Why we should end the "war on fire " and why it would be better for people with environmental sensitivities

Messages
3,700
Likes
4,428
Location
Vermont, school in Western MA
This is a favorite pet issue for me, my primary political concerns are ecological, but as mike davis pointed out in [The Case for Letting Malibu Burn](https://longreads.com/2018/12/04/the-case-for-letting-malibu-burn/), the class aspects are not totally separable from the ecology. I'm mostly not going to focus on the Mike Davis essay and the class analysis, bc trueanon already did that, and I think that some of the details about the science and wonk stuff from a different piece are worth shining a light on. But mike Davis' essay is great for tracing some of the bizarre history, geography, and ecology of fire suppression. It addresses how extremely wealthy homeowners in Malibu have basically gotten protected by the government and in some cases private fire fighting contractors. the most bizarre part to me was how many homeowners in Malibu actually preemptively spray their shrubs with the commercially used fire retardant foam (the red stuff that big fire fighting helicopter crews drop on huge wildfires). Maybe that's only surreal to me bc I'm not an angeleno. But it's just weird how casual that is.
However, while I recommend reading that essay, and listening to the Mike Davis Trueanon appearance, I wanted to address this in a way that focuses even more on the science, particularly bc everyone maybe already is familiar with the mike davis polemic amd the class issues involved.

I'd like to argue that we should start making the term "the war on fire" synonymous with other quixotic and now-infamous government quests like the war on drugs and the war on terror. Firefighters seem more above criticism in the public eye than figures like cops, and less divisive. A lot of that is for good reason and they're certainly less bad on personal moral level than cops, yet there is a difference e between urban firefighters who are immediately saving lives and wildland firefighters who literally most of the time statistically are fighting fires that most likely won't kill anyone, and the suppression of them will kill more people than save , due to how inevitable fire is in most western ecologies even if you pour tons of money into it and dump tons of crap on it.

I was also surprised to learn how much money firefighters for CalFire make ( "The median compensation package — including base pay, special pay, overtime and benefits — for full time Cal Fire firefighters of all categories is more than $148,000 a year.”--ProPublica) and appalled if less surprised to learn how big the calfire budget is compared to budgets for things like controlled burning or basically anything preventative.
(When you see the numbers , you might understand that as drastic as the case of getting all of the people evacuated permanently from the worst fire zones sounds, paying them to do it might be more feasible than what we will spend on waging an eternal war against fire itself. Or even stuff like subsidizing hepa filters and masks for everyone in the vicinity of controlled burns --one of the only possible legitimate oppositions to controlled burns is the smoke they cause that can be a legitimate problem for people with health issues ... Although *of course* this objection doesnt take into account that fire and the resulting smoke are inevitable, and smoke every summer was noted as an occurrence in pre gold rush/developed California). So yeah, while this cant be a completed effortpost due to my Ltd energy and time I'll continue with a few more points and choice quotes from one of the best articles I've read on this. Starting from the stuff about how fucked up the economic incentives and bloat of Calfire is.
[Note: I'm focusing the most heavily on calfire for a few reasons: One--california is a big state, with a uniquely intense fire ecology, often causing worse fires than southwestern states that have just as hot and dry summers, due to Santa ana winds and chaparral in coastal ranges and stuff, and the california fires not only effect more people than other states due to how big california is population wise, but the smoke effects people everywhere in the US. Two, I believe calfire is sort of the apotheosis of everything wrong with fire suppression, and even if it's a bit more extreme in its mistakes than other local fire agencies, it represents the same problems , just taken to another level. Three, California politicians, even if California has it's own fire agency, most likely greatly affect federal agencies as well and the way fire is approached nationally. I was horrified recently to learn that [Gavin Newsom is personally calling for the slight recent improvements in fire policy to be rolled back](https://www.oregonlive.com/wildfire...html?outputType=amp&__twitter_impression=true). The title of the article is misleading, the policy basically only applied to letting wildfires in very remote forest burn and even then, I'm pretty sure they preventatively corralled the fires with fire breaks and even fire retardant usage here and there. In the article it says that federal officials are listening and planning on adjusting the policy to cater to Newsom. So I guess how fire is approached by Californians may end up being how fire is approached by the whole country. It's also worth noting that while conservatives probably have worse approaches to general environmental problems and conservation, this fire ecology issue is a devastating fuckup in one of the most left-leaning states... and yes I know liberals aren't leftists, but california voters are on paper more open to leftism, if you take their primary votes etc as indication... so if california cant make dealing with the most simple current ecological issue politically palatable, who can? The southeast, with conservative governors, is largely better at controlled burns, although if you were trying to excuse california you.could say it's the risk of fire going out of control being hire in california. Source: [this wonderfully thorough and bleak propublica article](https://www.propublica.org/article/they-know-how-to-prevent-megafires-why-wont-anybody-listen). ]
"More quantitatively — and related — fire suppression in California is big business, with impressive year-over-year growth. Before 1999, Cal Fire never spent more than $100 million a year. In 2007-08, it spent $524 million. In 2017-18, $773 million. Could this be Cal Fire’s first $1 billion season? Too early to tell, but don’t count it out. On top of all the state money, federal disaster funds flow down from “the big bank in the sky,” said Ingalsbee. Studies have shown that over a quarter of U.S. Forest Service fire suppression spending goes to aviation — planes and helicopters used to put out fire. A lot of the “air show,” as he calls it, happens not on small fires in the morning, when retardant drops from planes are most effective, but on large fires in the afternoon. But nevermind. You can now call in a 747 to drop 19,200 gallons of retardant. Or a purpose-designed Lockheed Martin FireHerc, a cousin of the C-130. How cool is that? Still only 30% of retardant is dropped within 2,000 yards of a neighborhood, meaning that it stands little chance of saving a life or home. Instead the airdrop serves, at great expense, to save trees in the wilderness, where burning, not suppression, might well do more good.

