We can’t just put the fires out because we can’t put them out. We’ve tried that now for a century, and it doesn’t work. It just makes the next one worse. You may see a place like this and think: total devastation. And it’s not your fault for thinking that. But that depiction is, as we’ve learned from countless experts over the last two weeks, not the whole story, and not how you should think about wildfires. The truth is there are lots of types of habitats out West, and fire affects them all in unique ways. So it’s important to start thinking about the big picture with wildland fires, so let’s first rewind. To help us understand what’s going on out West, Rob and I started calling up the experts, and what we found, was that the story of fire, particularly in the West, is complex. So to understand it, we planned a road trip. Road trip time! The goal of our road trip was to see as many forests as we could, and meet experts around the region to help us understand the role fire plays out here. First destination was to find the forest burned by the now famous Great Fires of 1910. And at the heart of what is known as the “Big Blowup,” the logical first place to stop is the city of Wallace. Haley and I are in this cute town of Wallace, Idaho, which was completely destroyed by the 1910 fires. You can see how much damage this fire actually did.
Let’s send up the drone and see what the surroundings look like now. What we found was a small town, surrounded by a dense forest, with every single tree just over a hundred years old. So everything we see behind us now: that’s all new growth, since 1910. And to help us put these historic fires and the forests around Wallace in perspective, we met up with historian Diane Smith. Diane: This is Wallace, and here are your fires.
Rob: All of this is the 1910 fires? Diane: This is not that unusual. The fact is it just was at a time in our development as a country. Diane: We noticed that we paid attention to it, and we got the national attention for it. As it turns out these fires helped to reinforce the idea at the time that every fire needed to be suppressed at all costs. And this suppression for so long has led to new problems: namely, thick forests full of fuel.
But don’t just take my word for it. Let me show you the difference. Notice how different this place is than this: one that has been thinned out quite heavily in the past. Or, like an area like this has been burnt quite frequently. In fact both of these areas show how many forests would have looked in the past under regular burns. The dead and low-growing material gets consumed easily by fire. Very much unlike this forest, which has had fire suppression for over a hundred years, and could lead to a high-intensity fire. And all of this dry dead material. That’s problematic. So we went looking for a big fire and just followed the smoke. Oh gosh, a huge crown fire. I’ve gotta get this. These high-intensity fires aren’t great because in many forests they kill all the trees over a large area, even in forests that used to be very resistant to frequent fires. And nobody knows that better than the people that work in this particular forest. Dana: There’s green coming back, and I guess I’ve gotten somewhat used to it, and I still have hope that the entire Sierra Nevadas won’t look like this. That we can maybe get ahead of it. So the fires nowadays can move from the surface right into the tree canopies really easily, where in the past, fires would have kept trees pruned. They would kept fuel densities low. And so now you end up with a lot more high severity fires in the West than had a fire regime kept under its historic recurrence. This to me is more a lesson of fire exclusion and keeping fire out of the system. If we’re keeping it out of when it would burn with a beneficial effect, it will burn. And the probability of it burning at an unbeneficial state is higher. Rob: So again. This is where it’s complicated. We thought if only we could stop the fires, we’d win the fight. But the fires, like the King Fire here, show that stopping the fires only made it worse Add that to the fact that we’re living closer than ever to these wildlands. So to help us understand the wildland-urban interface, met up with Cal Fire. And as we were pulling up to this neighborhood, one of the residents quickly came out to tell us about the latest fire. Yeah, biggest fear is fire. It was very scary. I mean everybody was honking, and “Get out!” You know, “There’s a fire!” This is the risk across California. The response piece alone isn’t gonna solve this challenge if the homeowners aren’t organized. Because we’re all in the same boat: one match away from everybody losing everything. It’s a real fear.
Literally, we could have that fire spread up in here within a matter of seconds. Wow! California is going to have fires. We’re not gonna stop all the fires in California. So we have to have an infrastructure that’s fire-resistant. We need to work on policies that help us engage in active management, or a forest that’s using prescribed fire as a tool. It’s all the things in the toolbox. It’s a combination of managing our forest and a combination of protecting our communities they’re in. If it wasn’t complicated enough, this made it very clear that you can’t just let the fires burn whenever they start. The forests need to be managed to help mitigate the risk to us. But using fire seems to be one of the keys to making things safer, and knowing the science behind fire is always key to implementing good management. The Fire Sciences Lab is right over here. So we made a stop at the Missoula Fire Lab to try to understand what we know about fire. You see the flames at the very top, and how they’re sticking to the slope? Haley: They really are, everybody’s laying down. Well that, that’s that’s flame attachment, actually a very difficult thing to understand. Here at the Fire Lab, the scientists study the basics of fire. Understanding the complexities here helps firefighters and forest managers in the field better predict and fight wildland fires. Mark: Fires are inevitable. The only choices that we really have is what kind of fire to have and when do we want it? And that’s it. Almost? You’re ready. Jason’s ready. Rob: Mark’s team is prepping to light a huge bed of precisely cut cardboard. Mark: You’re not gonna be in any danger. So when the lights go out, don’t move. Gasoline! Rob: This is one of many experiments. They’ll run to understand the physics of fire: how it moves, how it spreads. And all of this is measured by precise scientific instruments and high-speed cameras. (music playing) Tens of thousands of pieces of cardboard up in flames, in mere seconds. The ongoing research will help us better understand fire with the ultimate goal that we can live better with it. But can we do that? There is one forest we knew of that seems to have figured out this coexistence with fire. A place where fires burn all summer, every summer. It’s part of their way of life, and a mentality we wanted to know about. Here we went out with our guides Frank Lake and Steve Valentine, who work with the local US Forest Service and tribe to help keep a healthy forest. Rob: This is perfect. The fires basically come through and cleared out the understory, and all that’s left are the trees. Frank: Yeah, it’s black, and it’s charred, and you just see a few of the earliest sprouts. Well, you come back in here a year, it’s gonna be alive again. And to many this may seem destroyed, but they view it differently here. Frank: That fire’s medicine. Cause, it’s not if it comes. It’s when it comes. We need fire, and fire needs us. Rob: You see fire needs people to remind us how important fire is to the ecosystem. Frank and Steve’s ancestors have been burning this forest for millennia. It’s now part of what makes the forest special. They just want to make sure that it’s not forgotten. Steve: Basically what you leave behind is what’s important. Frank: When I say this is your foods, and your medicines, your sacred places, your springs, your water. That’s essential. That’s who we are as people. We have to learn to live with fire. We have to learn to respect fire. We have to maintain that security. That’s why I do what I do. (music playing) Haley and I have learned a lot on our journey. We’ve learned that fire is complicated. It’s not as black and white as we make it out to be, and it is an integral part of our forests. They’ve had fire running through them for thousands of years, and they will continue to have fire in them in the future. And we can’t always put the fires out. We have to decide what kind of fires to live with. And that is why we need to work with these fire crews from around the country. We also need a public who understands the importance of fire on the landscape. A healthy forest, you see, is a forest that lives with fire. (music playing) So we know that fire and the issues it poses are complex. We painted the issues here with a very broad brush. Of course on our journey, we visited a lot of researchers and each had great insight into individual aspects of fire management. I encourage you to continue watching our short series, a minute or two each, that allow us to dive deeper into the important issues of fire.