Dixie Fire Stories Interview

I did an interview a couple months ago with Joanne Burgueño, a photographer who helps run the Dixie Fire Stories page on Facebook. They have been running multi-part interviews, with photos, with people who went thru the Dixie Fire in one way or another.

May be an image of 1 person, map and text that says 'MMUNICATIONS AUC'

May be an image of 1 person, map and text that says 'MMUNICATIONS AUC'Here it is:

My name is Zeke Lunder. I’m a geographer working on wildfire issues. I grew up in Westwood. And then I built a house with my brother in Indian Valley in 2004. And lived there on and off. And now I live in Chico. But I grew up in the Feather River, and I’m still connected to community up there.

I started working for the Forest Service in high school, and kind of got interested in forestry and land management. I went to college for geography and mapmaking, and there was some overlap. When I worked for the Forest Service I got into firefighting with them. I worked on a timber crew, but also as a firefighter because everyone in the Forest Service had some firefighting in their job description then.

When I came back after college to Chico, I got a job doing pre-fire planning. So I just kind of fell into mapping and fires together. That was right when they were starting to do on-site mapping on large forest fires. I started to do digital mapping in fire camps and I’ve done that since 1999. Along the way, I’ve just gotten into storytelling with maps around fire, and then using Facebook for about 10 years to share information during fires.

This year, during the Dixie Fire, I decided to start my own website, The Lookout, because Facebook and Twitter are terrible tools for sharing detailed stories. And I didn’t want to have to curate a ton of comments. I don’t want to argue with people, I don’t want to deal with people who don’t know what they’re talking about who try to hijack the Facebook thread. Having my own website gave me control over the story.

We published our first feature on The Lookout the day Greenville burned down. And it took off. In my job working on forest fires, my position is intel, helping the fire teams manage all the incoming information about the fire. I’ve learned over the last 20 years how to do that work, how to package up intel, how to interpret fire intelligence and make predictions on where fires are going. I’ve learned a lot about how large fires are managed. So my website now really focuses on that, on providing fire intelligence to the community, not just the firefighters

For maps I use Google Earth a lot, because it’s intuitive for people. It allows you to pick an angle that really tells the story. If someone’s in Greenville you can create an image looking from the perspective of Greenville towards the fire.

It’s all about framing the information for the intended audience. If someone’s telling a story for people in Quincy, I’ll pick an angle that really gives you a perspective of how the fire relates to the place of interest.

My parents still live in Westwood, my brother’s in Indian Valley, so a lot of my intel work has been for Plumas and Lassen counties, just because especially with COVID shutting down the newspapers, there’s a real need for local information. So I tend to focus my intel work on fires in the Feather River, in northeastern California, because it’s personal. Because I have friends and family that can really use good information.

I would have been covering the Dixie Fire either way, because it’s a monumental event. There’s so many interesting things happening as part of it. I’ve spent the last 20 years working in large fire management. I’m fascinated with how we approach these things, how we organize, and how things fall apart. And all the human stories behind the decision making. All the tactics.

What was interesting to me is that during the Dixie, all of our normal tactics were failing over and over and over. We’re at a reckoning with fire. We’re outpaced by fire these days, between fire suppression over the last 100 years, and the changes we’ve made in forest with logging and climate change, we can no longer control the fires. We’ve continually upped the ante with bigger air tankers and bigger fire engines and higher technology. But even with all that we’re outpaced now, we can’t keep up anymore. The fires are totally beyond our control.

I think we need to admit that we’re outmatched, and that there’s no technical solution. There’s no firefighting solution to the problem. We can’t build a bigger army, you know, because the war’s unwinnable.

Forest management is part of it, but the time scale to get there and the scale of the problem exceed our ability to really deal with it. The entire timber industry in California cut maybe a million and a half acres in the past decade. And then Dixie just burned a million acres. So if you take the entire industrial capacity of the state there’s no way you could thin enough. The scale of the problem is bigger than our human scale.

I think we need to start around the towns that still are standing, and burn around our communities. So when these fires happen, we’re not victims. We spent nearly $700 million on the Dixie Fire, we could have spent a fraction of that to thin and burn and tend land around Quincy, Greenville and Chester. Then when these fires happen, as we know they’re going to, we won’t be victims that are terrorized for months waiting to see whether or not our towns are going to burn down.