This whole system is exacerbated by the fact that it’s not just contracts for privately owned aircraft. Much of the fire-suppression apparatus — the crews themselves, the infrastructure that supports them — is contracted out to private firms. “The Halliburton model from the Middle East is kind of in effect for all the infrastructure that comes into fire camps,” Beasley said, referencing the Iraq war. “The catering, the trucks that you can sleep in that are air-conditioned…”
So yeah, the funding is growing a ton, and is already pretty large. The funding for doing controlled burns is way smaller, and they're surprisingly hard to get done: "By comparison, planning a prescribed burn is cumbersome. A wildfire is categorized as an emergency, meaning firefighters pull down hazard pay and can drive a bulldozer into a protected wilderness area where regulations typically prohibit mountain bikes. Planned burns are human-made events and as such need to follow all environmental compliance rules. That includes the Clean Air Act, which limits the emission of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, from human-caused events. In California, those rules are enforced by CARB, the state’s mighty air resources board, and its local affiliates. “I’ve talked to many prescribed fire managers, particularly in the Sierra Nevada over the years, who’ve told me, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get all geared up to do a prescribed burn,’ and then they get shut down.” Maybe there’s too much smog that day from agricultural emissions in the Central Valley, or even too many locals complain that they don’t like smoke. Reforms after the epic 2017 and 2018 fire seasons led to some loosening of the CARB/prescribed fire rules, but we still have a long way to go.

“One thing to keep in mind is that air-quality impacts from prescribed burning are minuscule compared to what you’re experiencing right now,” said Matthew Hurteau, associate professor of biology at University of New Mexico and director of the Earth Systems Ecology Lab, which looks at how climate change will impact forest systems. With prescribed burns, people can plan ahead: get out of town, install a HEPA filter in their house, make a rational plan to live with smoke. Historical accounts of California summers describe months of smoky skies, but as a feature of the landscape, not a bug." [ProPublica].


