Students of Fire

A conversation with M.R. O’Connor

Like so many of who are learning to live with wildfire smoke traveling across state and national borders, or who have loved ones living in fire-prone areas, I have learned a good deal about wildfire in recent years. But science writer M.R. O’Connor has gone further, becoming intimate with fire in ways that might be hard for the uninitiated to imagine. Her previous books, Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Human Navigate the World and Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-extinction, and the Preservation of Wild Things, explore the breathtaking, beguiling, and sometimes troubling relations among human societies and more-than-human life on Earth. Her new book, Ignition: Lighting Fires in a Burning World, continues this exploration, interrogating our understandings and misunderstanding of fire, how different societies have embraced it as a tool to support healthy ecosystems and mutually beneficial relations among species, and also turned against it as a destructive force to be contained and restrained. 

Ignition is one of my favorite kinds of books—the sort that change how I see the world. Having seen fire through O’Connor’s eyes, I’ll never look at it the same way again. It’s a book that embraces nuance—there are good fires and bad fires, and what might be bad in one situation may not be so in another—and looks head-on at some of the as-yet-unsayable realities of climate change without losing sight of the fact that it could be otherwise, that we could change our relationship with fire in ways that make us safer and support the well-being of all life on Earth. I had the pleasure of joining Maura in public conversation the night of her book launch at MASSMoCA’s Research and Development Store, an event made possible by our friends at Council for the Uncertain Human Future. Here are highlights from our conversation. 

“The fire and I met near the banks of a small lake. Approaching a free roaming fire on a prairie felt just like meeting a horse for the first time. I walked toward it without fear, but fully alert, showing myself to the fire as it showed itself to me. Then I stood at the lift of the wave of flame watching as it consumed the grass, hungry, feral and free. I sat down on the earth and listened to it burn. I scribbled things on paper, rate of flame spread, smoke observations, fire behavior, wildflower names. I gathered and bunched dried stalks of grass. I lit the bundle on fire to make a torch, feeding the flames and spreading them around, loose spreading the fire. I had a funny feeling like the fire and I were friends and we might just spend the day together hanging out.”

Meehan Crist: That’s one of my favorite passages from your book Ignition. This book is incredible in the way you bring all of your journalist skills in reportage and research, but also how at some point, you jump in with both feet and a bunch of gear and you actually become a wildland firefighter. How did that happen? How, while wanting to report a story about fire, did you end up being trained as a firefighter?

Maura O’Connor: I think that a lot of journalists instinctually want to get as close as they can to their story, as deep as they want. In fact, part of the draw of journalism is this feeling that you can go and get access to places, talk to people, have these conversations, and hopefully get close. I knew I really wanted to see how people were both fighting and lighting fires because I didn’t know anything about it and I wanted to be able to describe for readers what that looked like, what it smelled and felt like.

But in order to do that, I realized I was going to actually have to get the qualifications, because I didn’t want to be a hindrance. I didn’t want people to worry about me, about my safety. I also didn’t, out of my own sense of pride, want to be like a dope who didn’t know what was going on. I realized that the way to get the access was just to be like, well, I went through this hurdle to be here, and then maybe people would let me get close and I could just stand around and watch. They did allow me to get close, but they didn’t allow me to stand and watch. The minute you show up it’s like, here’s a tool, let’s go.

As soon as I was in the midst of the crew, I became absorbed in the work. And then that absorption turned into, I think, a really strong desire to keep learning and to keep doing the work, to continue training. Later in the book I describe how I kept trying to find more places to work. Somebody who helped guide me through this difficult and alien world of wildland firefighting qualifications said to me. Oh, you have the fire bug. This is a thing that happens to a lot of us. I mean, some people describe it as being bit, or you catch it as a virus, or some people say it’s just in them. But yeah, it turns out that if you get close enough to fire, you may want to keep getting closer. 

MC: When most of us think about firefighters, I suspect we think about people trying to put fires out. Why were you out there setting fires?  

Somebody said to me, Oh, you have the fire bug. It turns out that if you get close enough to fire, you may want to keep getting closer.

