Blog post

Defensible Space

“Megafires” are now a staple of life in the West, but how we talk about them illustrates the tension at the heart of the western myth itself.

Jessie Kindig12 November 2018

Photo by Ashley Siple

This article was originally published in Boston Review

In the Pacific Northwest, people are beginning to refer to the month of August as “smoke season.” For most of this past August, for example, the Methow Valley in Washington State was choked with smoke from the Crescent Mountain fire to the southwest and from the McLeod Fire to the north. The Okanogan County post offices and community centers were offering free particulate respirator masks, and fire progression maps were updated daily and posted outside the town halls. Local businesses offered 10 percent off to all firefighting personnel, who were camped in tents on the sprawling rodeo grounds outside of town. Helicopters with drop buckets of water and red fire retardant were constantly overhead. And at dinner, everyone’s cell phone rang at once with fire updates from the county.

The irony is that, when I was growing up there, August was the month that could be most relied upon for sunny weather. But in August of 2014, during the massive Carlton Complex wildfire, nearly 260,000 acres of Okanogan County burned and destroyed 363 homes, the largest single fire in state history. In August of 2015, the Okanogan Complex fires burned over 300,000 acres, killed three U.S. Forest Service firefighters, and forced the evacuation of several towns. My parents were evacuated for several days in 2015, and this summer, I helped them dust ashes from the vegetables in the garden. On particularly bad days, the sun shone red and the air smelled like campfires and hurt your lungs. Not being able to see the mountains hurt your heart.

Smoke season is not exactly new, for the forests of the West have always burned. But the scale of these huge wildfires—“megafires,” they are called—have grown, due to a complex interplay of increased human habitation in and near the forests, the multifaceted effects of climate change, and the long practice of fire suppression rather than fire management by the U.S. Forest Service. While wildfires are a constant of the forests’ ecology, the once-exceptional burns have now become routine.

So routine, in fact, that researchers now study the mental health effects of prolonged exposure to the “smoke apocalypse.” Last summer, New York Times contributing opinion writer (and, like me, a Pacific Northwesterner) Lindy West described smoke-blanketed Seattle, four hours southwest of Okanogan County, as filled with “the claustrophobia, the tension, the suffocating, ugly air,” and rightly pointed to it as a phenomenon exacerbated by climate change. “In Seattle, in a week or so, a big wind will come and give us our blue sky back,” she wrote. “Someday, though, it won’t.”

Indeed, friends of my parents are talking about moving away. Those who stay long for the smoke to clear and for the summer sky to be as blue as it once was. But this nostalgia is worth attending to, for how we talk about the wildfires is also how we talk about the West. The idea of the West—as region, ideology, national mythos—is all about desiring the authentic in a landscape of inauthenticity, about safely yearning for something never there in the first place, about obscuring violence with romance.

Since the landscape of the West is indelibly shaped by its own story, talking about land in the West always contains a moral. How we talk about the wildfires illustrates the tension at the heart of the western myth itself, one that will need to collapse from its own weight if we ever hope to see the sky for what it truly is. And each summer now, that sky is on fire.

Forest fires are an intrinsic part of our world’s carbon-rich ecology. Ecosystems such as Washington’s thick central and eastern forests are reliant on fire to help liberate nutrients in the soil, open the tree cones that need heat to release their seeds, clear out unwanted underbrush, and produce a healthily shifting mosaic of micro-ecologies on the forest floor. Fire is also one of the oldest—and perhaps the most determinative—parts of the human world, and native economies used it to transform the North American landscape well before Europeans arrived. Native peoples turned forests into grassland and savannah, cleared and carefully curated forest vegetation and fauna to better hunt and gather, and even practiced fire prevention and, when necessary, fought wildfires.

Living among wildfire smoke is also not new, especially in the Northwest as settlements formed in the drainages and valleys of mountains where smoke tends to pool. During the big fires—1865, when a million acres burned from the Olympics to the Sierras, the Tillamook cycle, which burned from 1933 until 1951 in a series of reburns—smoke was endemic to the Pacific Northwest. In the 1880s, smoke was reportedly so thick through the summer and fall seasons that geological survey crews in the Cascades had to abandon their work.

Yet today Washington State has more homes in fire-prone wildland areas—known as the “wildland-urban interface,” or WUI—than anywhere else in the country. There is estimated to be a 40 percent increase in homes in the WUI between 2001 and 2030, with no sign of such development abating, despite the megafires. New developments have no mandatory review procedures to assess wildfire risk. The Okanogan County Comprehensive Plan on managing growth, for example, released just after the Carlton Complex fires in 2014, didn’t include a single concrete guideline or requirement. Instead, it is up to each individual property owner to reduce risk on their own land.

