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A New Idea? And Unfairly Blaming Enviros

This story is interesting not so much for what it says, but for the fact that it needs to say it.

... Clem's Dairy was doing a "prescribed burn."

That's the new buzzword from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs. And instead of Smokey Bear pointing a finger of shame at anyone causing fires, the official position now is "Fire can be beneficial."

The era of the extreme Smokey the Bear ideology has been over for decades, and controlled/prescribed burning has been part of official policy since the 1970s. And even during the heyday of fire suppression, the south (where this article originates) was Smokey's Kashmir, paying lip service to the Bear while regularly engaging in controlled burning. Yet this article presents controlled burning as a new and revolutionary idea. It cites a 1993 article as its only scientific pronouncement -- but the anti-suppression consensus was well-established by then.

This is not, however, to lay the blame solely on the author of the article. The fact is that while the Forest Service and other agencies may have converted to controlled burning long ago, the public in general tends to still side with Smokey. And those who do recognize the importance of burning make their case in the idiom of a minority fighting a rigid establishment. This is a great example of the disjunction between the guiding ideas of the administrative system and the opinions of the general public.

While I'm discussing this article, I must object to the way that it lays the blame for suppression at the feet of environmentalists. Wildfire has become a popular hazard with which to beat the environmental movement -- albeit more often for the current sin of blocking mechanical fuel removal than for the historical sin of supporting Smokey.

On the one hand, it is true that conservation has been used as an excuse to stop folk burning, particularly during the colonial period in what is now the Third World. The conservation rationale was advanced with varying degrees of sincerity, but the ultimate aim and effect was to discipline native people and undercut traditional ways of life. This practice continues today in some areas (for whatever reason my Google News likes to pick up on some newspapers in Ghana, from which I gather that their current policy comes straight out of the colonial-era playbook).

Nevertheless, in the United States, fire suppression is better seen as a military project wearing a green mask than as a conservationist policy. The fire suppression infrasturcture was put into place in the early decades of the 20th century as a means of gaining control over our vast western territory and disciplining its inhabitants (it's notable that controlled burning was described dismissively as "Paiute forestry"). During World War II, fire suppression became a national security issue*, as there were fears that the Japanese would let incendiary balloons drift with the prevailing westerlies to fall on the American west. After the war, fire suppression became tied up in the military-industrial complex, adopting technology, surplus equipment, and organizational techniques from the armed forces.

The key factor to note, though, is the timing. The modern environmental movement arose in the late 1960s and 70s -- exactly the time that the total suppression policy was questioned and finally scrapped. Indeed, fire historian Steven Pyne goes so far as to credit the environmental movement with a key role in breaking Smokey's hold.

*I'm surprised this hasn't reemerged -- I can imagine President Bush warning us that if we don't chop down our forests, the terrorists will light them on fire and kill us all.


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