Humility and Hope for the Future

Lessons learned from the 2020 Labor Day firestorms

As a wildland firefighter, fire policy analyst and fire ecology advocate, I’ve learned to respect the power of wildfire and its vital ecological role, and appreciate humanity’s unique skill in using fire to help nurture Nature’s balance and abundance. I thought I knew what wildfires would do in the westside Cascades, and long ago tuned out the newsmedia’s sensationalism and the Forest Service’s fear-mongering about “catastrophic wildfires.”

But then came the 2020 Labor Day firestorms.

East winds blowing warm, dry air down western slopes in the fall are rare but natural events, and are usually localized to a few mountain valleys. It is likely that many of the Cascades’ majestic old-growth Douglas fir forests were born in the flames fanned by such events centuries ago. But the windstorm that blew like a bulldozer’s blade from B.C. to Baja sparked new fires and whipped up existing blazes all along the Pacific West, each wildfire surging thousands of acres in the span of a couple days. 

Many of those fires were sparked by powerlines igniting fires in the worst places and conditions. One powerline fire in Oregon started inside a firefighter base camp, forcing hundreds of crews to flee for their lives. Another powerline ignition is a prime suspect for starting the Holiday Farm Fire, which burned like a blowtorch in a wind tunnel down the McKenzie River Valley. Firefighters were overwhelmed from the moment they arrived on scene, forced to do traffic control for residents evacuating with a minute’s notice because it was humanly impossible to directly engage the fire. 

Homes sandwiched between the McKenzie River and the highway ignited from a blizzard of embers, and eventually burned down to ashes. No firelines could have surpassed those features to save those homes. Corporate timber plantations in the surrounding foothills were totally incinerated from crown fires that swept through their tree farms. No amount of fuels reduction could have surpassed the clearcutting that took place before the fire. 

We now know absolutely that we cannot prevent wildfires, and firefighters cannot stop and put out all wildfires. Decades of Smokey Bear propaganda that conditioned people to wrongly fear all forest fires is now being amplified by the valid fear of climate change, and the specter that people are powerless in the face of climate-driven megafires. The despair and disempowerment known as “climate doomism” is expressing itself in a kind of wildfire doomism that wrongly believes there is nothing we can do to avoid catastrophe. 

But we are not powerless. There are tangible, practical steps that people can take to become safer in their homes, and to make forests become more resilient in a world where large-scale fire events are becoming more frequent. The first thing to do is to harden homes against flames and embers and reduce combustibles within 100 feet of your house. This greatly reduces the chance your home will ignite and burn even in the midst of a high-intensity wildfire. 

Knowing that people and property are prepared for fire will enable crews to perform beneficial ecological fire management instead of ineffective emergency fire suppression. It will provide more opportunities for prescribed fires and Indigenous cultural burning that are the most effective, economical ways to reduce fuel hazards and wildfire risks while also restoring fire-adapted ecosystems and cultural resources essential to Indigenous communities. The sooner we prepare homes and rural communities for fire, the sooner we can restore forest ecosystems with fire.

The 2020 Labor Day firestorm was like a 1,000-year flood of fire, the most dramatic and terrifying sign of climate change we’ve experienced in the Pacific Northwest — so far. I admit that I was humbled by the ferocity of those firestorms that exhibited fire behavior beyond anyone’s living memory. While large-scale wildfires were formerly rare events in western Oregon, they will become more common in our future. 

For a hopeful vision that a new relationship with forest fires can be forged with practical actions that keep fire in the forest but out of our homes, I invite you to see the inspiring new documentary, Elemental, showing at the newly-renovated Bijou Art House Sept. 9 through 16. Opening night will feature a reception with educational displays from local nonprofits and a panel of wildfire experts to answer your questions following the film. We can relearn how to live safely and sustainably with fire on the land. Labor Day is the perfect day for all of us to get to work on preparing for that future.

Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D., is a former wildland firefighter and certified senior wildland fire ecologist. He is co-founder and executive director of the Eugene-based nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE) and teaches fire courses at the University of Oregon and Lane Community College.