BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.
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MALE CORRESPONDENT: Tonight it’s now a historic emergency, the largest fire ever in California now bigger than the size of Los Angeles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s the Mendocino Complex Fire and officials warned that it won't be fully contained until September. The Carr Fire, meanwhile, has damaged a thousand homes. Arson is thought to be the cause of the Holy Fire, which has forced the evacuation of 20,000 people. The charges against the suspect could land him in jail for life.
BOB GARFIELD: As firefighters try to manage the 15 wide-scale blazes in California, across the Atlantic Spain and Portugal are also battling raging wildfires. Last month, we heard the story of Greek citizens fleeing a fire into the sea and drowning.
GREEK MAN: It was like a sea of fire, a wave of fire.
BOB GARFIELD: This year's conflagrations have made familiar landscapes alien to us, but one thing in these fiery times remains unchanged, presidential politicking via Twitter.
MALE CORRESPONDENT READING TRUMP TWEET: “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!”
STEPHEN PYNE: I have no idea what he's talking about. Wildland fires are not like urban fires. It’s not just a case of opening a hydrant and squirting water.
BOB GARFIELD: Stephen J. Pyne is a former firefighter, self-described “pyromantic” and author of 25 books on wildland fires.
STEPHEN PYNE: You would have to divert the Sacramento River to put those fires out, so that is just nonsense from start to finish. I don’t know what that's about, except just a way to beat up on environmental issues.
One of the things about fire is that it is very often used to animate some other message. If you’ve got a theme, a topic, something you want to promote, if you can put a picture or footage of fire you're going to give attention, and that's what I suspect is going on here. But fire has its own story. It has its own problems with reporting and journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: And let’s get to those. What do the media tend to get the most wrong?
STEPHEN PYNE: Well, they've always relied on two templates. One is fire as a disaster.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it seems like we just got done with last year’s fire season here in California, which was nothing short of disastrous, and here we go again.
STEPHEN PYNE: Fire often is a disaster but not only a disaster. And the other is --
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Fighting these fires has been like waging a war.
STEPHEN PYNE: The firefight as battlefield.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: More than 4,000 firefighters continue to battle the Mendocino Complex Fire.
STEPHEN PYNE: We’re not at war with fire and, if we are, we’re gonna take a lot of casualties, we’re gonna spend a lot of money and we’re going to lose. If I were to frame the larger story, and I do this as a fire historian, I would say the problem is that we have too much bad fire, too little good fire and too much combustion. And that means we have too many fires that are burning communities, killing people.
At the same time, we have too few good fires substituting for them, getting our landscapes into a more habitable shape. And as far as the business of houses burning, it really bubbled up in California in the post-war era, considered a kind of California quirk and then suddenly it’s all over the West. But it's not staying in the West. It’s burned outside Austin, Texas.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Several are burning near the capital city of Austin and the only way to battle the quick-moving fires is from the air.
STEPHEN PYNE: In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, it’s burning out along the Coastal Plains.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The people here, they’re, they’re surprised, they’re devastated.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: More than 14,000 people fled Gatlinburg that night.
STEPHEN PYNE: It’s not something that can be quarantined off in California or just restricted as another freak of Western violence, like grizzly bear attacks or something. Suddenly, this is a national problem.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about this notion of good fire and bad fire.
STEPHEN PYNE: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: Fires that burn a lot of timber have their place in the lifecycle of forests. How is that so?
STEPHEN PYNE: Fire started on Earth as soon as plants colonized the land. It emerges out of life. Life created the oxygen. Life created the fuel. Think of this as creative destruction in nature’s economy. By removing fire or trying to remove fire, we’ve deteriorated the ecological health and integrity of these systems, and one of the manifestations is to allow a pileup of combustibles that make more dangerous and damaging fires possible.
BOB GARFIELD: Then there's managed fires that are created as a firefighting tool.
STEPHEN PYNE: Well, this is actually a very ancient practice. Part of what made us human was being able to cook and, in a sense, we soon learned to cook landscapes. And to be able to distribute fire in the landscape is an enormous power.
BOB GARFIELD: But particularly over the last number of decades, strategies for managing fire have changed. What was the turning point in the United States?
STEPHEN PYNE: The Great Fires of 1910 put us into a kind of full suppression mode. It traumatized the young Forest Service and then for 50 years the country tried to remove fire from lands as much as it could. By the 1960s, the consequences of that were becoming more and more apparent, a real deterioration of many landscapes. A lot of grasslands were being overtaken by woody plants and becoming really unattractive and unusable, as well as major firetraps. So in 1968, the National Park Service adopted a fire restoration program. By 1978, the Forest Service had come onboard.
So all of the apparatus were all in place 40 to 50 years ago. And it was predicted if we didn't solve this, we would have ever-growing fire problems. The 70s and early 80s were really the last time all the contributing factors were more or less benign enough that if we moved at scale we could have deflected the trajectory of the whole system.
BOB GARFIELD: And then what happened? And I actually know the answer to this. It’s Yellowstone.