MO: I know, it can be confusing! There’s a sort of counterintuitive overlap between wildland firefighters, whose job it is to suppress and contain wildfires that are threatening communities, and people who are fire practitioners, who light monitored fires for ecological benefit. As it turns out, the skills to do both are very much the same. When you want to put out a wildland blaze, you often start small new fires that starve that fire of fuel and contain it. When you light fires for ecological benefit, you’re also creating a contained area then setting it on fire. You’re using almost all the same tools.

I learned that a lot of wildland firefighters, when they’re not working during the summer-fall fire season, spend a lot of time setting prescribed fires. Setting fires in cooler, damper conditions can help prevent these massive, quick-moving, hot and dry fires that blow up in the summers, the kind we’re seeing so frequently now. Both fire practitioners, who set so-called prescribed or controlled burns, and wildland firefighters, often refer to themselves as students of fire, because they are constantly trying to learn and understand and better predict this powerful element.

MC: One of the things I love the most about this book is that it does that thing that great books do in that it makes you see the world in a different way. And once you see it that way, you can’t unsee it. I feel like you’ve entirely changed my understanding of fire and wildfires and potentially what we need to do about them in the future. Before we get to that, one of the quotes in the book that really helped me understand it came from a wildland firefighter, Bre Orcasitas. She says, “Imagine that we had the ability to control rain and you just didn’t let it rain for 100 years. We’ve been controlling fire like that for a long time, just taking them out. Now we know that fire in the landscape is a positive thing, it’s a necessary thing.” That really shifted something in my mind. I was like, Oh, we would never just stop the rain from falling for 100 years. That would be outrageous. What does she mean by that? 

MO: Fire is this one element in the Earth system that humans, a very, very long time ago, somehow learned to control and use in service of their own needs and their own cultural ends. People understood that fire is native to Earth. It’s unique. It doesn’t happen on any other planets. It’s here because we have these ingredients of oxygen, lightning and fuel in the form of grasses, shrubs and trees. Many of these ecosystems burn, and want to burn. Many of the plants and animals in these ecosystems have come up with incredible adaptations in order to not only survive but also flourish under those fiery conditions. Humans figured that out. And they we’re like, well, if I light this fire, I can make this type of grass grow that will attract this type of animal, and then I can hunt that animal easier. These are complex relationships.

I think what Bre was saying is that over the course of her own experience working in fire, she put out a lot of wildfires. That is the main mission of most wildland firefighters employed by most state and federal agencies. But she also began to realize that putting out the flames is not always a good thing. One of the themes of the book is this idea that there is what’s called a fire paradox. If we keep putting fires out, it may be a while before they start again, but when they do, they’re going to be bigger, hotter, and more ferocious. Our policies for over a century involved putting all wildfires out. Imagine the ecological disruption this has wrought. We’re seeing it in every fire season now. I think her point was that many of us don’t really think about fire the way we think about rain. We haven’t been educated in it. We all know that if you took away the rain everything would die. But we’re mostly taught about the dangers of fire and not enough about the benefits.

MC: Some of those ecological benefits were so surprising to me, and so obvious once you talked about them. Like the sequoias. Here are these beautiful forests that everyone wants to preserve, but in fact, we’re stifling them because sequoia cones are serotinous, and their seeds can’t be released without fire. The saplings need ash in the soil to sprout. Now we have these ancient trees, but no young ones because we have effectively stopped the ways the trees learned to grow.

MO: Yeah, it’s a really interesting thing to go back into the literature and read about when (non-Indigenous) people realized that. In northern California, when they created these national parks, they would hire the cavalry to put out fires. And then eventually wildland firefighting forces. But then biologists came through the forest and said, Hey, there’s no regeneration here in these groves. It was this big aha moment–we need the fire here.

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MC: Your book is populated with this incredible profundity of characters. It has its own cultural ecosystem that is full of really surprising people. I wonder if you would talk a little bit about some of the people that you met.

MO: I had never met a wildland firefighter before, and I didn’t know what to expect. I suppose if you had asked me at the beginning what that person would look like, I’d say muscular, dirty, and bearded. Actually, a lot of them are, to be fair. 

