Welcome to Remarkable People. We’re on a mission to make you remarkable. Helping me in this episode is Stephen Pyne, who is a renowned wildfire expert.

What sets this episode apart is our deep dive into the ever-evolving human-fire relationship. Throughout history, fire has played a pivotal role in shaping our ecosystems and influencing human societies. Stephen’s extensive experience, from his time as a wildland firefighter to his role as an emeritus professor, provides a unique perspective on this complex relationship.

In this episode, we explore not only the critical issues surrounding wildfires and environmental conservation but also the profound changes in our understanding of the human-fire dynamic. Stephen’s insights challenge traditional notions and shed light on the intricate interplay between humanity and fire.

Listen to the episode now and join us in unraveling the fascinating story of how fire has shaped our world and continues to do so.

Thank you for being part of the Remarkable People community, where we explore topics that inspire change and pave the way for a safer and more sustainable future. 🌍🔥

Please enjoy this remarkable episode, Stephen Pyne: The Human-Fire Relationship.

If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!

Follow on LinkedIn

Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Stephen Pyne: The Human-Fire Relationship.

Guy Kawasaki:
I am Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. We're on a mission to make you remarkable. Helping me in this episode is Stephen Pyne. He's one of the foremost authorities on the history and management of fire. His career has focused on revealing humanity's intricate relationship with landscape fire. After fifteen seasons as a firefighter at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, Stephen pursued graduate studies and then undertook an ambitious project, a sweeping history of fire in America.
This yielded the field defining 1982 work aptly called Fire in America. This catalyzed Stephen's lifelong mission to chronicle fire's history across cultures worldwide. He advocates for fire's ecological necessity and the need to coexist with its risk. Now retired from a distinguished academic career, Stephen continues writing and reflecting on humanity's bond with fire from his urban farm in Arizona. I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. And now, here is the remarkable Stephen Pyne. We almost may have overlapped at Stanford. I was there 1972 to 1976.
Stephen Pyne:
Yeah, I graduated in 1971.
Guy Kawasaki:
I followed in your footsteps. People were still talking about you after you left.
Stephen Pyne:
You're kidding?
Guy Kawasaki:
No, I am kidding.
Stephen Pyne:
Stanford? I had a great education there. I valued it and all of that, but I was working summers on a forest fire crew at the North Rim in Grand Canyon, and that's really where my heart was. I had some good friends there, but that was not really my community.
Guy Kawasaki:
You had a much more exciting community every summer apparently, right?
Stephen Pyne:
It was very engaging. I was just a few days out of high school when I went to the canyon. I had a job as a laborer for the Park Service and it turns out just by accident, one of the guys on the fire crew in the North Rim called in and said he couldn't make it. And so there I was and they wanted to fill it and they turned around and said, "Do you want to go?" And I said, "Sure, why not?" And my adult life dates from that moment, really.
Guy Kawasaki:
Interesting how one turn and that sets you on a path, huh?
Stephen Pyne:
I was completely enchanted. For me it was the best of all lives in the best of all places and it was just a glorious way to live. I stayed with it for fifteen seasons and by that point I was getting pretty broken down to actually be in the field and I was married. I had a kid who spent her first two summers on the North Rim and yeah, it was a difficult time to find an academic job and there were a lot of reasons to stay.
So that's how I got interested in fire, completely serendipitous. And who knew? At the time fire was nothing of concern. It was not a national media concern. It was just some freak of western violence that happens out there, like a grizzly bear attack or something. A big fire. Fires were not really newsworthy. They weren't slamming into communities. I was told by people in the park service, look, there's no future in fire. If you want to get on with the Park Service, you've got to get into another job that has a career advancement that's going to let you do something.
There were no permanent slots for fire people, fire officers at the time and the world changed. I thought fire was fun. I thought it was engaging. And when I graduated with my doctorate 1976, I never studied fire. It was never taught at any place I went to, it was almost taught nowhere in the country. And I decided I wanted to write a history of fire. So I just did it. There were no academic jobs. I got some funding, and I spent the next few winters doing that and then in the summer in the canyon. Anyway, this is rambling, so just tell me stop. Time out. Whatever you want.
Guy Kawasaki:
That's the beauty of a podcast. You can ramble all you want. I know people who work in fire, and they jump out of helicopters into burning forests. And can you just take me into the mindset? Why would you do that fifteen summers and dedicate your life to that? I've seen it's like a very dangerous occupation.
Stephen Pyne:
It never seemed dangerous to us. And the images and stories you get out of the media, particularly in recent years are of really giant fires, hundreds of feet, flame length, immense smoke poles, very dangerous, taking out communities. We were an initial attack crew primarily, and most of our fires were set by lightning. And the first real challenge was finding the fire. That sounds paradoxical, but if you have a lightning struck tree, it's smoking.
May still be wet from the thunderstorms and you have to find it. And you're given a compass bearing or you're given some directions and it may be getting dark. It was a classic what used to be called smoke chasing. You had to chase down the smoke. We spent a lot of our time just finding the fires and they were mostly small if we got them, if we had a ten-acre fire, that was a large fire for us.
A 300-acre fire was really big. A thousand acre fire just on the other side of the boundary and the national forest. Wow, that would be talked about for twenty years. So the conditions were very different than what we have now. And so we had a lot of fires and it was a lot of fun. You have to make a lot of decisions, a lot of choices. We have to do all of it. We weren't specialized into those who ran engines and those who worked in helicopters and those who had to hike in, we did all of that. And so there was a lot of variety. It was interesting.
You're outdoors, you're with a company of like-minded people, and you're engaged in a sort of strenuous activity. That sounds like a formula for a pretty good life to me. The problem is after you get old and knees start giving out and your shoulders have a problem and you've got other obligations, you can't do it. It's really for young people.
