Can we learn to live with fire? It’s an odd question for humans to ask, since our development is intricately tied to combustion. Our Homo erectus ancestors likely used open flames to make food easier to digest, fueling the growth of their brains, as well as to stay warm, ward off predators, and eventually create communities. Fire has been a catalyst for technological advancement, too, from the kilns and forges of the Bronze Age to the rockets that send modern tourists into space. It’s so integral to our evolution that mythologies across the world share stories about its theft from mistrustful gods for the benefit of humanity.
Perhaps the gods were right to be wary. Just as fire has shaped us, we have shaped the world through fire. We clear land for agriculture with slash-and-burn techniques, which threaten the survival of forest-dwelling species. Urbanization prioritizes fire suppression to protect property, which allows more vegetation to grow on forest floors and fuel more wildfires. Climate change, driven in large part by the burning of fossil fuels, has led to warmer temperatures and drought conditions, which in turn increase the intensity of wildfires like the ones that have devastated communities in the West in recent years — and are raging in the boreal North this year.
I talked with fire ecologist Meg Krawchuk about the double-edged sword that wildfires have increasingly become. She studies not only the science of fire but its social and cultural ramifications, and she believes that understanding our past relationship to fire can help us navigate our present interactions with a changing climate. Rather than eradicating wildfires, Krawchuk suggests we learn to coexist with them. She points to North American Indigenous traditions, disrupted and forgotten due to colonization and genocide, as examples of effective fire stewardship. Recent federal legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has allocated millions in funding for forestry and fire-risk-reduction projects, and she is optimistic about the possibilities.
Krawchuk received her PhD from the University of Alberta, Canada, and is an associate professor in the department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. She heads the Landscape Fire and Conservation Science Research Group, which has been investigating “fire refugia” — locations that burn less frequently or with less severity than their surroundings — and what they might suggest about managing wildfires and conserving forest ecosystems.
She called me from sabbatical in Mediterranean Europe, where she’d spent three months immersed in “pyrogeography,” or the study of fire on Earth, which incorporates biophysical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. A few weeks later wildfire smoke from Canada drifted down the eastern United States, triggering an air-quality warning here in North Carolina. As we were proofreading this interview I met someone at a party who had just been evacuated from Maui during the deadliest U.S. wildfire of the last hundred years.
Mahaffey: We tend to think of fire either as a tool humans use or an out-of-control force of destruction, but it also manifests naturally in beneficial ways. How do you think about that distinction?
Krawchuk: Fire is essentially just combustion of biomass, using either aboveground fuels or fossil fuels we’ve brought to the surface, which ultimately come from the same source. Indigenous cultures’ use of fire for stewardship of landscapes and resources and ceremony should be considered “natural.” That use of fire has been with us for thousands of years in North America, as well as across the world.
But I think you mean the fires caused by lightning or volcanoes, which have contributed to the development of ecosystems for millions of years. The first evidence we have of wildfires dates back to the Silurian period. So we know fire has been playing a role in nutrient cycling and sculpting ecosystems and organizing the way the world works for at least 443 million years — essentially since land plants could burn. There are a lot of interesting evolutionary traits that we now understand as being adaptations to fire: the way different plants resprout or open their cones or flowers, for example.
Mahaffey: Do we think humans first learned to use fire as a tool or as part of cultural ceremony?
Krawchuk: Looking at the way our brains developed suggests that the only way we became human and evolved some of our unique characteristics is by cooking meat before we ate it. So fire was a part of our evolution starting a million years ago or so. Then we began to use fire in war, and in land clearing and resource management. It allowed us to live in different climates because of the warmth it provides. Ceremonial use of fire is likely interwoven throughout.
We’re in an age now where, depending on whether you live in a developed country or a developing country, you’re likely using fire in different ways and burning different fuels. In the United States there’s a question of whether we should go back to using fire in some of those earlier ways — as an instrument of land stewardship, for example. We’ve harnessed fire, and we think we’ve controlled it through fire suppression on wildlands, but now we’re realizing that we actually need to reintroduce fire into the wild and learn how to use those fires in a beneficial way.
