The New Approach to Fighting Wildfires

By Stephen J. Pyne | Slate

Fire season has so far mostly meant Alaska, which has racked up 1.8 million burned acres and counting. But fires are also moving down the West Coast, with a record burn on the Olympic Peninsula and houses again burning in central Washington. Flames are moving into drought-blasted California a couple of months early. The Forest Service estimates it will need an additional $800 million to $1.7 billion to pay for the season’s expected costs.

But wildfire statistics are a poor proxy for what is happening. Last year Florida prescribe-burned 2.5 million acres—two-thirds as much acreage as burned by wildfire throughout the country. And this year’s largest fire to date in the Lower 48 is actually a managed wildfire. The Whitetail and Sawmill fires on the San Carlos Apache Reservation are being controlled through a confine-and-contain (or box-and-burn) strategy. The complex is 35,000 acres and growing, and doing what neither prescribed fire nor suppressed wildfire could. Last year San Carlos similarly managed two fires that together topped out at 84,000 acres. America’s fire scene is more complex than the usual media and political obsession with burned houses, dead people, and celebrity landscapes like Yosemite suggests. So are the strategies to cope with it.

Three strategies are now in play, each the product of a particular era and its peculiar challenges.