In the Dixie, Chester got lucky. The airport and Super Ditch created a huge fuel break south of town. And that took some of the momentum out of the fire. And then the wind, if the wind had been blowing five degrees more to the north, Chester would have gotten taken out too. So there was an element of luck. And there was an element of the arrangement of the fuel and landscape. Westwood didn’t get a direct push from the fire. And that was in part because they’ve thinned the forest so heavily there. Westwood had a biomass power plant burning woodchips from the surrounding forests for 30 years. They thinned private lands north of town really hard from the 1980s through early 2000s.

That made a difference compared to Greenville, which had steep terrain, thick forest. There were these super thick forests right up to town. There had been some thinning done, but not on the scale that would change behavior of fire like the Dixie. Once the fire had that intensity, you could have had 500 fire trucks there and they wouldn’t have saved the town.

When I talk about the fire outmatching the firefighters, you have to talk about during the time that the fire was pushing on Greenville, it was also blowing up and blowing around Chester and that’s just one fire out of a whole state that had many fires going on.

It’s miles and miles and miles of fire line in thick forest. The perimeter was extremely large. And you can’t stop a fire unless you can mop it up. So even if you do a firing operation along the road, and you think it’s secure, unless you can go out there and cut down every snag that’s on fire and mop up the hot spots, you can’t walk away from it. One tree can fall over the line and the fire can take off again.

It’s just that scale thing. The Dixie was like four massive fires at once. So I think we just need to realize that there are real limits to our ability. Because we’ve put out so many fires we assume that it’s possible, and sometimes it’s not.

But watching the Dixie, once it crossed the Feather River and made a big run up pass Belden, it seemed pretty clear to me that the fire was gonna go all the way to Westwood. Just because of the terrain, and the fuels and the drought and everything else.

Even if the agencies know this is happening, they don’t have the resources. The state, CAL FIRE, protects private land, and has enormous pressure to fight fires direct, to go direct. And the Forest Service usually is fighting fire on their own land, and they often play a long game, trying to contain the fire inside the ‘big box’ that everyone complains about. And the agencies, they’ve kind of talked so much trash about each others’ tactics for my entire career, so there’s a real reluctance for CAL FIRE to use big-box tactics. They just don’t have as much experience working on big box fires — the feds have been doing the big box game for a long time. So it seemed to me, during Dixie, CAL FIRE people weren’t always thinking far enough out ahead. If you’re looking at a fire that’s moving three miles a day, and it’s gonna take you a week to prepare your indirect fire line, you have to be thinking 20 miles ahead of where the fire is today.

So you’re admitting when you pick that strategy that you’re going to give up 20 miles of ground to the fire. That’s really untenable for CAL FIRE. Because their job, their biggest charge, is to protect private timberland. So they go direct for as long as you can, and the private timberland reps are right there on the line, applying a ton of pressure to keep going direct. The big problem, is, say you keep fighting the fire direct for three days, and it fails and you have to fall back to plan B, the indirect line that was 20 miles out three days ago — you still need a week to prep that line, but now you’ve only got four days. Because you spent three days chasing the fire thinking maybe you could hold it up. When you dedicate resources to direct attack, it’s taking resources away from building the big box, and the big box is often what contains these big fires.

Those are the kind of stories we’re interested in telling at The Lookout. Now that the fire is out, we’re moving out of this mode that’s pretty cut and dried — where I can wake up in the morning and check the infrared and report the facts. “The maps say the fire’s here and yesterday it was there.” But when we go back and deconstruct these complicated events, our pace of reporting is really slowed, because we have to try to get the details right. Especially because things are so fraught now that the fire is out. There’s so many conspiracy theories, and there’s so much blame, that teasing apart what actually happened is really difficult. Even talking to two people who are on the same piece of line, they might have had two completely different views of what happened based on what agency they work for, or even the time of day.

You could write a book about any single day of the Dixie Fire. So much was going on at any given time, for example the thousand miles plus of dozer line that got slammed in. But it really was the fog of war.