Mahaffey: Are you also saying we should consider using fuel that’s available on the surface, as opposed to what has percolated underground for millions of years?
Krawchuk: Yes. We used to generate charcoal, an easily stored fuel, from burning shrubs and trees. Now we’re recognizing once more that there’s biomass in the forest or in our natural landscapes that can be used for energy. This is borrowing from back in time, because we got away from using wood as our basic energy source and turned to fossil fuels. There are places where many people still have woodstoves, but there are often air-quality issues with those.
You’ve got to burn something. The question is: What do you want to burn? Is it going to be fossil fuels? Is it going to be more contemporary biomass but with a more modern treatment, such as pellets of compressed organic matter? We’re seeing a creative return to wood as a fuel source, using it in more efficient ways. Scientists, land managers, and policymakers are saying we have too much wood in many of our forests where historically fire burned more frequently. The Biden administration is investing billions of dollars in forest management, including the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, trying to manage wildfire risk by removing wood from our forests to make them more fire resistant and resilient.
This doesn’t mean cutting large trees and selling them. What we’re looking to remove are relatively small-diameter pieces of wood, and a creative industry is investing in what we can do with this. We can make it into cross-laminated timber products, which are a kind of engineered pressed wood that is being used to build large, multistory buildings. Another way to make use of all this biomass that we’re collecting from forests is to burn it in pellet form.
Mahaffey: You say we may need to move forward by going back to the use of fire in historical ways. Why?
Krawchuk: That relates to what we refer to as “fire exclusion” and the “fire deficit.” In the early 1900s there was a great push to suppress all wildfires, and forest fires in particular, because of the loss of life and the desire to keep producing wood for the population. The U.S. Forest Service began developing fire-suppression technologies that have been compared to a military buildup: with the investment in water bombers and troops on the ground, it’s like a war machine dedicated to putting out fires.
Along with the systematic removal of Indigenous people from their landscapes and the passage of laws that prevent them from continuing their cultural burning, this policy of exclusion has led to a deficit of lower-severity fires, and fires overall, across our landscapes. In many areas, that deficit has created a buildup of fuels in our forests, making them more fire prone and enhancing fire transmission, particularly in the context of a warming climate. We now understand that we need more fire. We need to start setting wildfires ourselves or letting lightning-caused fires burn to get our landscapes back into rhythm. But it’s not just more fire everywhere and all the time; it’s the right kind of fire, in the right place, and at the right time.
Within the context of climate change, we don’t want to simply go back to what those fire rhythms were historically. We want to adapt and move forward. What we know about how natural systems worked in the past can help us, but some of what’s ahead is going to be uncharted territory because we are living in a hotter, drier landscape.
So we’re trying to relearn our relationship with fire, whether it’s by supporting Indigenous fire practitioners, who are revitalizing their culture and ecosystems, and respectfully learning with them; by training and supporting landowners who burn on their property; or by changing our wildfire suppression and operations paradigm. In the southeastern United States there is still a burning culture. While the West focused on fire exclusion, the Southeast maintained its fire culture. There are a lot of reasons why that is: topography, fuel structures, general conditions for burning, and seasonality. It’s still tricky to get most people in the West to embrace this. How do you shift public opinion to allow, much less encourage, burning? How do you train firefighters to become burners? How do you learn to befriend fire? Coexisting with fire offers a beautiful opportunity to braid Western settler-colonist philosophies with Indigenous beliefs and practices.
We’ve harnessed fire, and we think we’ve controlled it through fire suppression on wildlands, but now we’re realizing that we actually need to reintroduce fire into the wild and learn how to use those fires in a beneficial way.
Mahaffey: So in the absence of more-controlled, smaller-scale burns, there’s a buildup and then an explosion of these massive fires that we’re seeing now. How much fire do we need to prevent those bigger fires?
