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This ASU professor says Yosemite National Park is a shining example of how to use fire effectively

Yosemite National Park is one of the crown jewels of the national park system, and, according to Steve Pyne, it’s also a shining example of how to use fire effectively.

Steve Pyne is a fire historian and an Emeritus Professor at ASU. He’s also the author of the book "Pyrocene Park: A Journey Into the Fire History of Yosemite National Park." The Show spoke with him about what he learned while writing it, starting with what lessons one can learn in Yosemite that can apply to the rest of the West when it comes to fire.

Full conversation

STEVE PYNE: I mean, Yosemite is a celebrity park. It's known worldwide. It's the best endowed park for fire management in terms of funding and experience. So it's really it's really an exemplar of what we can do and not do. And what I found the Yosemite fire story is a story of good fire that was lost and then has been partly restored. And the restoration story is interesting because we need to do a lot of that and we need to do it at scale. And I think Yosemite shows what it takes to make that happen. And also how difficult that is because even Yosemite with all its advantages is a long way from achieving what where it should be, where it thinks it should be.

MARK BRODIE: Well, where, where, where do you think? And maybe where do folks associated with the park think it should be relative to where it is now?

PYNE: They have the occasion of the book itself. Pyrocene Park is organized around a track that about three years ago, the park organized to go into its backcountry, A Valley iit basin that they had tried restoring fire, natural fire and they were doing it for 50 years. So this was a 50-year review and they reckon that of all the lightning caused fires, probably a quarter to a third were suppressed for various reasons, others were stopped for various reasons before they could run their full play. They figure they probably need two to three times more fire than what they're getting. 

Nonetheless, they are getting enough that puts them in a special category of management. This is one of the probably one of three major areas in the United States that have more or less successfully done this or at least done enough of it to really make a difference.

BRODIE: Well, it's interesting because it seems, you know, if you listen to land managers and fire managers, it seems as though there is sort of a growing acceptance that some amount of fire is necessary, not just helpful but necessary for forests and other ecosystems to really keep themselves or bring themselves into equilibrium.

PYNE: Right. And it's not just the ecological deterioration that results when fire is removed. I mean, fire is a broad spectrum ecological catalyst. It does a lot of things. We're still learning about all the things that it does. But it's also a case of if you don't burn it, stuff keeps building up, combustibles accumulate and the fires that you do get will be uncontrollable. So it, you're removing your choice, your ability to choose what fires you want and what you don't.

BRODIE: Well, so is that the, the biggest impediment at this point in, in terms of trying to get, you know, Yosemite and other places maybe to where they need to be, it's not thinking that you need to do it. It's actually doing it.

PYNE: Yeah. And we've been trying for 50 years or more to do it. And as I say, a few places, real, real exemplars, real, real beacons in a sense, but most places are not going to have the advantages that Yosemite has. They're not going to have the interest. They're not going to have the public commitment to keeping this as a flagship park. And it's, it's really tough. I mean, everywhere they turn around they've, they've got something and they're, they're trying to be innovative.

There are so many competing interests, so that they're exploring, for example, the idea, ok, they will put a few of these fires out because there are other complications going on. And maybe then in September before the rains come, they would go back to the places where they were extinguished, rive them and then let them live out the rest of their natural life as a way of, sort of, as a compromise. Well, this gets into all kinds of other issues.

So they're trying and they're, they're doing pretty well, but it's very complicated now. They've extended this policy to a lot of the rest of the park. But the more fires they have, the more smoke they're going to have that smoke is going to go down in Yosemite Valley, it's going to interfere with view sheds. The reason people are there, it's going to go down into the Central Valley of California, which has some of the worst air quality in the country. You know, all these things can't be ignored.

BRODIE: Well, so I was gonna ask you about that because if like if a place like Yosemite where there are resources and there is interest in doing it and they still can't get to where they think they need to be. What does that say for areas that maybe don't have those things or don't have them to the same extent?

PYNE: Well, they're just going to burn and they're going to burn, under conditions that may be a lot less tolerable than, than what we could get with prescribed fire. It's also the case that prescribed fires can escape. The statistics seem to show that about one or maybe 1.5% of prescribed that is deliberately lit controlled burns, escape control at some level. If we look at suppression, all out suppression, 2% to 3% escape, and it will attack. Though, we're actually still better off.

But if you light a fire and that escapes and that causes damage, you are going to be nailed, your career is over. And so that's pretty discouraging. Right now, there is not a large constituency to put more fire on the land. It may be a good idea but not where I live and nothing better happen, go wrong. Well, nothing works all the time. And I'm, I'm happy to say the Southwest has been very adept at this. It has some, a place to some of the advantages of our, our local public land, the remoteness and that is to work with wildfire and to put all of your suppression resources where they really matter.

Most trying to protect communities, maybe municipal water beds, really select ecological areas, but otherwise backing off a ridge or two and systematically burning it out. And this is really where we need to go. And this is where we are getting some measure of restored good fire. And we've, we have a lot of examples of that in the Southwest.

BRODIE: Well, so do you think that sort of the momentum is heading in the direction of being able to get more prescribed fire, more good fire in the places it needs to be and maybe using some of the new methods or new techniques or sort of compromises to, to get places where they need to be.

PYNE: There's certainly a lot of effort at that. And I think the fire community, the wild land fire community is certainly committed to it. There are very few holdouts on this where it can get sticky is in some places like California where you have a fire organization like Cal Fire, which is essentially an urban fire service, that's their model, out in the woods and that really doesn't work out in the woods, but among the wildland fire community, there's really wide, almost a, there's an ardent determination to get this fire going, get this fire back in there as, as well as they can.

And some of these larger burns, maybe 10% or 15% doesn't burn at all if you have really large scale and maybe 10% or 15% burns too severely, we wouldn't accept that if it were just a small area and burning. But if you get 70%, 75%, 80% of that area burned with what we could call good fire, that's a pretty good trade off.

BRODIE: Steve Pine is a fire historian, emeritus professor at ASU and author of the book "Pyrocene Park: A Journey Into the Fire History of Yosemite National Park."

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.