As a result, state and federal firefighters have to actively suppress fires—not merely manage them—in order to save homes (which they do with remarkable and laudable precision). This suppression leaves forests overly dense and ready to burn while the increased presence of people also makes fires much more likely: in the dry tinderbox of southern California, for instance, 95 percent of fires are started by human activity.

The reigning ethos of development is, of course, private property: let people do what they like on their own land. There is a byzantine patchwork of environmental regulations and land usage laws at the county, state, and federal level, but these are largely geared toward managing growth rather than suppressing it. “I’m not real big on over-regulating people,” Andy Hover, one of the current Okanogan County Commissioners, said in the middle of this year’s fire season. “Rules and regulations are kind of like—well, is that really what we want?”

Whether or not “we” really want rules and regulations in the West is the historically vexed question that has driven the development of the West since colonial settlement. Despite its mythic ethos of self-reliance, independence, and rugged autonomy, a massive influx of federal funds and intervention has always been necessary for non-Native settlers to live in the West. The federal government funded decades of military campaigns and genocidal wars against indigenous people to clear the land. Federal land grants of over 100 million acres, tax incentives, and government loans all helped build the transcontinental railroads, which both opened the West to increased settlement and built the power of banks and finance on Wall Street. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered free land to white farmers if they agreed to “improve” it for five years; and the Dawes Severalty Act in 1887 broke up the grants of reservation land initially sanctioned for Native Americans. One name for this, popularized by historian Frederick Jackson Turner, is the frontier thesis; another is manifest destiny. Yet another is imperialism. Its legacy continues in the approach to western housing developments today: what was once held in common is nominally and culturally understood as the preserve of the individual yet underwritten by the federal government.

Today, more than half of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget goes to fighting wildfires and, increasingly, keeping them away from people’s private property.

So while fire season is not new, it still feels new to many of us who are used to seeing summer mountain skies where the blue was so vast it humbled even the mountains at its edge. It feels new when the hills you’ve driven through for years are lined with blackened, charred trunks, and the old and chipping Smokey Bear sign, just across the street from the tiny U.S. Forest Service office in the Methow Valley, continually points to the color-coded scale of today’s fire danger: red for EXTREME.

Actually, Smokey Bear is part of the reason fire season feels new to many of us. By the 1920s, spurred on by the 1910 Big Burn across the Northern Rockies, the U.S. Forest Service started promoting fire prevention as a concept. It was energized by the can-do progressive emphasis on large-scale scientific engineering and encouraged by timber companies whose capital was tied up in living forests. Fire prevention soon became the most public and, to Congress, most fundable, responsibility of the U.S. Forest Service. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal threw money and labor-power into the forests, leaving a string of Civilian Conservation Corps-era wooden fire lookouts with clapboard windows and cupola roofs dotting the peaks of the Cascades. World War II, with its militarization of everyday life and its emphasis on propaganda, made fire prevention a national, governmental program, and by the early 1950s, the advertising agencies of Madison Avenue had gotten involved.

Smokey Bear first appeared on a poster in 1944, but in 1950, an orphaned black bear cub was found in New Mexico after a large burn in Lincoln National Forest. The little cub was bandaged and fed, christened “Hotfoot Teddy” and then “Smokey.” Smokey was a runaway advertising success. By 1968, he was better known than the president, had his own act of Congress regulating commercial exploitation of his name, and had his likeness exported to other countries. Even today Smokey, with his belted jeans and ranger hat, is recognized by 96 percent of adults in the United States.

Though it is true that most forest fires are anthropogenic—that is, caused by human action—Smokey’s famous catchphrase, “only YOU can prevent forest fires” is neither correct nor ecologically desirable. Nonetheless, the aggressive fire suppression policies of the USFS and related land management agencies meant that most of the American public thought wildfires were a problem, not a natural part of the ecological cycle. Without the necessary prescribed burns, the potential for megafires only grew. By the 1970s, the scientific understanding of fire’s ecological role increased, and some lightning-caused fires were allowed to burn. But the 1988 Yellowstone fires ignited controversy around the “let it burn” policy.

The assumption that wildfires should be rare and that smoke season is new is a holdover from one of the most tenacious colonial myths of the West—that when Europeans arrived, the land was empty and that it was somehow untouched. As Native people have been arguing since the moment of contact, the land was of course never empty. As environmental historians and ecologists have been arguing for decades, there is no “untouched” or pristine state of nature. But the desire to claim the new, to care for its demise as you yourself contribute to its spoiling, is the arrogant romance of the West. And the West, like most traditional romances, works only when the object of desire is in danger of being lost or has vanished already.