Krawchuk: When we think about the geography of fire, we often divvy up locations into three bins: historically frequent, low-severity fire; historically infrequent, high-severity fire; and a mix of the two. Places that were warmer and drier, like ponderosa-pine or longleaf-pine systems, had historically frequent, low-severity fires. Before European colonists arrived and interrupted cultural burning and implemented fire suppression, those places had widespread open forests with fire burning through them every five to twenty years. We call those “surface fires”; they were burning grasses, shrubs, and younger trees, contributing to the nutrient cycle through combustion, and interrupting the “contagion” or the continuation of fuel buildup. More-frequent fires keep fuels on the ground because every few years you’re burning any trees that would otherwise become “ladder fuels” — so called because they allow fire to move from the ground up into the canopies of trees. If you eliminate fire in a landscape with historically frequent fire systems, you have all these ladder fuels and more-closed forest conditions, which is the situation we’re in now: when a fire does start, it easily climbs that ladder, and you go from having a friendly fire that you could smack down with a burlap bag to a blaze that’s up in the canopies and moving fast.
Add to that the hotter, drier conditions from climate change, and we will see more vicious fires moving forward. Drought-stressed trees have less foliar moisture to them. They’re just more likely to combust once they get going. It’s climate change plus fire exclusion that has created these conditions — not one or the other.
Places that are cooler and moister overall, like subboreal, subalpine zones just below the tree line, more often had historically infrequent, high-severity fires. Under more benign conditions, these fires moved farther when it was hot, dry, and windy — leaving a patchwork of burned and green areas. Think of Colorado, where there’s lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce. In those higher elevations, fires occurred maybe every 100 or 120 years. Over that time period things are going to grow, so there is more fuel available to increase the severity.
What we’ve done is disrupt the landscape. Our fire-suppression efforts have eliminated that patchwork, creating homogeneous fuel conditions that allow fires at lower elevations to bridge into higher elevations. When I go through the Rockies in Colorado, I see these landscapes that are just a sea of green, and I think, Where’s the variability? We need that variability to prevent fire from just driving like a bulldozer over the landscape. This more continuous and homogeneous fuel structure is allowing for some of those really extreme and fast-moving fire events you hear about in the news. What we’ve lost in all these systems, regardless of the geography, is that characteristic heterogeneity. And due to climate change we’re losing the benefits of nighttime cooling, when the relative humidity increased. We’re getting long periods of hot, dry, and windy.
Mahaffey: Let’s talk about the renewed federal investment in forest management. What do those initiatives look like?
Krawchuk: A large amount of money has been provided to the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service for wildfire risk reduction to help make decisions about where fuel treatments would be appropriate and effective, with a high focus on the wildland-urban interface, which is any wildland area close to where people are. The primary goal is keeping people safe. We are also working on restoring ecosystems and adapting to climate change. But the priority is reducing hazard and risk to communities.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of debate over who gets the money, what they will do with it, and what is appropriate to do in working toward those goals. I see people scrambling to figure out how best to do the work when they’re asked to do it really fast and without enough people. And when money comes in to do anything to the forest on public lands, there are people who will take you to court through the National Environmental Policy Act because they don’t agree with your proposed actions.
There’s also the hydrology of this — the ties to water for communities and forest systems. And if you’re doing controlled burns, there’s the issue of smoke in nearby communities. Some people are sensitive to air-quality issues. Communities also have different ideas of what they want their forest to be. Some do not want anything to change, and they distrust federal forest-management activities: “Forests will take care of themselves,” they say. “Just leave them alone.” That can work in some places but not all of them. So we’re in a really tricky place now.
We now understand that we need more fire. We need to start setting wildfires ourselves or letting lightning-caused fires burn to get our landscapes back into rhythm.
Mahaffey: How did Indigenous cultures think about and interact with fire before North America was colonized? I’m curious, too, about how we now view those Indigenous relationships to fire. And, of course, there is no monolithic North American Indigenous culture.