So I stayed as long as I could. I met my wife there on the Rim, we got married on the Rim and that was it. So that's the other thing. It wasn't just fire. We're at Grand Canyon. And so the canyon itself became an object of interest and so I did a lot of my research, my scholarly career dealt in fire. Sure. But it also asks questions, why is this place valued? The earliest Europeans to encounter the canyon dismissed it. It was just a huge impediment to travel. You couldn't navigate the river, you couldn't do anything with it. There was nothing that they valued there.
And so it's rediscovered and forgotten for several hundred years. So why is it that suddenly it became valued. And that gave rise to a whole other sets of interest in the history of exploration, the investment of meaning and places and so forth.
So I did a book on Antarctica may be my best book that grew directly out of the canyon. How do you make sense of a place like Antarctica? We have prior example. How did you make sense out of this immense chasm that has no abundant resources of the sorts that were valued? How did art and science and history, national experiences come to converge on that? Can you do something the same with Antarctica? So it was both.
So it was always a case of playing. If one fires were slow, we always had the canyon. And for me, I was always engaged with it. And now today, fire crews tend to be very specialized and this is what they do and they're burned out. There were lots of small fires. They'd come in bunches, we'd be very busy for a while, we'd mop it up, regroup, get ready for the next one. But there was always stuff to do.
Guy Kawasaki:
And has fire qualitatively changed?
Stephen Pyne:
It's hard to know how a fire in a wildland can qualitatively change at some point it becomes bigger and bigger, more intense. But can we say that really changes or is it just a changing quantity? I think perhaps the development of pyrocumulus clouds is a phase change. That is to say the heating of the fire raises air high enough that it begins evolving into a cumulus cloud and eventually even a thunderhead atop that.
So it's taking the place just as the right kind of air hits a mountain and it rises up and then develops into a thunderhead or something, lifts it. The fire can do that lifting. And up until maybe twenty-five years ago or so, these were very rare. Now they're becoming quite common. All the factors that feed into fire, that fire integrates are increasing. I think it is fair to say that the fires are in some ways changing character.
Guy Kawasaki:
Are you saying that compared to back then, fires are changing because of climate change or because the United States has gone on a policy of suppression, all of this stuff is accumulating that at some point it's going to catch up to you? Why has it changed or seems to have changed?
Stephen Pyne:
All of the above. In many ways, fire is like a driverless car, it's integrating all the information around it and that gives it its direction, its speed, its character. And at some points that may be a sharp curve called climate change. Another place it may be a lot of road debris that you have to dodge. It can be bunches of things and different things at different places. So right now almost everything is magnifying. It's not just fire suppression, it's the fact that we quit lighting fires which we had done. It's not just putting out fires that nature start, it's also land use.
How did we log that land? What is the consequence of that? In much of the arid west or semi-arid west like where I live in the southwest, fire's elimination started twenty-five or thirty years before the Forest Service was even created and that was the result of massive overgrazing.
Railroads came in that connected land to markets, huge herds of cattle and flocks of sheep come in, crop off all the grass that had carried the fire in previous times. And that happens twenty to thirty years before the national forests are created. So the Forest Service came into an environment that was already stripped of a lot of its fire character. So there are lots of different things operating here and it's important to identify the local set of conditions that influence the fires that we're seeing.
Otherwise, you create a solution that works in Minnesota but doesn't make any sense in Florida or that works in New Mexico but is meaningless in Alaska or Hawaii. I was just reading about Guam for different reasons and as much as 10 percent of the island burns each year, there's no natural basis for fire there. That's all human. So you look at the whole history of it.
And it's also useful looking back at American history that even a century ago we were experiencing an era of mega fires that really began after the Civil War sort of announces it and continued into roughly about 1919 or so, and this is at the end of the little ice age. So it is not primarily a result of climate change, it's a result of massive amounts of fuel leftover from logging and land clearing. The land is just lathered with all of this fine debris.
So they've hauled off the big stuff, which is actually very hard to burn. If you've ever had a fireplace or a campfire, you don't put a big giant log into it, particularly a green log. It'll put the fire out. You put lots of little stuff. So logging and land clearing took the big stuff out, left the little stuff which is exactly what fire needs. And in those conditions you don't need three years of drought, three months of unusual dryness, a short winter.
So it starts early in the spring and the living vegetation hasn't greened up yet. You've got this window and you could have dry cold fronts coming, perfect formula for fire. You can do it in the fall and that's where most of these fires occurred. And they were quite large and in places that we don't think of as fire prone now, upstate New York, the Adirondacks in 1903 had 600,000 acres burned. In 1908 had another 400,000. These are larger.
Most of the big fires that we're seeing in California recently, how was that possible? It was possible because the railroads had come in, lots of debris lying around and the railroads were themselves responsible for a great, many of the ignitions. They were throwing sparks, there was no regulation. There were the power lines of the day.
And so they were setting fires and there was one fire I love, I think it was the 1903 fire, and they're trying to bring in some extra laborers from other towns to help fight this fire that's threatening this one town and the train that's carrying the firefighters set nineteen fires on the way. So the conditions were right and you begin to realize how absurd this is and we've forgotten all of that. So it isn't just climate change, all these other factors are feeding in as well. There are lots of ways to get really big bad fires. Climate change is certainly a factor now. It's aggravating, it's exacerbating, it's putting energy into the system and so we're seeing a lot more. And that is a primary cause, but not the only one.
Guy Kawasaki:
Can I ask you a very simplistic question.
Stephen Pyne:
Guy Kawasaki:
We can't assume that people listening to this episode, especially the host, even know just the basics of fire. Can you give us a quick fire for dummies? Pretend you're talking to your ten-year-old grandchild and explaining fire. Can you just do that for a minute or two?
Stephen Pyne:
Sure. Well, let's go back to the basics. Usually presented as a fire triangle. You need heat, fuel, and oxygen. If you want to look at fire's behavior, you look at how that zone of burning interacts with the surrounding landscape. It's terrain, it's vegetation, it's weather. Let's take a campfire or a fire in a fireplace. What do you need? You need stuff to burn. Okay. Fuel.
