The Elimination of Fires in the United States

Follow the history of fire suppression in the United States and see how it became the norm in a country where periodic fires were common.

| January 2019

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images/sweetmoments

The project to eliminate fire from the woods reached the western United States, as it did other colonial peripheries, not just with the arrival of settlers but also with industrial forestry and the resulting commodification of forests. Wholesale capitalist exploitation of forests followed the exploitation of labor as it laid steel rails into the West. Mill towns sprung up along the tracks. Both the railways and mill towns demanded fire protection “at least sufficient to get the logs out of the woods in a form other than smoke and ash.” However, to say that the project of fire exclusion began with the arrival of industrial forestry and the resulting demand for protection overstates its antiquity, since desire and ability were distant cousins at best until the 1930s (around 125 years after Lewis and Clark arrived at the Pacific), and they only grew close following World War II, with the mechanization of firefighting. While many foresters, both public and private, saw (or presented) fire as a menace beginning at least at the turn of the twentieth century, their distaste for burning was more than matched by their limited capacity to act on it. In 1900 an estimated 30 million acres of forest and grassland burned across the United States. Dr. Greg Aplet of the Wilderness Society estimated that between 1930 and 1939, an average of 40 million acres burned annually. In the 1960s that number ranged from a low of 2.6 million acres to a high of 7.1 million acres. The majority of the reduction took place in the fifteen years between 1940 and 1955.  Significant reductions in burned area, then, are a recent phenomenon.

These impressive reductions were the stuff of early foresters’ dreams. While debate over the role of fire in the forests simmered and occasionally flared during the first quarter of the twentieth century, by 1921 a dominant position (the evolution of which is the basis of chapters 3 and 4) emerged that fire was an unmitigated evil in the woods and that forestry would never get off the ground as long as the flames roamed unchecked. However, the development of an apparatus sufficient for the task – undertaken primarily by the USFS – took a long time. The Forest Service Use Book that served as the code for forest management in the very early years (up to 1911) sheds some light on the rudimentary nature of the federal agency’s early fire-fighting apparatus. While admonishing rangers that “insurance against the destruction of property, timber resources, and water supply by fire” was the greatest benefit to the community derived from the establishment of forest reserves (national forests) and that, accordingly, “officers of the Forest Service have no duty more important than protecting the reserves from forest fires,” the book is sketchy on the details of fighting fire. The organization of citizens’ brigades is mentioned briefly, but the Use Book is geared to a ranger patrolling his enormous territory on foot or horseback. Under the heading “How to Fight Fire,” the book instructs him to carry an ax, a mattock, and a shovel and when he encounters a fire (it is hoped, while it is still small) to dig trenches, throw dirt on the flames, and, if necessary, light a backfire. When one early ranger was asked on a Forest Service exam how to handle a crown fire (a fire that has moved into the canopy), he reportedly responded, “There’s only one way: I’d run like hell and pray for rain.”

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Cover courtesy of University Press of Colorado



While this may be an honest assessment of the chances of stopping a full-blown crown fire today, as in 1905, the Forest Service – once dependent on its ability to roust barflies from local taverns to fight fires – has developed an infrastructure for fighting fires that is a paragon of industrial scale and efficiency and that runs from no fight. Today, the shovel-wielding lone ranger (possibly at the head of a posse) has been replaced with an army of trained, Nomex-clad, Pulaski-bearing firefighters, rolling engines, bulldozers, and a full-fledged (if dated) air force. On average, during the five years between 2000 and 2005, fire agencies (led by the USFS) annually mobilized 1,318 tactical crews, 1,241 engines, 15,000 overhead personnel, 446 helicopters, and 173 air tankers.  The Forest Service’s ability to get resources where and when they are needed has become the standard by which other disaster management organizations are measured. The organization today successfully attacks and suppresses 98–99 percent of unwanted fires.  As a result, fire has become a fugitive, reduced to a small fraction of its former ecological influence.

More from Fire Management in the American West:


Reprinted with permission from Fire Management in the American West by Mark Hudson and published by University Press of Colorado, 2011.



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