Krawchuk: I am not Indigenous, so I can only share my understanding as a colonist settler who has worked with Indigenous community members on fire traditions. Fire would be used for ceremonial purposes, to consider the relationship with the land. Just the act of working with fire had a spiritual value and vitality to it. A collaborator and colleague of mine, Frank Lake, is Indigenous, with membership in multiple tribes in Northern California. He talks about fire as an ecocultural medicine, a way to tend and to build a relationship with the land. It was used to encourage fresh forage that would entice deer, bringing them into open view to be hunted. A fire can create rich forest and grass communities with high protein values that wildlife prefer to sticks, twigs, and shrubbery.
Then there is the plant community itself, where particular herbs, wildflowers, and bulbs provide resources that are cultivated and stored. Оaks are stewarded by fire. It keeps them open grown, so acorns that fall to the ground are less likely to be infested with the larvae of beetles. The oak trees themselves can grow broad and open, rather than closed and squeezed in for light, as they do if there are conifers around them because of fire exclusion.
And tribal communities recognized that without fuel reduction a forest can be a vulnerable location. But cultural burning and access to forests have been restricted for Indigenous communities as we have consolidated where they can live. Their inability to access this land is disruptive to both the ecology and the continuation of culture. These are large and continuing effects of colonization.
Mahaffey: Let’s talk more about fire as it relates to structures of power. I’m curious about the history of that and where you see it going.
Krawchuk: It’s about the power to decide. Coexisting with fire means allowing some wildfires to burn in a managed way, recognizing that they can have benefits. But making a decision about where or where not to let a fire burn creates a legal liability. Agencies and individuals can be sued for allowing a fire to burn, with differences in public and private land contexts. A fire manager making a decision may look like they’re in a position of power, but often they really have only one choice: to suppress the fire. If they don’t, they are opening themselves up to a Russian roulette of consequences depending on how the wind blows, quite literally. Though these decisions are supported by wildfire analytics, there is always uncertainty. If a community burns and you are the one who said, “This can be a managed wildfire,” your career is on the line.
Then there’s the power of fire as a weapon. Earlier I compared firefighting to a war machine, but historically fire has been used in war itself. The lobbing of fireballs into castles is an obvious example. The Romans would use fire to burn fields so that their enemies wouldn’t have food to eat. It wouldn’t necessarily be used to destroy communities, but it would destroy resources to make them vulnerable. So we’re less willing to embrace its goodness because it has been used for atrocious things in the past.
Talking about power also makes me think of the power we feel we have over fire. We spend billions of dollars trying to suppress fires every year, even though it’s widely recognized in the science community that a lot of that work is ineffective. So why do we continue doing it? There’s an interesting power flow there: An inability to recognize that the power one thinks one has is not actually producing the desired outcome. And an inability to pivot effectively toward better approaches.
Mahaffey: In an unjust society, maybe the illusion of power is all the powerful need to maintain it. I think about global corporations like Exxon, who are now, for business reasons, recognizing means of producing energy without the internal-combustion engine. But they spent quite a lot of time and money fighting that revolution, knowing that we were going to run out of fossil fuels and that their business model would eventually die.
Krawchuk: Or not knowing what the effective pivot would be. It’s not always simple to pivot. So we stick with the status quo as long as we can.
The other issue related to power is equity: So much of the power — or perceived power — of firefighting leads to inequities in vulnerable communities, whether we’re talking about firefighters who have fought hard for disability and retirement benefits or outdoor workers in increasingly smoke-filled summers. We expect someone to put out that fire, and that person is going to have an increased cancer risk or a higher chance of death because of that work — and they’re likely not making nearly enough money for what they’re being asked to do. Then there’s the issue of who has insurance. When a rich person’s house burns down in Malibu, the owner could say, “Oh, we’ll just rebuild it.” But what about the low-income workers who live nearby? Maybe they lost everything, and they had no insurance. In global terms climate change is now leading to an increased likelihood of fires in the Arctic, degrading the permafrost and leaving northern and Arctic communities vulnerable. Burning forests in the Amazon is also contributing to that degradation. The power dynamics of fire and climate change are widespread and painful to think about.
Mahaffey: So how do we learn to live with fire in the U.S.?
