Cutting Lines

Wildfire is not the destructive, devastating thing it is made out to be. Sure, it can be, but only because a century of forest fire exclusion has resulted in tinderbox-like conditions prone to high-intensity, high-severity crown fires. Fire is a natural process, one that keeps forests healthy. It encourages seed germination in some species, adds nitrogen to soils, and clears out excess debris and young trees. When we stop natural wildfires from happening, forests get overly dense, and burn catastrophically.

Lightning is a natural ignition source, unlike a campfire or cigarette, and these fires should be allowed to burn despite what Smokey the Bear has told us. Even forests that are left moonscapes by the new norm of powerful, high-severity and high-intensity wildfires come back in time. Life goes on, and while grasslands and oak brush and juniper may not look as nice to the average home buyer as the forest that preceded it, the mountains don’t care. The mountains have seen everything from deserts to alpine forests come and go, blowing away on the winds of time.

However, the situation is so much more complex than we want it to be. After all, fire can be an awesome, destructive force and homes will inevitably be located in its path. The problem is not wildfire, the problem is irresponsible land management decisions and the fear-based relationship that we have with wildfire, which leads to irrational management decisions that can cost firefighter lives. Our relationship with wildfire needs to change. A lack of public understanding about wildfire has allowed local and national media to pounce on the fear that has been instilled by shortsighted government land management policy. Unfortunately, getting the right message across to the public is difficult because of many reasons.

We are subject to short-sighted tactical decisions that are made because the media stirs up fear where none should exist. The City of Sedona lost $1 billion in tourism because people thought the Slide Fire was still burning for months after it had gone out. That is real money, and real power. Can you imagine if that power was directed appropriately? If the news media were responsible in their coverage, and used their platform to educate the general public instead of engender fear, there would be less impetus for managers to commit firefighters to dangerous circumstances. Responsible media reporting should not be so absent from the wildfire arena- everyday people can easily grasp the concept that wildfire is a natural process, and can even be utilized as a tool for responsible land management.

Firefighters are often subject to short-sighted tactical decisions because of agency liability. If a Public Information Officer told the truth to the media, and said that "everything is under control, you guys should really chill out", and then someone got hurt or a house burned down, it would make the agency look bad. If a fire is being intensely covered by the media, there is a much stronger impetus to put it out as quickly as possible. This often translates to "as dangerously as possible".

However, the danger inherent in the occupation is supported by institutions and policies formed around ill-advised management decisions and media-to-public relations. We as a society have created a problem by neglecting the ecosystem that we depend on, and we are now losing lives as a result.However, the real kicker to all of this is that there is an answer, a solution to the problem. We have ignorantly created a disconnect with the natural world; forest health issues and the growing wildfire problem remain largely unknown by individuals living in dense population centers where asphalt prevents wildfire. If the right message was told by the right messengers, and everyone heard and understood the real story, including the science, politics, and the human side, we would be better equipped to find a solution. We would be ok with letting fires burn in the middle of nowhere, and accepting smoke impacts as part of our lives in a fire-prone landscape. We wouldn’t be sending young men and women to the front lines of climate change, asking them to risk their lives for a lost cause. Instead we would develop programs that fund preventive actions around fire-prone communities, stopping the problem before it starts, and allowing our forests to heal with fire.

Instead of being sent into situations with extreme exposure, firefighters should be preemptively clearing brush around structures while fire is still far away, and leaving long before it gets there. They should be putting some fire on the ground here and there to help the fire along or to tidy up the edges. They shouldn’t be suppressing fires in desolate wilderness, they shouldn’t be dragging indefensible hand line into steep canyons where anything could go wrong. They shouldn’t be subject to the whimsy of a homesick Division leader who hasn’t left his truck for two weeks, or to tactical decisions based upon political pressure from high above. For every close call there is a lesson learned, but for every pattern that emerges, there exists a need for rapid and systemic change.

Cutting Lines seeks to help enact or at least motivate this needed change. If the right message was told by the right people, to the right audience, it could be the catalyst for impactful change. The vision of this project is having firefighters tell their stories directly to each other and the interested public, in hopes of helping propagate a thought paradigm shift about safety issues within the fire community. The message of Cutting Lines is clear: 1) firefighter lives are not disposable, and they should not be expected to suffer and die for a broken system, and 2) by promoting responsible wildfire use and forest treatment projects in the WUI, the situation can be improved. Cutting Lines ultimately stands to get people talking, so that they may introduce new and relevant ideas and spread them among the fire community in the most efficient manner possible. After all, while fire management may seem an overly complex task, it is a human problem requiring a human solution, one that we will all need to work together in order to find. Please share this project and this message with whoever you think might listen, please help us get the message out. Contact: Roy Miller at Fireline Project