I realize at this point I'm mostly quoting pieces from this aforementioned article, although tbf you should still read the article bc it is more detailed. And the article is detailed in terms of documenting every point it makes, but crystal clear in terms of the central thesis: A) The science is settled in terms of controlled burns and more laissez faire approach to existing natural wildfires being the right thing for preventing awful megafires, and other negative ecological consequences (some trees actually thrive better in fire... one example from the other coast is the New Jersey pine barrens , which would be outcompeted by other species if fire was totally or mostly stopped there). B) nobody is listening to that science.

But even if the article is fairly clear about that, maybe I can illustrate it in simpler terms and what stands out to a layperson like me: I've always known, even since I was a kid, that controlled burns were "good", bc my dad told me about them, and they're considered as good things in the popular consciousness. **But not only do we do far too little controlled burns, but controlled burns arent enough. We need to let more wildfires burn. This is something that makes people the most uncomfortable. After all, by their literal definitional nature, wildfires can be, well, wild, and difficult to control. The upper middle class and wealthy, as documented in the Mike Davis essay, is concerned about property damage in a more abstract way, something that hurts their investment and excess or discretionary income, whereas other communities of poorer people may genuinely be coming from a place of worrying so much from precarity, that the extra volatility of allowing *more* natural disasters that threaten their shelter may seem counterintuitive and awful.** as someone who lives on ssi, which is below the poverty line, much of the time in the southwest, and reaches for my inhaler or mask even when the air quality index reaches yellow, I understand these fears. They are not unreasonable. But the choice has to be understood not in terms of fire or no fire , but more in terms of kicking the can down the road year after year, in a way that basically ensures volatility will increase , greatly. Bc our fires would be bad just from the fuel stockpile backlog , without adding climate issues and increased exurban development into the mix.

The humanist here might say "well yeah it's easy to say all these things but millions of people already live in fire prone areas", and the class conscious leftist may add "and now poor or lower middle class communities are being added to the fire zones, even if it used to be the clear dichotomy between the wealthy in Malibu who get subsidies and protection from the inevitable first and the poor in the inner city who get inadequate protection from the fires that aren't actually inevitable. Additionally, its hard for poor people to just move". And the race conscious leftist may add that the racial wealth gap being what it is and the environmental racism being what it is, short term effects of any increasing burns will be hitting communities of color hardest.

My response would be that even if you ignore that this is inevitable medium term, and focus entirely on the short term (like we have to put out this fire or those people will suffer, today), that with the bloated budgets from paying for an eternal war on fire, you could pay people to relocate, subsidize cities or towns in non fire zones , with jobs programs, and give everyone a hepa air purifier and masks that cant leave. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars for California alone.
Heres a passage that talks about a training exercise envisioning both a) what would wake people up about the problem, and b) what we are going to choose between, since theres no option to just suppress fire out of existence:

". In 2014, Goulette participated in a planning exercise known as the Quadrennial Fire Review, or QFR, that asked the grim question: What is the disaster scenario that finally causes us to alter in a meaningful way our relationship and response to fire? The answer: something along the lines of a megafire taking out San Diego. In the wake of it, Goulette and others imagined one scenario in which the U.S. Forest Service morphed into an even more militaristic firefighting agency that “overwhelmingly emphasizes full suppression” and is “extremely risk averse.” But they also envisioned a scenario that spawned a new kind of fire force, one focused on “monitoring firesheds” and dedicated to changing the dominant philosophy away “from the war on fire to living with fire.” [Propublica]

Again, if this is such an obvious scientific thing then why aren't we doing controlled burns all the time, already ? The question may seem naive with how badly we've ignored the established science on climate science, but the climate science is harder to grasp for laypeople. It's more non linear with more complex math and modeling, whereas in this case laypeople could actually read a bit and reason some and come to the conclusion that yeah, fires are good for forests. So if it's that obvious, why aren't we doing it?

"In the Southeast which burns more than twice as many acres as California each year — fire is defined as a public good. Burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry. At the same time, California burn bosses typically suffer no consequences for deciding not to light. No promotion will be missed, no red flags rise. “There’s always extra political risk to a fire going bad,” Beasley said. “So whenever anything comes up, people say, OK, that’s it. We’re gonna put all the fires out.” For over a month this spring, the U.S. Forest Service canceled all prescribed burns in California, and training for burn bosses, because of COVID-19.