The best stuff to burn is going to be dry and it's going to be small. So you split it up, you do lots of kindling to get it started. If it's dying down and you want to get it going again, you throw lots of small stuff on it, twigs, pine needles, kindling of various kinds and you need to control the oxygen. So if it's inside and it has a chimney, you need to open the flue so that air can come in which the hot air will rise. So other air, fresh air will come in.
And we can see a forest fire is essentially that same thing in a much more complicated environment. So instead of having stuff that you control that burns, it's whatever is out there. It may be whole trees, grasses, shrubs, it may be mixtures of things. So the fire will take on slightly different personality as it encounters those, but you need wind, both to drive it, but also as the fire burns and perhaps if it's burning hot, really hot, it will form a convective column.
The hot air will rise. In effect, it creates a chimney for itself and that means lots of wind is coming in from below and you need something to start it, to spark. A match. In nature lightning is overwhelmingly the dominant source. But people, we carry fire wherever we go and we're always starting fires deliberately or accidentally. We can't live without it really.
Most of our fires in the developed world are hidden from us because they're all in machines. We're burning fossil fuels. We control the combustion chamber. But for most of our existence we had to interact with nature and we understood how to do that. Prior to planting, we burned grasslands for pasture, we burned for clearing, we burned for cooking, for hunting, for foraging.
Everywhere we went, we had fire. Fire has been our species companion and now for the last 30,000 years or so at least we have had a species monopoly over fire. Other animals knock over trees or dig holes in the ground. We do fire. That's what we do that no other creature does. So that in many ways is our identity. We are the fire creature, the keeper of the flame, the steward, if you will, on behalf of all the other creatures.
And we've not been doing a very good job of that. We just turned to power instead of being something we work with, we took our best friend and we've made it our worst enemy and now fire is working against us. So that's all on us. We had a mutual assistance pact with fire, and we took fire to places it could never have gotten on its own and times it could never have burned.
And fire has allowed us to go everywhere we wanted. We even go off planet on a plume of flame, but we've turned that into a Faustian bargain in recent decades. And by our overindulgence in fossil fuels and treating it basically as we would a factory farm without any concern for the effluent or byproducts being very efficient at converting fire into power, raw energy, primary energy source.
But fire in nature is an all-purpose catalyst ecologically. It recycles, it renews, it transforms, it does all kinds of things in ways that are full of checks and balances in living landscapes. But when we turn to primarily two fossil fuels or what I think of as lithic landscapes, that is once living now, now fossilized, we took away all those checks and balances and we changed our whole relationship to fire. We treated it just as a tool, as something we can use for our ends instead of something we interact with.
That we each have obligations and rights out of it so that you can burn day and night, winter and summer, wet or dry, it doesn't matter. And so all of the old circumstances that allowed us to use fire in the ways we did are now gone and we're saying it's no longer a quest to find new stuff to burn. We've got more than we can use. It's what do we do with all the byproducts? What do we do with all the waste?
It's overloaded the atmosphere, it's overloaded the oceans, it's unraveling a lot of the land and living landscapes. My sense is that when you add it all up, we're creating the fire equivalent of an ice age. So if you imagine the ice ages, the Pleistocene, which is when we emerged as a species and take all those properties, giant ice sheets and mountain glaciers, the biogeographic changes and migrating of species, changes in sea level, mass extinctions, all those sort of classic parameters that we'd use to define an ice age.
And you pass it through a kind of Pyrrhic looking glass, what do you get on the other side? You get a fire age with mass extinctions, changes in sea level, huge shifts in biogeography and instead of large blocks of ice, a substance sitting in one place, we get sort of dynamic reactions. We get heat domes. We get smoke poles.
All these sort of features we can think of as an ice age, we can find fire equivalents and that seems to be what our emerging world is. I think we have been changing the Earth and altering the climate since the last ice age. But when we went on fossil fuels, the whole process went on afterburners and now it's completely out of control.
It's not just nudging and tweaking and modifying, it's just overturning the old world. And climate change, it's not just about climate change, it seems to me it is changing everything in the planet in the same way that an ice age was not just about ice, it was about climate change, mass extinctions, changes in sea levels and hydrology, all these other things factor in.
So that's my way of imagining the world that we're creating through fire. I call it The Pyrocene, and it doesn't mean that everything burns. It means that fire's relationship to humans or our relationship to fire is remaking the world. And fire directly and indirectly is an agent and catalyst for that. So there are lots of mythologies. Almost all people have a mythology of a great fire in the past or a great fire that will come in the future or a cycling of great fires that ends and remakes worlds. And frankly, mythology is becoming ecology. We're seeing it happen right now in front of our eyes.
Guy Kawasaki:
Are you basically saying we're doomed?
Stephen Pyne:
No. I'm saying that we created this and we can start unwinding it if we wish. And in some ways we were helpless against ice ages. This was all set by large planetary geophysical processes over which we have no control, we can't get rid of ice, we can manipulate fire. So in many ways a fire age is to our advantage. It's playing to our strength. We're a fire creature, but we've abused it. We don't think about it as a relationship.
We've, as I say, made our best friend our worst enemy. We've forgotten all the obligations that come with this. I speak as a pyromantic, not a pyromaniac. Big difference. So I'm prepared to see how does the world look if you put fire at the core and what kind of world do you get? I think that is a useful exercise for understanding the world we've created. Yeah, it's a metaphor, but models, scientific models are really metaphors with numbers. Metaphors are how we understand the world.
Guy Kawasaki:
To use a metaphor then, if Joe Biden made you secretary of pyromantics, what would you do?
Stephen Pyne:
We have to do a bunch of things and we need to do them all at the same time. It's ridiculous, for example, that we are losing communities to fire. We solved that problem a long time ago. Our cities quit burning. I think San Francisco was the last 1906. It took an earthquake even to do that and then it comes back. Oakland across the bay starts a sort of new era of why are these communities burning? We forgot to do all the stuff that took fire out of cities and we have what's been called, it's an unfortunate term, but wildland urban interface or wildland urban fire.