STEPHEN PYNE: In 1988, Yellowstone burned and kept burning week after week for several months and the media camped out there.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Fires bore down on a national icon, the Old Faithful Inn.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: There are a lot of angry people who believe that the National Park Service is responsible, that it let the fires burn too freely for too long.
BOB GARFIELD: The New York Times documentary series Retro Report delved into the public pressure officials faced as the wildfire ravaged the Park.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President Reagan moved to deal with a firestorm of protest over his administration’s “let it burn” policy.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Area ranchers have said the “let it burn” attitude makes no sense.
STEPHEN PYNE: And by then everything is working in the wrong direction and it has been a steady ratcheting up of worsening conditions, and it’s very unlikely that we will be able to get ahead of them, except in very local areas. There's no reason for communities to be burning. We know how to keep houses from burning. We just have to rethink and commit to doing it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, what could we have done to prevent those thousand homes that have been rendered to cinders in the Carr Fire?
STEPHEN PYNE: Well, the main vehicle for taking out these houses are not these tsunamis of flame. It’s blizzards of sparks, millions of embers flying around ahead of the fire. And if there is any point of vulnerability in the house, the roof, combustible vegetation right next to wooden siding, then that becomes a point of ignition. And once you get several houses on the fringe burning, then it becomes an urban fire and it's simply going house to house.
How did we solve the urban fire problem? Well, by codes, zoning, ordinances, hardening those houses, identifying the points of vulnerability. Some communities are now proactively putting in these kinds of considerations into new construction, but what do we do with 40 or 50 years of poorly-conceived construction? How do we retrofit, because if we don’t do it fire will do it for us.
BOB GARFIELD: A recent cover of The Economist shows firefighters facing a, a, a blaze and the headline is, “In the Line of Fire, Losing the War Against Climate Change.” Is that making too big an assumption?
STEPHEN PYNE: Well, I think that's another example of using fire to animate another topic. You know, fire is a reaction and I think of it as a driverless car. It's barreling down the highway integrating everything around it and that sometimes this may be, you know, a tricky intersection that we call wildland urban interface, it may be a dangerous curve we call climate change, it may be a lot of road debris. We would still have a fire problem if the climate was the same as it had been in the ‘70s, but climate change is certainly aggravating and acting on that.
BOB GARFIELD: Are we, indeed, in a crisis or is this just a little bit more of -- the same?
STEPHEN PYNE: Well, it's more of the same but if you want to get media or political or public attention, you’ve got to burn up a bunch of houses and kill people or involve celebrities. So 400 acres outside Santa Barbara, California is worth 400,000, outside Winnemucca. In fact, Winnemucca had 450,000 acres burn earlier this year and I don’t think anybody knew about it.
But there's a deeper story in which there's a slow disaster unfolding, which is the absence of good fire in so many places that need it. And in the absence of tame fire, we’re just going to have feral fires, which is what we’re seeing.
BOB GARFIELD: So I’m an editor.
Your advice to me is to go to Florida -- that's where they're doing managed fires -- and see if that policy might be exported elsewhere, even to hedonists in Southern California.
STEPHEN PYNE: [LAUGHS] Well, we’ve been trying for 50 years to export the Florida model and it hasn't worked as well as we’d like. And I think what Western fire officers are now doing is trying to work with fire, a managed wildfire, if you can accept that. They’re half suppression, half prescribed fire. It’s a very interesting fusion, different from what we see in Florida, different from what we've had before. And I think we’re seeing a phase change, at least in the wildland fire community, in that direction.
BOB GARFIELD: We’ve been talking about the overall ecosystem and we’ve also talked a bit about the media ecosystem [LAUGHS], how we tend to focus on celebrities and, you know, multi-million-dollar houses --
STEPHEN PYNE: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: -- cantilevered over some canyon. Is the media ecosystem making it harder for us as a society to deal with the overall realities of wildfires?
STEPHEN PYNE: You know, the media ecosystem is following the public ecosystem. This is what people want to hear. You expect to see air tankers flying around, giant helicopters dropping water, whether they're really helpful or not. There's a certain amount of political theater, a certain amount of media display. So I don't necessarily blame the media. I would like the media to begin shifting, nudging, if you will, the story, but where is the human drama narrative, the interest narrative that is going to allow the media to tell this other story in a way that doesn't penalize them? You know, you’re putting on this news story and your competitor is putting on the old, here we are, the troops out fighting the fire, it's a disaster raging, who is going to get the audience?
So we need to come up with a good, tough working narrative that can serve our purpose, and I don't know that that's the job of the media. It would be great if you did it but I think that's also the task of academics and writers and artists and the rest of us, to give you something that can be as compelling as the firefight because we’re not going to get ahead of these problems. Very few of them are under the control of the fire community, itself. You know, there’s an old saying, it’s better to be lucky than good, and we better hope we’re lucky in the next decade or so.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve, thank you very much.
STEPHEN PYNE: Oh, you’re welcome.
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BOB GARFIELD: Fire historian Stephen J. Pyne is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the reporter who’s covered more than 400 Texas executions is retiring but plans to keep attending.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.