I asked Beasley why he ignited his burns anyway when he was Yosemite fire chief. “I’m single! I’m not married! I have no kids. Probably a submarine captain is the best person for the job.” Then he stopped joking. “I was a risk taker to some degree. But I also was a believer in science.”" [Propublica]

The US settlers took over an existing space where the natives were clearly managing fire well, with controlled burns and an understanding of the nature and impact of the fire seasons, that came from experience. Maybe some of the first settlers simply had racism ingrained enough to discount native experience , but where did the idea to do large scale fire suppression, not just city firefighting, even come from?
"The overarching reason is culture. In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created with a military mindset. Not long after, renowned American philosopher William James wrote in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” that Americans should redirect their combative impulses away from their fellow humans and onto “Nature.” The war-on-fire mentality found especially fertile ground in California, a state that had emerged from the genocide and cultural destruction of tribes who understood fire and relied on its benefits to tend their land. That state then repopulated itself in the Gold Rush with extraction enthusiasts, and a little more than half a century later, it suffered a truly devastating fire. Three-thousand people died, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and attendant fires. The overwhelming majority of the destruction came from the flames, not the quake. Small wonder California’s fire ethos has much more in common with a field surgeon wielding a bone saw than a preventive medicine specialist with a tray full of vaccines."


It's also possible that theres some more esoteric ideological stuff going on here than just the profit motives and people wanting to save their homes. The whole US, but especially the western frontier and particularly post gold rush California , have suffered from certain millenarian enthusiasms for creating a heaven on earth. As noted by Mircea Eliade a) even secular man unconsciously keeps religious notions and b) one of the most important religious notions is the idea of sacred and profane space: as cosmos versus chaos, one organized and one disorganized, and man having founded the cosmos by sometimes violently organizing that space. This can take benign or malignant forms (it's an old impulse) and I believe the settler ideology and the sheer unreality of the suburban utopianism that leads people in Los Angeles area in particular, but also other similar sprawled communities in hostile ecologies, to become totally taken over by the idea that they can create a strange suburban heaven on earth, an order in the midst of nature's chaos.

Probably one of the best explorations of these tendencies is the essay [Los Angeles against the Mountains](https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1988/09/26/los-angeles-against-the-mountains-i) by John McPhee, who is known for his writings on ecology. This article is almost entirely about debris flows and landslides, but the exploration of this ideology that makes people consider that they could simple put their stucco mcmansions in zones prone to natural disasters, is very relevant to the approach to fire in this country. If you cant get past the new Yorker paywall I'm sure you could find the article somewhere, it's a famous essay. Not quoting it for now bc this has become a long enough post.

On a closing note I wanted to get back to some of the sobering numbers in the ProPublica piece.

"Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire."

To reiterate: up to **11 million acres a year used to burn*, we are controlled burning the **tiniest fraction of that (20,000)** and have no plan to even get **close to a million**, which would be in the ballpark maybe but not a good enough "vaccine" against megafires now that the climate is worsening and the backlog gets longer.

And additionally, we are not just fighting fire with water, and with trenches etc. We are now using fire retardant foam called phoschek. There is concern that this foam is a) ecologically harmful b) ineffective and c) *possibly* harmful to humans.

It seems likely theres little direct toxicity to humans, but there is certainly documented damage to watersheds and the creatures that live in them, to the extent that its theoretically not supposed to be dropped on waterways. One problem with that is that when it comes to high mountain fires, like in the sierras, we are not just dealing with rivers, all the snowmelt essentially trickles to feed one river or the other. Theres also the question of secondary or tertiary effects. Phos chek is pretty simple and one of the main ingredients is phosphate. It could probably be eaten without that much harm, but phosphate and other nutrients have been found to feed harmful microorganisms, such as cyanobacteria, in a process called eutrophication (literally meaning "enrichment ", that is becoming a major issue for animal and human health in waterways from Florida's to the midatlantic's to the ponds of new england and the many lakes of the upper midwest. ) I don't see why phos chek would be an exception. Its [documented](https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&sou...4QFnoECAMQAg&usg=AOvVaw0z3FIYYB5P80B7s1Hx3SnL) to cause eutrophication when applied to waterways but I dont see how we'd make a neat distinction with how easy it is to keep out of waterways and possible secondary effects it could have with soil microbiome as well.