And that problem got defined by the wildland side who saw their management of fire on landscapes complicated by communities and houses being pushed into those landscapes. And that's turned out to be a very difficult problem to handle. But if you thought of those communities as urban, you picked up the other end of the wildland urban firestick, then it's pretty easy what you do, you treat them as you would any other city.
You bring in fire codes, building codes. You put in an infrastructure for it. You have zoning that helps to support it. It's pretty clear that we can protect our communities, we can keep them from burning by simply applying these principles which are pretty well known. And I would add other critical assets, municipal watersheds, for example, mature sequoia groves. Really? Three of our first four national parks were created to preserve sequoia groves. And now we've lost what, 15 percent to maybe 20 percent of the world's population over the last what? Five or six years. This is ridiculous. We know how to fix that. That would be my first step.
And the second step would be to get the rest of our larger countryside, including our wildlands in better shape to tolerate fire. Find ways to restore fire. And we can learn a lot from indigenous people. We can learn a lot actually from settlers from Europe, many of whom were very familiar with fire. But we have a map of forest fires for the United States that was produced in the 1880 census and it's quite a stunner to see how much fire there was and where it was. Very different from what we have now. So that's a longer project, but we know how to do it. It has to be very specific to particular sites. There's no one universal formula that you apply and that can begin getting, recovering some of our ecological goods and services. So instead of having these landscapes now become a hazard, they can become a positive source of goods and services now. They can do what they're supposed to.
And the third thing is we've got to tame climate change. And the only way to do that is to rotate as quickly as possible out of fossil fuels. If you're going to lose weight, you have to control what you eat. It doesn't matter how much exercise you do or whatever else to mitigate or accompany. We have to do that. And clearly the economics is rolling in our favor and so forth, but this would be a longer term project and we need to do all three of these at the same time to really have something that we can leave to our children and grandchildren.
But I also have a caveat here that fire is complicated. In many plays, that's good news because it means there are many points of intervention possible and each place can find its own particular cocktail or combination. But if all we do as a primary source of energy is replace fossil fuels with renewables, but we continue to live on the land the same way. We organize our agriculture the same way, we organize our management of wildlands the same way, we build our houses the same way.
All of these other factors that go in, we still have a major wildfire problem. Because fossil fuels allowed us to reorganize the landscapes in which we live. But if all we do is substitute a different source of energy for fossil fuels, but we apply it to the same end purpose and we continue to manage that larger landscape in the same way we're going to have big fires again. In fact, my vision is that we will have a lot more burning.
As we ratchet down our fossil fuel burning, we'll be ratcheting up our burning and living landscapes because there's a huge fire deficit and this is an ecological problem, but also means that there's more stuff to burn in ways that we don't want to burn and that becomes a fire threat. We have a lot of fire in our future and the choice is which kind we want. I come back to this is our species heritage, this is what we do and it's time to reclaim that.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wait, why is the conversion of renewables or to renewables going to cause more stuff to burn?
Stephen Pyne:
No, it won't. The conversion by itself won't, but if we apply that energy in the same way that we've applied fossil fuels to organize the landscape, then we are going to have a big fire problem in that landscape. The climate change part of it may go down, but as we can see from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, you don't need huge droughts and climatic heat domes and the rest of it to cause fire. There's plenty of other ways to get big fires and we've seen them.
Now, it's being overwhelmed by climate change and the rest, but as we wind that down three months in the spring or fall, that's enough to have big fires. If you've got all this stuff out there and it's arranged in a way that threatens communities and communities are not designed to accommodate a fire's presence and the rest of it. Well, many of us live in cities now in the developed world and fire has gone out of our daily lives.
We don't have working flames in our houses anymore. We get it with electricity. We'll have propane, we'll have fossil fuels for gas or heating or whatever else, but we don't have fire. We don't clean up our yards by burning it. In fact, all these things are prohibited. So we found they're still mostly based in fire; burning of fossil fuels, but we don't see it anymore and we've forgotten that fire connection.
We've tried to project that into the countryside and the larger landscape. We can apply this firepower from our machines to overwhelm nature's fire. That is a failed formula because what it does is the fires that survive are the ones we can't control and they do much more damage than all these little fires.
It's deciding we've got some bad bacteria in our gut, we've got an infection, so we kill everything, the good and the bad. We needed the good and we've got to find a way, that requires that you make decisions, you make choices. Those choices are going to be based on social and cultural and economic values. They're going to be political choices at one form or another. So to live with fire means that we have to be able to talk to one another and come to some sort of consensus about what we're going to do and we accept that as legitimate. Fire is not just a technical problem, it's about how we live on this planet. Right now we're not doing a very good job of it.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. Backing up for a second. Now, let's call this firefighting for dummies. So what's the gist of how you put out a forest fire? We see news of planes dumping stuff and people jumping in and cutting back trees and all that, but what's the gist of how you put out a forest fire?
Stephen Pyne:
Let's go back to our campfire. How do you put out a campfire? One way you can put water on it or dirt. If you just bury it, then the fire can continue to smolder underneath. So you also have to break up the stuff that's burning and you have to prevent new stuff from coming in. And that's basically what you do at a much larger scale in a forest fire. So you create a break in the fuels, that is the vegetation. Ideally you go down to mineral soil.
So there's nothing that can burn, even smoldering can't go across. The width of that depends on the intensity of the fire. If you've got flame lengths 200 feet, you'd have to build a firebreak the size of football fields and we're not going to do that. We can't stop it that way. Other than that, you can put some kind of retardants or quenching element water if you have it, but you don't always have water in wildlands or in the countryside.
And if you're in a drought, the water supply may be even less than normal. So water can be limited, retardant, can be effective, but both of them are mostly effective against fine fuels. That is the pine needles, the twigs, the small branches because they can coat it. Fire recurs on the surface of wood. And if you coat that surface, that's all you need. So they're most effective and that can stop it.
