A key moment in human progress was not the discovery of fire but rather the ability to control it. That ability is being tested again as California’s so-called Rim Fire has burned a forest area the size of Chicago and entered the icon of natural beauty, Yosemite National Park.
The fire, now the 13th largest in California’s recent history, forced Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for San Francisco because it threatens the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, a key water and electricity supply for the Bay Area. More than 3,400 firefighters and others are battling the blaze, which began of unknown origin Aug. 17 and spread rapidly.
Once the fire is controlled, practical questions will need to be addressed. How should the burned properties and forests be restored? What lessons were learned about fire prevention and the government’s response? How much can we rely on large dams for power and water in the arid, fire-prone West? Can this fire be attributed to climate change?
But the fire also poses a deeper question about the place of humans in the natural order. It has touched – or torched – many aspects of life: a basic public utility, exploitative industries such as timbering, and a national park that brings in 4 million visitors a year seeking inspiration and beauty in wilderness. All these uses of land, often conflicting, were engulfed by a common problem: fire.
As Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently said, “There are fires – good sometimes, and not good other times.” More than 10 million acres of forest are burned in the United States every year. Knowing when to put out a fire, or to allow a controlled fire to clear underbrush and prevent a bigger fire, is only one example of humans trying to decide what is good in nature.
The human uses of Yosemite itself reveal the constant shift in values associated with the environment. Native Americans cleared the valley with fire. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, ran a timber mill in it, reflecting a 19th-century virtue of harnessing nature for human good. The valley was America’s first federally preserved park land as more people saw landscape as a source of civic identity, recreation, a secular temple for self-reflection – or even having intrinsic worth outside any human values.
Big fires, and the challenge of controlling them, continue to bring up questions about whether humans can find a place in nature by trying to “sustain” its balance and integrity. Forests have especially become arenas for competing interests. After each large forest fire, government must once again try to help reassess what values are at stake.
Public discussion will be needed after this fire to help deal with humanity’s tendency to change its views of nature. Many environmental laws of the past 40 years have tried to find shared principles about nature – in defining how to preserve it or how to use it. Plants and animals may not “know” their worth, but humans certainly think they know it. Yet being part of nature and also dependent on it, humans have difficulty in determining that worth. Sometimes, fires are good at helping them figure it out.