Krawchuk: Learning to coexist with fire in a way that is ecologically and socially just is tricky. There’s no clear answer. What is clear is that the status quo is not working, yet we’re stuck with it because the alternatives are too scary or uncertain or might not be palatable to some folks. We need to combine traditional ecological knowledge and Western science to understand how fire can be used in landscape stewardship. But there’s nuance to it. It’s not going to be something we can homogeneously paint across different landscapes and geographies and cultures. There’s a lot to be learned. And the federal government — and state governments as well, particularly in the West — have made large investments in support of collaborative forest landscape management: getting community members to come together, understand the science, identify where they disagree, and figure out a common path. We’re never going to all share the same values, but we need to understand what the pros and cons are and why the status quo is not sustainable. We need to be able to identify alternatives and come to some agreement on a path forward. And if it doesn’t work, we try again. None of this is a technological or hard-science fix. This is social sciences coming together with biophysical and natural sciences. As a biophysical scientist who is in awe of social sciences and the humanities, I wonder: How do we do this? How do we build understanding and trust and relationships? It’s like trying to find out how family members can get along.
The science part is just using what we know. Fuel treatments work in the right place and at the right time, but we need more prescribed fire as part of those treatments. One of the major constraints on that is air quality: What is the appropriate amount of particulate matter to allow? In the 1970s we put in a lot of regulations that can prevent us from moving forward. Air quality is important, but those regulations can inhibit the good work of prescribed fire. Wildfires aren’t regulated and often produce unhealthy air quality. One of the primary goals of prescribed fire is to reduce the impacts from wildfires. Oregon recently changed regulations to be more flexible and lenient for smoke from prescribed fires.
There’s a lot of controversy in fire science. The situation is reminiscent of that book Merchants of Doubt [by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, about science around toxic rain, tobacco, and DDT being discounted by the industries that benefited from them — Ed.] in that there’s a small constituency who have enough money and time to sow doubt in scientific consensus and stall progress. A small group of folks continually contribute to legal processes with their own science, which has been disputed by the broader science community. They object to fuel treatments and restoration on federal lands, claiming that the science is not resolved. Because they consistently have the funding to amplify that voice, they are successful. Many projects that most of us would agree are necessary are stuck in legal battles.
Mahaffey: So the people who accept validated scientific principles do not have the same resources that the fringe obstructionists do?
Krawchuk: That’s correct. It seems to be their full-time job. Who’s got time to step up and challenge them? It’s easier to ignore it than to engage yet again and continue that . . . I’ll call it a conversation, but it isn’t a good-faith one.
Mahaffey: Is this type of resistance based on some idea that land shouldn’t be controlled by the government in any way?
Krawchuk: In part, I suppose. There’s a distrust of federal management and an idea that the land can take care of itself. It’s a very strong environmentalist ethic that at times also disrespects traditional ecological knowledge and tribal lifeways.
For example, we’re in a legal battle regarding what we call our “dry-side forests” in Oregon and Washington as a result of a recent change in a rule called the “Eastside Screens.” This type of behavior has been playing out for quite a long time, and its impact is huge in terms of stalling these forest-restoration and fuel-treatment initiatives we’ve been talking about. Similar stalls occur across many dry-forest projects in the Pacific Northwest.
What doesn’t match up with Merchants of Doubt is that there it was industry scientists combating progress, whereas this type of resistance is more of a worldview. There’s no direct economic benefit to these fringe-science folks. They have contributions from particular industries, but it’s not millions of dollars. They are motivated by deep-seated beliefs to continue this fight and to recruit philanthropy to support their ideas. Part of the group has a legal background that allows them to lead in legal proceedings, and so it moves forward.
Mahaffey: You’ve mentioned prescribed burns. They are clearly an essential element of what we need to be doing, yet there are some roadblocks to them.