So if you've got a fire moving fast in grasslands or some shrub lands, I think there's a big fire in California now in the Mojave Preserve. These are invasive grasses. It can be very effective at that because it can coat it long enough. The coating doesn't have to go through a canopy of trees which intercepts it and the coating may not be blown away by the wind. You can get it on that fine stuff and that could be effective.
So aerial stuff is most effective right at the start. It can help you control, it can help people on the ground control it. If you've got an engine, you've got roads access, you've got an engine or something, you may be able to drop water, bring water on, squirt water on it, as in a city. You may be able to use helicopters to do site-specific drops in areas that are problematic or a fire spotted a spark when across your fire line. You need to control that otherwise the whole thing can start over again. You mop up. It's basically a lot of stirring. It's not very glamorous. It's pretty much stoop labor over a long time and pretty grungy.
The other way to control fires, particularly larger fires is to remove their fuel. And in this case, you can't build a fire line, you can't do it fast enough or big enough. You take what's called an indirect attack. So instead of trying to go “mono e mono” along the fire line, you pull back to someplace that's more or less defensible. A well-established road with a right of way, a large river, cliffs that are rocky and you use that as a break and then you burn out the material between that site and the approaching fire. This also takes time to do. And this can be done well or it can be done badly like anything. And if it's done badly, you just blackline it, scorched earth and you maybe stop the fire, but you may have incinerated a lot of things that could have accommodated a fire much better.
So in that case, if you're smart, you plan this out and you do it systematically in ways that actually introduce what might actually be good fire into that landscape. And some parts will over burn more severely than you want, but a lot of it may be what you would want it if you did a controlled fire in that environment. And these are techniques that are now being used in a lot of areas where you put your firefighting hardware and strength to protect communities, municipal watersheds, so forth. Other than that, you pull back to a place that makes sense, that you can hold and burn out from systematically. A lot less risk to firefighters. You get amount of fire on the land and it could be done more cheaply. So there are lots of ways.
What do you do? When I was a smoke chaser, we would get out to the fire, maybe it'd be a tree or two, a dead snag burning, maybe some surface fire spreading around a bit, whatever we would contain the surface fire so it didn't spread. Then we would fill the tree, and that was probably the most hazardous thing we did because you've got a burning tree and you're rattling it with a chainsaw and trying to put it on the ground. You put it on the ground and then you break it up just like you would a giant campfire and you systematically put it out and that's it. On these really large fires, it's much harder.
We still tend to think that all of our mechanical might can overpower these fires. We've seen some of these large fires, particularly in California, we build these fire lines and it just goes right over them. You can get spot fires, sparks, embers can go a couple of miles ahead. If you miss one, it's like starting the fire over again.
So that's very difficult and we keep trying, but that's very hard. It really is not effective. We don't have something the scale of fire that we can match these large fires. Yeah, we can knock down these little fires, these nuisance fires, these medium grade fires, little effort, we can contain it. But the really large ones, the ones that are the most dangerous, the ones that do the most damage, we can't do anything we get out of the way.
Guy Kawasaki:
Could those large fires have been prevented by prescribed burns?
Stephen Pyne:
That's a great question. They can't be prevented, but they can be changed. We can modify what it burns. We really can't control the wind and the humidity. We can't control mountains and canyons. They're what they are. They're not going to change, but we can modify the stuff that burns, the vegetation. And the best way to do this is in advance.
You try to get a landscape that can accommodate the sort of fire it grew up with and try to keep fire on the ground to prevent it from getting in the canopies. We’ve allowed the patches of that burning to become huge by removing fire and in some ways, not just by suppression but by all the other ways we've done it. And so now they burn much bigger blocks with very different ecological consequences.
We have fires that used to burn on the surface and forests that were very well adapted to that maybe every year. What did it matter? You're burning off basically grass and a year's needle cast, pine needles on the ground. Easy. We've allowed that to become overgrown with stuff. Intermediate fuels that allow fire to get into the canopy and then that forest is not adapted to that kind of fire. So we could restore that older fire regime, that older pattern of fire. We've experimented with a variety of things.
Can you crush and masticate some of those shrubs and lower stuff? Can you thin, which is a kind of weedy wooding, you're taking out the small reproduction that's come in leaving the older trees behind. Can you do that and alter the pattern of fuels? Yes, you can. But we've also found that those work best if they're also accompanied by burning. So you put a lot of fuels on the ground and you burn them, that is the best outcome. Other than that burning without all the mechanical treatment is better than just the mechanical treatment by itself. For one thing, you've now put a lot more stuff on the ground where it's accessible to fire.
Guy Kawasaki:
So if I read, oh, there's a forest fire now at Yosemite, am I supposed to think, "Oh my god, another big tragedy." Or am I supposed to think, "Oh, this is good, it's getting rid of this material on the ground. So in the long run, this is a good thing."
Stephen Pyne:
Well, I'm glad you brought up Yosemite. About fifty years ago they started a program of systematically restoring fire. And it's had its ups and downs and they haven't done as much as they wanted or as much as they should have. And they are now recommitting over the past few years, getting fire back in the valley. They're having to remove a lot of trees that weren't there when the park was established that have come in because fire was eliminated.
They're having to thin and reintroduce fire in the Sequoias Groves, the Mariposa Grove to prevent them from being overwhelmed by fire. And they've been experimenting with how to reintroduce fire in the back country. And the Pika Fire that we're seeing is part of that reintroduction program. And they've got about fifty years’ experience. They've learned a lot. There's still a lot to do, but what they have done is to draw one of these big boxes where there are natural barriers to the fire spread or some places they will put in a hand line so it's not a bulldozer that tears up the landscape and it may be burning out from that.
They will be working with that fire within that box. And the real problem they face is not the fire blowing up so much as smoke because it's all going to go in the valley. And so you have evening smoke with the normal cool air drainage and that can be an annoyance, it can be a health hazard at times if it's really thick for people, particularly if they have any kind of lung ailments.
