Renewal in the West: Nature Bats Last

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Renewal by Fire

This year the annual fire season has come early to the Western regions of North America. In the southern mountains it has been prompted by a reduced snowpack, low rainfalls, blistering heat and low humidity. In the north, where the drought is absent, warmer winters have encouraged huge infestations of the mountain pine beetle, which attacks and kills older trees in the predominantly lodgepole pine forests. The result is standing firewood that burns fiercely once ignited. The situation has been aggravated by decades of fire-suppression, during an era when foresters did not understand the renewing role of fire in these ecosystems. For the lodgepole pine is a fire-dependent species that relies on fire to renew itself. The trees have serotinous cones that they drop to the ground. It takes a temperature of above 113°F (45°C) to melt the resin that holds the cone scales shut. The pine nuts, which are viable for ten years, are then released into a nutritious bed of ash that has been cleared of most competitors. If fire is kept out of the system for too long, however, the resulting conflagrations can be fierce and deadly, both to the forest and those who live in it.

It was the cycle of birth, growth, destruction and renewal in lodgepole pine forests that first suggested itself as a metaphor for organizational change. This ecocycle, as it came to be called, underpins both Crisis & Renewal and The New Ecology of Leadership. Today’s blog consists of an extract from The New Ecology of Leadership and its introduction of the readers to the role of wildfire:

For sheer spectacle and drama little beats a California wildfire. It must be network television’s favorite natural catastrophe. Thus, in October 2007, when wildfires burned in the idyllic suburbs of San Diego County, our television screens were full of images of smoke and flame for nearly three weeks. Dry Santa Ana winds swept down the mountains from the northeast at speeds of up to 100 mph, driving a firestorm with horizontal flames more than 200 feet long. Spectacular fire tornados spiraled hundreds of feet into the air, deploying an advance guard of glowing embers that could kindle the tinder-dry brush hundreds of yards ahead of the main front. Burning houses were the hottest objects, capable of igniting their neighbors through radiant heat alone. Television anchors told stories of heroic firefighters and showed pictures of the exhausted men against the background of the infernos.

Reporters told heartrending tales of ordinary people who had been given only minutes to evacuate their homes. Half a million people were under a mandatory evacuation order. Clutching their precious possessions— children, pets, and a few boxes of memorabilia—they joined long lines of traffic to assemble at sports stadiums and other central points, where they were greeted by volunteers with water, blankets, and the other necessities for survival. Young and old, rich and poor jostled together in unfamiliar but strangely exhilarating social arrangements. The shared experience, with its shocking focus on what really matters in our lives, seemed for a brief moment to recreate the human community. Neighbors met their neighbors, some for the first time, and strangers became friends overnight, bonded by the shared trauma. In the eighteen fires that raged during that time, twelve people were killed, more than fifteen hundred homes were destroyed, and half a million acres were “charred.” The financial loss was estimated at well over a billion dollars.

The immediate causes of the fires were numerous: sparking power lines downed by high winds, traffic accidents, and several cases of suspected arson. A ten-year-old boy admitted to starting one fire while playing with matches. The contributing causes were the ongoing drought in the region, the fierce winds that howled down from the mountains, and the vulnerability of many homes to fire. One even more fundamental cause that received less attention was the underlying predisposition of the landscape in this region to burn.

Much of the vegetation in California is either fire dependent or, at a minimum, fire adapted. The lodgepole pine tree, which ranges all across the state, requires fire to regenerate itself. The chaparral, the shrub community found throughout California and other Mediterranean climates, has elements within it that are fire dependent, and all its plant members have strategies to cope with fire. Indeed, this plant community in its natural state is adapted to a fire regime of burning about every thirty years to clear away deadwood and spark renewed growth, but, as civilization has encroached on the wilderness, the frequency of fires has gone up. The 2007 fires occurred almost exactly four years after the disastrous “Cedar” fire of 2003, which remains to this day the most devastating single conflagration in California.

The fire risk in the region is not expected to lessen; indeed, it is expected to get worse as the native chaparral, which is burning too often for its own health and sustainability, is replaced by invasive grasses that are even more volatile. Worse still, in the aftermath of fire the steep hillsides become more vulnerable to slides of mud and debris, which can destroy the homes below.

This increasing frequency of fire and the subsequent mudslides present challenges both for homeowners who enjoy living on the edges of the wilderness and for the insurers who cover them. For they have to decide whether to build structures, which are expected to last at least thirty to fifty years (and then to be changed only at their owners’ behest), on top of processes that are likely to cycle at a much more rapid tempo.

It’s a perpetual battle between people who crave stability and predictability in an ecology that needs to change if it is to be sustained. And nature bats last.

Have a great (northern) summer!

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