stress, we also find a sense of pride and thrill and adventure. Thus caught between the macroscopic and microscopic—the abstract and the concrete—it can be hard to tell what or where our limits actually are.