And so part of their problem managing fire turns out how do they keep smoke from the areas where people are densest and where it might be an actual hazard. So it's very difficult. So this fire may be going for a while and then it turns out California's fire scene changes and the smoke becomes intolerable. They may have to intervene and put that fire out in some way or speed it up. And they're experimenting with lots of things.
They've had to put out a lot of natural fires in this one basin, the Illilouette basin where they've been doing this since the early 1970s and they're experimenting. We had to put it out for other reasons. The timing wasn't right, but maybe in the fall we could go back and relight it right where it left off. And then there's a milder burning period until the rains come. And that might be a way.
So there are all kinds of ways to do it. I think people think of like it's an urban fire and you just roll up enough hoses and firefighters and you just smother the thing. That's not how it's going to work in nature. And we need those fires. That's part of what made the park what it is and why we value it. So we have to work with fire. That means we're constantly negotiating with fire.
And fire has some say in this. It's not just ours to throw around as we wish. There's some give and take. Fire will do things if we do it its way. But up until a century or so ago, we managed to live with fire pretty well. And now we've got this paradox that we have all of this energy, all of these machines, all of this science, all of this firefighting technology and the rest of it and we can't control fire. What happened here. Maybe it was the nature of how we changed society, how this new power that fossil fuels gave us allowed us to rethink how we are going to live on the land. And we thought we could do this because we didn't see immediate consequences. But then you do start seeing the consequences. And now they're on a global scale.
These, I did a short book, it came out this spring called Pyrocene Park. And I had a chance to join a backcountry trek. The park had organized a group of fire people and some of the upper administrators of the park. They were going into this basin where they started restoring fire fifty years ago. It was a three-day trek and people would talk about it and the scientists would say how much better this landscape is than outside where it hasn't gone through this process.
The water flow is better, biodiversity is better, character of the fire is better. And it was great. But it also occurred to me that Yosemite is in a sense a microcosm of what I'm seeing happening to the earth. This is an area that was shaped by ice. The ice age has created almost all of the great monumental landscapes and the features that we have, even the distribution of waters and forests and the character and so forth, we're all shaped by ice. And increasingly now it's being dominated by fire.
Both fossil fuel fires that are altering the climate, the atmosphere, but also all of the other fires that we're seeing in those landscapes that have resulted from our transition. It turns out here's a park, it's a flagship park for the National Park. It's the best endowed fire management park in the country and it struggles to get the right kind of fire back in, to get the regime. It's a hard task. So many competing interests and values at risk. Fine, they're doing pretty well.
What about all the other parks that aren't as well-equipped? What about all the surrounding national forests that have very flammable landscapes below? Yosemite's fires ultimately burn out into granite. But what about all those other places that are burning into denser forests? How do you manage them? How do you manage all those competing interests and the rest of it? It's really tough, but if we're serious, that's the task before us.
The other thing, a lot of the fire problems are things we need to fix anyway. Why do we have power lines starting fires? This is absurd. We've known for decades we needed to fix the grid anyway. Let fire be a part of that. Do we really want to convert all of our agricultural and open spaces to excerpts and suburbs? Is that a land use that we really want to promote? So maybe that's a fire problem. So maybe fire is solving other kinds of things and so forth.
Fire is integrating everything around it. A lot of those things need to be fixed anyway, so we're fixing fire and fire can be used to help fix that. So in some ways it's not that we have one huge problem and we have to mobilize to fix this one huge thing. Fire is all over the place, but that also means there are lots of things we can do. I realize this is a startling vision for someone who's not used to thinking about the world in fire in this way, but this is what you get.
Guy Kawasaki:
Two weeks ago I interviewed Ted Scambos and he's the Mr. Antarctica of the, is it Thwaites?
Stephen Pyne:
Thwaites Glacier. Yeah.
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah. So he's Mr. Thwaites Glacier. And he had a similar story about the rising sea level and stuff. And man, it's going to be a depressing month on my podcast.
Stephen Pyne:
What's depressing is that even if we change now at speed, so many things are locked in. There's a lot of lag time built into this. So we're going to be dealing with the consequences for a long time. Yeah, I actually see in my perverse moments, I think the other reason we need to keep all that fossil fuel buried is because we may need it because the geophysics of the ice ages didn't change at the end of the last glaciation. We've been in an interglacial.
And I can remember when I was in school, the story from Climatologists was that we were headed for a new ice age. And there's nothing we can do about it. It's just the arithmetic. It's all the various rhythms and the rest of it and we should be getting ready for it. We're not going to have an ice age now because we've created a fire age to replace it. But there's a lesson in that now that we've learned we can disrupt the climate. We're in the business of having to manage it. And if we manage it properly, we may be able to forestall the next ice age or nudge it in useful ways.
Guy Kawasaki:
That's the good news.
Stephen Pyne:
And to do that, we're going to have to burn a hell of a lot of fossil fuel. So why are we doing it now when a future generation may need that for another purpose? But that's really long-term, almost science fiction fantasy. But I don't know that it's completely out of order if we think about fire. Fire is our friend.
Guy Kawasaki:
Let me get this.
Stephen Pyne:
Ice is not.
Guy Kawasaki:
You're saying that we may face another ice age, so we need to save our carbon base fuels for that day when we need to heat ourselves.
Stephen Pyne:
Yeah. Some future generation, who knows. Several hundred, maybe a few thousand years from now. But everything is pushing it towards a cold, pushing it towards cold. We may need it for another purpose. Why are we wasting it now and multiplying our problems?
Guy Kawasaki:
Stephen Pyne:
But that would be a case of where our ability to manipulate fire may save us a lot of grief. So that's my interest in the story in the speculation.
Guy Kawasaki:
Can I ask you a real personal question because you're scaring the shit out of me?
Stephen Pyne:
Well, you can. Yes.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. So my house is on a couple of hills that's covered with eucalyptus trees. Is that crazy? I know eucalyptus burns like a candle, right? Am I asking for it?