But I was first introduced to a group of people lighting controlled burns. They were men and women in their 60s, idealistic grad students, botany students, even philosophy students. Just a really diverse group of people. Dan Kelher, a burn boss, is one of the main characters. Everyone was welcoming, but from the start Dan was pretty much like, “Let me show you a secret. This is so fun. You are going to love this.” He’s like a little kid. He’s just a guy who grew up in northern California and has dedicated his whole life to fire in one form or another. He was a structure firefighter. He did some of the important prescribed burning in Yosemite National Park. He works with a private contracting company that hires a lot of people coming out of prison, or those who haven’t had access to great education. He’s just a remarkably committed, thoughtful person who knows so much about this element. He’s disseminating knowledge that needs to be in the world. Dan embodies this kindness and generosity, and those are things that I found in like 99% of everyone I encountered in the fire community. It was quite striking. One of the things I hope people feel when they read this book is a sense of… almost like relief, that there’s this really committed group of people out there doing this really important work and they love it so much. They come from all different backgrounds and places and classes. but when you do this work together, none of that matters. There really is a strong communal force of positivity. I know they’d roll their eyes maybe if they heard me talking about them like this, but I think it’s cool.

MC: That seems like the bright side, but there’s also a very dark side to this work. There’s an incredible amount of risk. You went from setting fires and doing suppression work, to going into some very, very large wildfires with multiple crews working to put them out. Can we talk about risk a little bit and how you understand the risks of this work?

I had this immediate sense that we don’t often think of climate change in terms of mental health.

MO: I wanted to work on a wildfire in part because of this overlap with the skills of lighting fires and putting them out. I wanted to learn more skills. I had also spent months talking to people who had very long careers in wildland firefighting. I understood the strategies based on what they were talking about, but again, I didn’t know what it looked like to do that work in the moment. I’d met people doing prescribed burns because they had experienced traumatic wildfires in their communities. For them, training themselves to become students of fire, learning about good fire and how to introduce it to their communities was an act of healing. 

In terms of the risk factor, well, I trusted a lot of people around me. They knew me and said I could do it, and I trusted their opinion that I was capable. I wanted the challenge and I wanted to go as deep as possible, but I certainly had some moments where I was like, you’re an idiot, Maura.

MC: Will you tell us about Mike?

MO: Mike West is another main character in the book. I first heard him interviewed on a podcast talking about his seventeen years as a firefighter. He quit because he was experiencing PTSD. It really struck me. He was just very profound and vulnerable. I had this immediate sense that we don’t often think of climate change in terms of mental health. Here was someone who had seen things that felt like they from the future. He had seen what was coming and he was here to tell us this is really bad and this was really scary, and there’s other people out there who are doing this work, and who are suffering because of it. To me it was quite clear that wildland firefighters are almost, I don’t want to say victims, but they are charged with carrying out a policy that is contributing to the problem itself. Many of them are very aware of this, and it creates an enormous burden.

MC: I remember a scene in the book where someone, I think it was Mike, talks about parachuting into these wildfires in very remote places and thinking, why are we here to put this out? There are no structures in danger. People’s lives are not in danger, yet they’re risking their lives. Some of them die in those fires.

MO: It’s a risky job. But you won’t meet many wildland firefighters who would say, well, we just shouldn’t be putting out wildfires period. That’s not true. Often the wildfires that they’re faced with are the ones that have erupted under the worst conditions. It’s the hottest, driest, windiest days where these things can just completely blow up. They’re not, and I’m not, saying we should let all wildfires burn. And yet they’re keenly aware that after decades of suppression, there are places that want and need to burn but haven’t been allowed to. That’s why these really atrocious 100,000-acre megafires spread. In those conditions, suppression tactics are no longer as effective. More often than not it’s a shift in the weather that puts them out. 

But I think there is a lot of questioning now around why we throw people at these fires at tremendous risk to their physical and mental wellbeing when it’s clear that the fires themselves are changing because of the conditions that we’ve also created.

MC: Yeah. I definitely want talk about climate change, because it seemed like many of the firefighters, and also scientists and scholars you spoke to, had this sense of entering into a new fire regime, where in the past, maybe ten, fifteen, twenty years, they started to see things that we’ve never seen before. Suddenly fire is a news item because we have firenadoes and fires changing the climate system as they’re burning. I wonder where they think things are heading? How does climate change feed into that new cycle of what’s happening?

I think that one of the most important things that I learned talking to people is that climate change is exacerbating a set of conditions that already existed because of our land management policy.