Dozer lines are handy. Sometimes the fire lays down, and it’s easier for dozer line to function as a fire line. The problem is, because we’re short staffed on fires like this, the dozers are by far the easiest way to create fire line. But for it to be effective, you need a strategy of where to put those lines, and good supervision of dozer operators. For example, if there were 200 dozers on the fire, but only 10 qualified dozer bosses, there are a bunch of people running around in the woods wreaking havoc with heavy equipment without good oversight, or good leadership.

That’s one of the places we’re outpaced, you have 6,000 firefighters, but it’s hard to find leadership for 6,000 firefighters. We talk a lot about wanting to manage forests, but over the course of my lifetime, we’ve lost a huge amount of forest workers out of Plumas and Lassen County. So you don’t have the capacity of people to actually go out and do thinning work. That’s been a big shift in my lifetime. And then a fire this big, where do you even begin to start? There’s no way the Forest Service can suddenly actively manage half a million acres because their capacity has really diminished over the last 20 years.

I think a lot of people just don’t understand the scale of our wildfire problem. You can talk all day about wanting to manage forest, and how the secret to fire resilience is forest management, but we’re talking about this enormous area. And it’s expensive, and it’s time consuming. And there’s not a lot of people that want to be loggers. There’s not a lot of people that want to be truck drivers. Even the existing industry, which is managing a way smaller workload, has problems every year finding truck drivers and loggers. That’s why there’s people from Montana and Oregon here doing roadside salvage logging. After the spotted owl shut down most logging on public lands, California’s timber industry resized itself to what was available to cut on private lands. So when suddenly there’s a huge amount of work to do on public lands, there’s just not the workforce. Especially when there is a huge amount of work to do salvaging and cleaning up on all the burned private lands.

Forest management needs to change, we need to use fire. We need to burn, burn, burn, burn, burn. And burning is not a precision tool. People need to accept that. If we do a lot of prescribed fire, we’re gonna kill a lot of trees. But that’s the goal. If I was gonna go out and thin a forest with a feller buncher, I would kill more than half the trees. That’s the goal, that’s the point. If you want me to thin the forest with a prescribed fire, we’re gonna kill trees, and people are gonna look at it and be like, “Man, they really messed up there, look at those dead trees.” No, we want to kill trees, because there’s too many of them. So fire is the only tool that’s going to work at the scale of our problem, and we’re going to thin the forests with fire.

People need to understand that when they see prescribed fire that kills half the forest, that the intent, oftentimes, was to thin out the forest. Because it’s the only tool we have that we can work at scale. But it’s not a precision tool, and there’s gonna be areas that burn hotter than we wanted them to. And that’s part of admitting that we’re not in control. To rephrase that, because I don’t want people to think I’m saying we should just go out and torch the woods, I think people conflate our ability to cut all the big trees down with the idea that we’re actually capable of managing ecosystems. But humans don’t have the control we think we do over the landscape. Even in using prescribed fire, there’s going to be outcomes that look like failures. But down the road, having more fire on the ground at the right time of the year is going to prevent fires like the Dixie Fire from happening.

If the Dixie Fire hadn’t burned during a drought, and had been behaving like a good fire, we would have put it out because it would have been easy to put out. It wouldn’t have been spotting a mile. The problem is that the fires that do the most good on the landscape are the easiest fires to put out. And we’ve been really good at putting out all the good fires, so we’re stuck with big bad fires.

And we’ve burned up such a huge part of the Feather River. But rural mountain communities are necessary. Just about all of California is wildfire country. But the Feather River provides great water for 27 million people. People have always managed land. Native people managed this land. We have a role and responsibility to manage land, especially in a state as densely populated as California. There’s a real need for us to have these rural communities, but also to build our capacity to manage land, and to really build a restoration economy that is focused on clean water.

We need to assume that fire is inevitable, and that it’s coming, and we need to get our communities and houses and everything into a condition where it can come and it’s not as traumatic. Because we’re not going to survive the trauma of this if our towns keep burning down. You know, even if your house survives, but all your neighbors burned down, you’re still traumatized.

We have to repair our relationship with fire. Because we live in fire’s home. It’s not going anywhere. There’s nothing we can do to keep it from happening. We need to stop pretending that we can control it. We can do a lot with our forest management to make it likelier that it won’t take us out, but we’re not going to keep it off the landscape.