Stephen Pyne:
It's very likely you're going to have a fire there and it's going to burn hot, but you're not helpless. Cleaning up under the eucalypts so that they don't have fire to carry into the canopy. They have leaves, not needles. The leaves are impregnated with all kinds of oils that easily volatilize and can erupt in flame. But I think managing the eucalyptus around, and especially putting your house in order. What takes out houses are basically embers. You have these blizzards of sparks blowing ahead of the flaming front. And those, it's like a swarm of locusts coming in.
And if there are any points of vulnerability, they're going to find them. And that is a place where a fire can get started. So it could get started in cracks if you have very large grid vent coverings. So embers can blow into your attic. If you've got vegetation right up against the house, embers get into the vegetation, start a fire, then you've got fire burning right next to the house or steps, all of those things.
And the other part is flame. And this depends how close your neighbors are and whether your neighbors have taken care of their place or not. So in some ways, the fire spreads like a contagion. And it's always, fire is a virus. It's not alive, but it depends on the living world for oxygen and fuel and to burn. So think about what would you do for COVID? So you wear masks to prevent aerosol spread. That's like hardening your house against embers.
You clear out an area right around, maybe four feet or so right around the house to prevent surface spread or fire coming in. That's social distancing. And then getting enough of the neighborhood to protect itself. That's heard immunity. And in some ways it's a very simple way to imagine how to protect your house, but then think about the social context and political context of getting the neighborhood to do it. So you protect your house but all of your neighbors haven't. And there you go, you're still at risk.
But I invite you the next time you see an aerial view of a community that's been burned out or go back and look at all the classic views over the last say twenty years or thirty years. And what you see is that the houses are incinerated, the cars are melted down to pools of aluminum, but the trees came through fine. So it is not the trees that are the hazard. If you've got a tree right next to your house that's going to burn probably because the house is going to set it on fire and then it feeds back in. But even Paradise, California, look at the aerial views and you see the surrounding forest came through pretty well. It's adapted to fire. The city was not.
Guy Kawasaki:
I might have to take this out of the final episode, but the people around here scared me enough where when I moved here we cut down about 150 eucalyptus trees to get distance from them.
Stephen Pyne:
Well, people like it. I would think looking at the Oakland tunnel fire in 1991, which is the annunciation for this new era of where excerpts and cities are burning, and there was one house we saw that burned three times. Now it's a great view, you're willing to do it, but there are also social costs. People may have to put their lives at risk to protect your house. Your house may be a threat to others. At some point, it is not up to you to negotiate on your own with fire. It's a social decision and that's what makes it very difficult now.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. I want to switch gears completely while you got me all shook up.
Stephen Pyne:
The point is that it's fairly and there are lots of guides out there now and groups to help. The whole Firewise program is committed to this and the communities to do it. It just isn't happening at scale.
Guy Kawasaki:
So when we cut down the eucalyptus trees, we had them chipped. So now the ground is a lot of eucalyptus chips. Was that the wrong thing to do?
Stephen Pyne:
It's not necessarily a bad thing to do. There are problems now with large chipping operations where they have mounts of chips and then that is self-igniting. In other words, just like a pile of oily rags. And so we're seeing some episodes of that. In your case, it's spread out. That will burn. It won't necessarily burn with the vicar of shrubs or pine needles and so forth because they're larger chips and they're flat. But it will burn and if it gets going, it will throw up a lot of heat, which you probably don't want. And it also smothers any kind of native grasses or flowers.
So you might consider disposing of those. I don't know. It sounds like you're in an area where you're probably not going to be allowed to burn it, but that would be a great thing to just burn with your neighbors. And they're forming prescribed fire associations now where private lands is becoming a deal. And California has changed its liability statutes regarding prescribed fire to make it more likely.
So that would be an option. It probably isn't an option for you, so you will have to haul it out, but I'll use that. Let me just give you a sense of the absurdity of this. I grew up in Phoenix. The outskirts of Phoenix, and you just burn off your lawn in the spring before the rains come in the summer and it took five minutes, ten minutes, and it's gone. Now, you're certainly not going to be allowed to burn off your lawn in a city. I have to rent a dethatcher, which scarifies all this stuff up, all the dead stuff up instead of burning it. So I'm running fossil fuels to run this dethatcher.
Then I have to bag it in plastic bags made from oil and then I put it out where it will be hauled off in a fossil fueled garbage truck to be dumped into a landfill where it decomposes to methane. No flame, no fire, no smoke. That is acceptable, whereas the old way of just doing it and you have a neighborhood thing, okay, everybody, we're going to do it now and it's over with. Done. That's where we've gotten to. That could be corrected. Doesn't that sound absurd?
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah. Okay. Getting away from fire for a second.
Stephen Pyne:
Guy Kawasaki:
You have written at least fifteen nonfiction books that I can figure out and I want to know how you write. What word processor? Do you work from an outline? Do you get a content editor? Do you turn in the manuscript and run away from it? What's your writing process?
Stephen Pyne:
Writing for me is a habit and it's like exercise. And you'll have a lot of people who run and they'll say they missed the run. If they don't get it in, they feel run down, et cetera, et cetera. And that's for me what writing. You asked not to talk about fire, but there's a saying in fire, it came out of Florida where they teach prescribed burning and the saying is, "Every day is a burn day." And you assume that you were going to do burning unless something stops it.
As opposed to saying get up and let's see if everything's lined up. Wow, everything's lined up, so let's think about burning. That for me is the same mantra for writing. Every day is a writing day unless there's something that intervenes. So I just assume I'm going to be writing.
And when I was younger, I wrote at night. As I got older, I write in the morning. I carry around a little notebook for notes and stuff. I spend a lot of time thinking about the organization, how the organization can support what I'm writing. It's not just a bag of data. There should be a narrative in it, there should be an organizing device and so forth. Think about that. I am writing as I go along, researching. I read stuff and I'm always imagining how does this get translated into text? What does this mean?
Guy Kawasaki:
And are you using a word processor?