This last part on the problem of health effects from fire retardant is all fairly speculative, but again, its just icing on the cake of all of the extremely well documented negative effects and stupidity of fire suppression. Those speculative links shouldn't be what you focus on the most.

This should be the takeaway: **all scientists im aware of in this area agree that controlled burns and laissez faire wildfire management is the way to go to get fires under control, but practically nobody in a position of power listens. It may be political suicide , additionally, to be anti war on fire **

Knowing more about this has blackpilled me in most ways but maybe a single positive takeaway is that in theory this is an easier issue to solve than something like climate change. And one in which local policy actually matters.

**important media to read or consume on this subject**:
1.[They know how to prevent wildfires. Why won't anybody listen?](https://www.propublica.org/article/they-know-how-to-prevent-megafires-why-wont-anybody-listen)

2. [The case for letting Malibu burn , by Mike Davis](https://longreads.com/2018/12/04/the-case-for-letting-malibu-burn/)

3. [The case for letting Malibu burn, audio version. ](
)

4. [Los Angeles Against the Mountains, by John McPhee](https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1988/09/26/los-angeles-against-the-mountains-i)

5. The Sacred and the Profane, by Mircea Eliade (didnt link it bc it's a well known book that can be easily bought , and I dont know a pdf or free version)

6. [The recent article on Newsome demanding foolish changes in federal fire management policy. this made me sick and sparked this post](https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-08-04/forest-service-modifies-let-it-burn-policy)

7. [Fighting fire with fire (a shorter and more optimistic article on changes in fire management )](https://nmpoliticalreport.com/2020/...-managers-rethink-fire-ecology-in-new-mexico/)

8. [a science guy on twitter whos a good follow for these issues](https://twitter.com/cxadlam)

9. [The Trueanon Mike Davis episode](https://soundcloud.app.goo.gl/R3Rr5)

10. Outdoor toxins of particular relevance to ME/CFS patients
This discusses many nasty outdoor toxins but goes into detail about the one associated with fire retardant. I believe that the increase of this is one of the most preventable health problems we are dealing with now. Use of fire retardant isnt necessary and is not an inevitability that's almost impossible to fight like climate change. Its just a stupid policy that could be changed on the local level. Dump wet stuff on the red stuff , as the firefighters at cal fire say.

"
Toxins Associated with Newer Fire Retardants

* Outdoor areas treated recently (such as the past decade) with newer fire retardants may be affected by a newer type of toxin. I believe this to be a mold or other microbe that becomes problematic in the wake of the fire retardants rather than the fire retardants themselves (e.g. since the problem tends to increase rather than decrease in the months after the fire retardant has been applied).

* This also causes more moderate effects than the “Mystery Toxin” detailed above, but they still are problematic enough that the areas may interfere with recovery in many individuals.

* This toxin tends to blanket large areas (often hundreds or even thousands of square miles) rather than being blown around on plumes, and it tends to act up at night rather than during barometric pressure downturns. It cross-contaminates only mildly, however.

* A few places where this toxin has been observed to be a particular problem: Flagstaff (AZ); Santa Fe/Espanola (NM); Glacier National Park and surrounding area (MT); certain national and state parks in the Black Hills (SD); and Big Sur (CA)." ( this is out of date. All those places are problems, but the areas where this is bad grow very quickly. At least in the west where fire retardant is used amply)


Now let's see if the formatting carried over properly from the other site where I posted this. I'm still having rough time recovery from surgery so cant repost from scratch.
 