Today there are still 300 million acres of western forest with unnaturally heavy fuel loads. Combined with the high drought cycles brought by climate change, the forests are a bundle of kindling just waiting for a match.

In 1892, Owen Wister, author of the original cowboy romance novel The Virginian, came to the Methow Valley to visit his Harvard roommate, a local booster named Guy Waring. During the visit, Wister hunted mountain goats but after shooting several, he declared an end to the hunt because “a true American should feel it his right to use and his duty to preserve for those coming after” all the resources of the West. Similar to his fictional cowboy hero and his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Wister believed that good men should apply violence judiciously to mitigate the loss of the West that they themselves had helped incur. The self-aggrandizing remorse came, for the goats, too late.

In this sense, nostalgia and violence were marks of prior belonging and one’s own authenticity: to recognize loss you have to know what blue skies preceded it. It is no surprise that both Wister and Roosevelt—who understood themselves as stewards of the wilderness and the West—were big game hunters as well as avid imperialists. Creating death signifies that you once knew life, and allows you to become the steward and narrator of that life’s memory. Among many other western things, this explains the co-emergence of genocidal wars and federal policies to decimate Native peoples with the “noble savage” archetype of these same people as symbols of a tragically vanished world.

Today, Virginian Ridge looks out over the Methow Valley town of Winthrop, which revitalized itself as a frontier-themed tourist town in the 1970s when the highway was completed over the mountains. Town ordinance mandates that buildings on the central street meet western aesthetic requirements for the sake of “authenticity.” The Duck Brand Saloon—whose bartender Milton Storey was said to be Wister’s cowboy model for the Virginian—was turned into the town hall, though there is a present-day reincarnation a few doors down. Winthrop’s Shafer Historical Museum puts the pioneer authenticity of the town on display, with a collection of rusted band saws and slag cuts, rifles and muskets, butter molds and apple peelers, gold pans, and a faded old floral print dress. As a child, I spent hours at reincarnated pioneer towns like this, wearing a gingham bonnet my grandmother had sewn for me, imagining how it might have been. But an old object displayed with reverence is never how it was.

During the last days of August I went to Winthrop’s Town Hall to look at the fire maps. The information clerk, a woman with short gray hair and kind eyes, told me about growing up in a farming family off the Chewuch River just upvalley, before the highway opened, when she was sent to town once a month on a horse to pick up the check from the creamery. “I’m protective of my little valley,” she told me. When I asked what she thought of the fire season this year, her mouth made a firm line. “When lightning strikes they used to have it out in days,” she said. “But now they let it burn, say it’s good for the forests. But I think people are more important than forests.”

I was reading a book about wildfires in a local bakery in Winthrop when a contractor who rents firefighting equipment to the Forest Service gamely tried to pick me up. But because this is a western story, instead of offering me his phone number, he offered me a pamphlet on how to defend my home from wildfire.

“Defensible space,” I learned, is the goal behind any wildfire preparedness campaign. It denotes the area between a house and an oncoming fire that has been managed by the homeowner to reduce wildfire risk and provide firefighters with a clear space of operations. Defensible space has become the watchword of private programs such as Firewise USA®, a partnership between a nonprofit organization and federal agencies that teaches property owners how to “adapt to living with wildfire” and prepare their homes for fire risk.

On particularly bad days, the sun shone red and the air smelled like campfires and hurt your lungs. Not being able to see the mountains hurt your heart.

Creating defensible space involves reducing excessive vegetation (shrubs, dense clusters of trees, dried grass) from around the house, and replacing them with well-irrigated lawn or flowerbeds, as well as surrounding your home with inflammable materials to deflect burning embers. Depending on your particular vegetation type and the percent of slope on which your house rests, you will need between 30 to 200 feet of defensible space surrounding your home.

The idea of defensible space strikes me as an intrinsically western one. It has taken a tremendous amount of government money, environmental engineering, and colonial violence for there to be such a thing as “private property” in the West, and for people to live out their—historically speaking—absurd fantasies of independence and self-reliance, to create their own western defensible space. And yet still, for the one third of the United States that lives in the wildland-urban interface, each house in each subdivision attempts to surround itself by its own barrier of self-created defensible space, each pretending to be self-reliant yet in need of massive federal funds for power, water, roads, and firefighting.

I don’t want my parents’ home to burn. I spent part of my trip home this summer helping them water the lawn and flower beds around the house and mow the dried pasture grass—all the while contemplating the stumps of larches that had been cut down outside my bedroom window. And yet I recognize that the demand and the desire to live in the West, as it has long been practiced in this country, is destroying the possibility of actually doing so. Defensible space is the present lodged securely within its own narrowed future. If the western narrative stays in this future anterior tense, the story will always end badly.

Jessie Kindig is an editor at Verso Books in New York City.

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