Stephen Pyne:
Yeah. Word processors were a great invention because I had to retype manuscripts, large manuscripts. And you just introduced more errors. It's endless. And that took a huge amount of time. Word processing, all that goes away. It was hard for me to learn to edit on the word processor. I wanted a printout and I still prefer that. Short stuff I can do on the monitor, but otherwise, I want it printed and I want to be able to move stuff around and not just have it all on my head. I actually taught nonfiction for a while in grad school. I taught a course.
And my sense is you need a system, you need a method. But everybody's method is different. And it's like exercising or dieting or learning to play a musical instrument. You've got to have some regular way, make it habitual, but you need to find what will work for you. And there must be hundreds of books out about writing and they're all correct. This is how you can do it because it worked for me. This is what I did. But I look at that and I say, "This makes no sense to me at all." The lesson is you need a system, but you need a system that plays to your strengths.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. My last question about writing, do you completely outline your book and then fill in the outline or are you playing it as it goes?
Stephen Pyne:
I have never used an outline of the sort that I was trained at elementary school. And the older I get, the more writing experience I have, the more abbreviated the outline becomes. What I want to know is that what is the overall design here? How do the parts fit? What is the organizing principle? What are the motifs in a sense, almost like a decorative thing. If there are certain phrases or images that recur, how do they fit in? And then I begin writing, I immerse myself in whatever the data sources are for what I could write for maybe a day or a day and a half.
And then I just write that with this larger thing in mind. So I sort of compass bearing. I know where I'm going, but other than that, I'm not going to go through this tree. I'm not going to climb over this boulder. I'm going to go around it, but I'm getting to that direction, that sort of vision.
And the other thing I think is really vital is voice. Getting your voice right for whatever the project is and getting your own voice in general. I found a lot of students teaching this. Thought they had to write in an academic way, and it was that half of the course became a detox program, getting this, flushing all that out of their system so they could speak in their own voice. And then that freed them to be able to do other things. So I'm a great believer. Voice and vision are the two things. I think you nail that down. They solve a lot of problems for you. But I'm saying that as someone who just previously said, you need a system, but it's got to be your own system. So that's a system I've evolved. You need to find your own.
Guy Kawasaki:
So as you look back on your career, is the conclusion that you just need to own a niche. You are the MacArthur Fellow of Fire. You're the mother of fire. So is your advice, own a niche? It could be Antarctica, it could be fire, it could be rising sea level, but own something.
Stephen Pyne:
I think in a career sense that's very valuable, but I don't know how to advise someone to find it. This was completely accidental for me and probably my best single book was The Ice. It had nothing to do with fire, but it built on Grand Canyon. It was about Antarctica. That was just an opportunity. I didn't know what to do with it. There was this Antarctic fellowship and they're trying to get people in the humanities to go to Antarctica. I went for three months. I spent Christmas at the South Pole. I spent New Year's at Dome Sea, which is probably the end of the world. And it made a profound impression on me actually. When I wrote my first fire book, I thought that was the end of it. There were no academic jobs. I couldn't get anything. I wanted to write the book.
I was having to give up my wife as a North Rim long shot as we called ourselves. And I wanted, yeah, this is what I got out of it. And I had no idea. And then I just decided I'd keep going. Do I want to drill down more into that topic or go broader? And I thought broader would be more fun. What does Australia look like? And Canada, Europe, including Russia, lots of smaller places.
What is India? Very interesting fire story. All over the world you can go, you can find this stuff. I just kept at it and I kept thinking. For me, it was like being on the American River in California in 1848. You're just walking down picking up nuggets. Why isn't this place swarming with people? This is great stuff, but there was nobody. And so I wound up creating a field for myself. And you think that's great. Now you're known for that.
But how many students do I have studying that? How many students did I have coming in? Nobody was interested in fire. Nobody's hired in history, to study fire. What do I do for grant? Who reviews it? You've done something new, something interdisciplinary. You've invented a field. But if there is no institutional context for that field, you're just this crazy guy out there with a torch. And wow, that's really cool.
But the MacArthur Fellowship was really a windfall for me because it allowed me to continue this when I had no other really support for it. Who's going to do that? A novelty is useful up to a point, but freakishness is not, and it's a narrow line. It turns out to have been a great career choice. If I had another twenty years in money, I could still do South America's yet to be done. I've got a book on Mexico, but Africa, most of Asia, nobody's done it. I could continue doing this. So yeah, I invented a field, but in some ways I can feel like maybe it's like a gated community.
It's great, but now the world changed. I'm doing all this fire stuff and nobody was particularly interested. And now the world started burning in very visible ways. And so suddenly everybody's doing fire now and the place is overflowing with all these disciplines that had no interest in fire are now engaged with fire. Everybody's studying it. So I don't think I could have done what I did if I were starting now in the sense it was just an empty field and nobody saw it. But if you're trying to be a fire guy and look for smokes out there in these difficult landscapes, I was trying to see fire. And it just had to make that an academic pursuit rather than just this long shot at having a great summer out in the woods.
Guy Kawasaki:
So there you have it. Stephen Pyne and his remarkable career with fire. A few days ago, I learned that my insurance company is no longer writing homeowners policies in California. One of the big factors in this decision was the threat of wildfires. That's how big a deal this is. I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People.
My thanks to Beth Daley of The Conversation for suggesting and making this episode possible. My thanks to Madisun Nuismer, the drop-in queen of Santa Cruz. She's on fire at Jacks whenever she's in the water. Tessa Nuismer, researcher. She prepares me for these interviews. And then there's the sound design team, remarkable as they are. Jeff Sieh and Shannon Hernandez. And finally, the rest of the gang. Oh my God. Luis Magaña, Alexis Nishimura, and Fallon Yates. This is the Remarkable People Team. Until next time, Mahalo and Aloha.
Oh wait, I forgot to tell you. In the first week of March, my new book is coming out. I co-authored it with Madisun Nuismer. It's called Think Remarkable. Get it? As Opposed to Think Different. So beginning in the first week of March, you can probably order it right now at Amazon in advance. I want you to read, Think Remarkable. It explains how to make a difference and how to be a remarkable person too. Thanks.