Krawchuk: Prescribed burning can be done by private landowners on their own lands — clearing off piles of wood or maybe a field or underburning in a forest. It could also be on public lands and have cultural involvement, where tribal members as well as federal forest agencies and community members are all involved. Like fuel treatments, those burns typically have the goal of reducing wildfire fuel, though oftentimes they have ecological benefits and spiritual and ceremonial value as well. The Nature Conservancy is an agency that is responsible for stewardship of broad parcels of land and uses prescribed fire predominantly for ecological benefit, with risk reduction for private landowners being a secondary piece. Federal agencies also engage in prescribed fire, with a goal of increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration and reducing the risk of wildfires.
An active point of conversation, particularly for a lot of students in my classes, is whether cultural burning has to be done by traditional Indigenous communities, or can it be a practice within the culture as a whole, as part of a legacy of land ownership? My view is that only Indigenous peoples can truly perform their stewardship burning, but we need to invite everyone into a new way of using prescribed fire and learning from it.
Mahaffey: What are you working on next?
Krawchuk: A natural phenomenon called “fire refugia”: green spots or places within fires that burn less severely or less frequently. As we see more and more high-severity fires across entire landscapes, it’s becoming increasingly important to protect and to recognize fire refugia for their ecological value and broader ecosystem services: aesthetics, erosion mitigation, wildlife habitat, seed sources, microclimates, and landscape heterogeneity.
We’ve been developing different studies to understand what creates fire refugia, and we’re working with forest planning teams to identify places as having refugia qualities. We’re asking: Under hot or dry conditions like we are seeing in the West, where are we most likely to be able to maintain our old-growth forest? Where are the best places to prioritize protecting mature forests for their carbon value, their aesthetic value, and their ecological value? How and where might we create more mature- and old-growth-forest fire refugia? This is part of a broader effort to identify climate-change refugia — the slow lanes in the landscape where you have a longer lag time for preserving older structure and helping ecosystems adapt to the changing climate. Forest managers may have a hunch where that could be, but often they need some science and analytics to back up their hunch. Identifying fire refugia can also help inform protection of older-forest species, like the threatened northern spotted owl, whose safety is a priority for forest conservation in our region.
Mahaffey: I imagine it can also validate some of that Indigenous knowledge that gets dismissed as mystical or naive. Once you map those kinds of things to a scientific model, it legitimizes them for more people.
Krawchuk: An interesting example of that is some of the work we’ve been doing in Northern California and southwest Oregon around “smoke shading” — the cooling effect of the smoke cover from fires. A colleague with tribal membership shared with me that traditional ecological knowledge says we could use careful prescribed burning when it’s hot, because the smoke shading can make it cooler in the rivers for salmon. If we include a smoke-shading variable in our computer models, we see that in some of these topographically complex landscapes where we find fire refugia, the low-hanging smoke is having a cooling effect and resulting in more-dampened fire behavior. So those two perspectives are supporting each other.
Mahaffey: How does the modern relationship with fire in the U.S. compare to other cultures?
Krawchuk: The area where I am now, outside Florence, Italy, is interesting. We spent the last three months exploring different “pyrogeographies” across the Mediterranean: Portugal, Spain, southern France, and now here. Compared to the U.S., Europe doesn’t have the same history of colonization, where you can isolate pre- and postcolonial structures. Here the most recent big changes have occurred because of people moving from a rural to an urban way of life over the last century or so. Then within the last forty to fifty years these farmlands have become flammable and are contributing to a wildfire problem in the Mediterranean. But changes have been happening for millennia. Without colonization leading to the loss of cultural fire and the suppression of wildfires, there’s been this more constant rhythm of change happening in Europe, going back to the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans. So it seems like a fruitful place to think about adaptation to climate change. What if, in the U.S., we’d just been changing slowly like they’ve been doing in Europe? What can we learn from it?
Australia has a strong Aboriginal culture of burning that is now being reclaimed and revitalized, but I don’t think there is a clear route to a total reclaiming of fire culture and fire stewardship even in that country. As a society they face the same hurdle of recognizing what some peoples have done to other peoples and how to reconcile that. There are just so many layers of hurt and reparation in these places where Indigenous communities have been disconnected from their landscapes and their lifeways. And then we expect them to teach us? We all need to respectfully learn about the geographies — and pyrogeographies — of the places we live in and care about.