MO: I think that one of the most important things that I learned talking to people is that climate change is exacerbating a set of conditions that already existed because of our land management policy. The number of days in a year that create the right conditions for these megafires is increasing; the drought, the lack of what they call fuel moisture, wind. Climate change is contributing to those days and conditions. And then when fires do start, they are hotter, more intense. They move faster and do things that are surprising fire scientists, like a category three tornado that’s just generated by the convective force of these fires, or these pyrocumulonimbus clouds that break through the tropopause. Before the ‘90s, nobody thought that was possible! They thought only volcanoes that could do that.

Of course, climate change has exacerbated and dramatically changed the way we can think and deal with these wildfires, but if global warming wasn’t a thing, we would still probably have a wildfire crisis simply because the state of many of our forests is very dense and overcrowded. We haven’t been doing the land management practices that should keep these places healthy and resilient, and they are in crisis.

Where scientists think it is going, I don’t know. It seems many are struggling to find language to describe what they’re seeing. I remember talking to a fire scientist on a day where I think there were four pyrocumulonimbus clouds looming from two different fires, and an airplane doing suppression operations had just crashed. During the fire season, it can feel like everything is going wrong in big dramatic ways. I think experts really struggle with how to deliver two messages to the public: How to show people the necessity of this ecological process, while also acknowledging that what is happening today is a manmade crisis, not natural. It’s complicated, and it can be difficult to parse these two truths.

MC: I’m curious about how you see the framing of fire in the media. What do you think people are getting right, and what do you think they’re getting wrong?

MO: I think that we need to have a wider vocabulary to talk about fire. I think that not all wildfires are disasters. We often don’t know until after the fact what the effects of a fire might be. It’s so nuanced. I think that while we do need a heightened awareness of the consequences of these big fires and more public support for how to mitigate and prevent them, we also shouldn’t be using wildfire as just a key word for apocalypse, an example of just how bad things are getting and going to get. Because fire is many, many, many more things than that.

MC: I think it’s subtle, but there’s a thread of mothering and motherhood that runs through this book. I see the crew members mothering each other in various ways and you being very attuned to that. Also, children appear at a few key moments, particularly in the epilogue. Even having read the whole book, it was shocking to arrive at the part where the children are happily lighting a fire and everyone’s so relaxed and enjoying themselves. You’re a mother of two children with another one on the way. Can you talk about your understanding of fire and mothering and motherhood in a time of ecological collapse and increasing risk?

MO: Burning with kids is so cool! It’s not like every prescribed burn has kids around. But it’s really amazing because people do look out for them, of course, and then also try to incorporate them into the work itself. I think the reason for that and why I’ve never seen anybody be like, that kid shouldn’t be here, is that they all understand when you see fire on the landscape at such a young age it normalizes it in powerful way.

There are parts in the beginning of the book when I was first learning about these things, and I kept thinking, This is wild! Why didn’t I know about this? I was so naïve. But there are places in America where kids do know this stuff, where they are taught about fire ecology. There’s an intentional effort to expose them. I think the rest of the country needs to take note of that. In places like the Yurok reservation in northern California, it goes deeper. The disruption of fire-lighting practices has been part of a genocide of their culture, so to have children see intentional fire on the landscape again completes a circle, it’s a kind of restorative justice. That’s not my story to tell, but it’s something that I observed. They do not want even one more generation to grow up not knowing this about themselves and their culture.

Fire takes and it gives. As I learned more, I was struck by a feeling of the full spectrum of life, and how it really does involve a cycle of death and renewal and regeneration. Motherhood is an aspect of that cycle. Fire deepened my own understanding of, not just ecology, but certain truths about the world that we live in that we’re not always in touch with or want to face straight on. Fire is an amazing teacher.

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M.R. O’Connor is a journalist who writes about the politics and ethics of science, technology and conservation, and the author of Ignition: Lighting Fires in a Burning World. Her reporting has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Nautilus, and UnDark among others, and her previous books include Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World.

Meehan Crist is writer in residence in biological sciences at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, the London Review of Books, The Atlantic, The Nation, and Scientific American, and was selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021. She is co-editor of What Future 2018 and her nonfiction book about the climate crisis and reproductive justice, Is It OK to Have a Child?, is forthcoming from Random House.