Messages
3,700
Likes
4,428
Location
Vermont, school in Western MA
Related :
Hey guys, you are not gonna believe this find.


It basically confirms a lot of the Erik Johnson/Lisa Petrison theories about how chemicals combine with sources of biotoxins like either mold or cyanobacteria yo produce something nastier than either of them on their own. Weve had a few good studies in this thread but this one is up there , maybe as good or almost as good and important as that pfas nanoparticles study.

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/202...i ... gle-deaths
In short, when looking for a mysterious bird killing toxin, they found cyanobacteria, which is not surprising. But when trying to culture it in lab it didnt produce any noxious toxins. They did gc/ms (basically a way of looking at the molecularly level to find different chemicals in a sample when you dont know exactly what you're looking for ) on samples from the lake and they found it wasn't only this cyanobacteria that was present. A chemical called bromide was too. Then they found that bromide was necessary for the cyanobacteria to process and produce an extremely toxic neurotoxin. I mean that's almost like they did koch's postulate but for the industrial toxin/cyanobacteria interactions. Read the whole article y'all.

Erik Johnson is a divisive figure to some but I've not doubted this basic theory, that toxins and pollutants combine with microbes tto make stuff more virulent than either on their own, since the start. While some people see it as overly complicated and bypassing occams razor, I dont at all, bc its basically just a form of external dysbiosis, which is already known to be a problem when happening inside the human or animal body. Of course it's a problem outside to.

Check the bolded part, because I have an article I'm going to link that discusses the anecdotal health impacts of fire retardant associated microbes.
"
But Susan Wilde, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Georgia, Athens, persisted, with intermittent funding. “I just had a lot of colleagues and graduate students that were self-propelled to work on this.” Birds were dying at lakes and reservoirs throughout the southeast, and at every lake her team visited, they found Hydrilla verticillata, a tough and fast-growing invasive plant. In 2001, Wilde noticed dark spots on the underside of the leaves. Back in the lab, she put a sample under a microscope and shone light that makes cyanobacteria glow red. The whole leaf lit up. “I was running around the hallways,” Wilde recalls. “It was kind of a eureka moment.” The cyanobacterium was a new species, which Wilde named Aetokthonos hydrillicola in 2014. She suspected it was producing a neurotoxin.
To confirm that hunch, Wilde and colleagues fed hydrilla to mallards in the lab. Only those that ate leaves harboring the cyanobacteria developed brain lesions. Next, a group led by Timo Niedermeyer, a natural products chemist at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, figured out how to culture the cyanobacterium and initially found that the lab-grown strain did not cause lesions in chickens. “Huge disappointment,” he recalls. But when they added bromide salts to the culture medium, the cyanobacteria began to produce the neurotoxin. In further tests, Wilde and colleagues found that the toxin also kills fish, insects, and worms. “This is a really potent neurotoxin, even at fairly low levels,” she says. Wilde suspects mammals are also vulnerable; her colleagues hope to test the compound on mice.
Niedermeyer’s lab discovered the neurotoxin was fat-soluble, which is unusual for cyanobacterial toxins and suggests it can accumulate in tissues. Fish and birds are exposed when they eat hydrilla coated with the new species of cyanobacteria, and then the toxin may move through the food web as eagles and owls consume afflicted prey. “If verified, bioaccumulation has important consequences to the whole ecosystem and human health” if people consume toxin-contaminated fish or waterfowl, says Kaarina Sivonen, a microbiologist at the University of Helsinki.
The cyanobacterium appears to get the bromide it needs to make the toxin from hydrilla, which can concentrate bromide from lake sediment in its leaves. Bromides are rare in freshwater, but they could be eroding from rocks, or they might originate from coal-fired power plants. Other sources could include brominated flame retardants, fracking fluids, and road salt. Wilde suspects one local source might be an herbicide, diquat dibromide, that is used to kill hydrilla."

Re the bolded part one interesting thing is that Lisa petrison started lumping together toxins she felt were associated intuitively with fracking , with fire retardant associated toxins bc of very similar symptoms.