People are nervous watching the dwindling snowpack.

We don’t need added evidence to know that if this weird, dry balminess persists there’s going to be woodsmoke muting the mountains this summer, wreaking havoc. Some prognosticators believe the 2015 fire season could be epic.

Harbingers are everywhere in the West, from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, which is dealing with severe shortages of fresh water. With conditions here starting to resemble those of 1988, the year of the historic Yellowstone fires, I decided to make a call to a civil servant who was in the thick of it.

Research botanist Dr. Don Despain, known for his work as a fire ecologist who spent nearly three decades with Yellowstone and the U.S. Geological Survey, was always a calming voice, even during that summer 27 years ago when politicians demanded he be fired.

I reached Despain just as he and his wife were packing for another Church of Latter-day Saints mission abroad, the couple’s second since he retired from his government post in 2006.

“Times they are definitely a-changin’,” the 75-year-old native of Lovell said. “One of the characteristics of planetwide climate change is that it’s quite chaotic until things settle into a new normal, which may be very different from the old normal of the past. One of the things about fire is that fire behavior can be chaotic, and the weather that drives fire can be chaotic, too.”

Despain has always been a straight shooter, never an alarmist. Back in 1988 the first Yellowstone fire, a small one, started at Storm Creek on June 14. Nobody worried much. Nine days later came the Shoshone Fire. And then the Fan and the Red. Based on moisture conditions in late June 1988, Despain believed the worst-case scenario was that no more than 40,000 acres might burn in the 2 million-acre park before rain and snow arrived in the fall.

But subsequent weeks of unrelenting heat coupled with high winds, dry-storm lightning strikes setting off new conflagrations and a major human-cased blaze that spread into the park blew up to claim 800,000 acres. Total firefighting costs were a record $120 million.

Despain became immortalized after he brought reporter Jim Carrier of The Denver Post to a forest study plot near Ice Lake. The site was established to allow researchers to gauge how fire, drought and disease affect arboreal ecology.

As a wildfire approached and swept across his research area, Despain playfully muttered, “Burn, baby, burn.” His quote was included in Carrier’s story, but a headline writer bannered the words as if Despain were a pyro, not caring if the entire park went up in flames. Wyoming politicians, including U.S. Sens. Malcolm Wallop and Alan K. Simpson, had a field day skewering park officials.

Despain was ordered to not talk to reporters for two weeks. As summer wore on and the blazes expanded, he spoke up again and reminded that everything, in the long run, would be all right.

Today, looking back, he notes that while his touting of fire’s vital role in rejuvenating landscapes wasn’t popular, time has vindicated him.

“I don’t think of it as ‘I told you so,” he said. “Fire did what it always does and will continue to do, which is serve as an ecological driver. With the changing climate, it just may not drive ecology the way we’re used to.”

Despain scoffs at those who say major fires can be suppressed, either through human resources and huge amounts of money or through the ruse that fires can be prevented by thinning forests to reduce fuel loads.

Any vegetation, be it tree or grass, that becomes flammable from lack of moisture is going to burn if exposed to lightning or a match. He senses that the Smokey Bear mentality of trying to control nature is being resurrected. Just as it did in the past, the mind-set will cause more problems than it solves, and at breathtaking expense to taxpayers.

“I’ll say it again,” he said. “Fire suppression is an exercise in futility. There is no definitive evidence that we have any effect on the course of a big wildfire whether we fight it or not.”

Despain supports the creation of zoned “fire plains” in the wildland-urban forest interface just like “flood plains” along rivers that prescribe where humans should build and where not.

Todd Wilkinson’s column appears here every week. He is author of “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.”

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(1) comment

Dan Stroud

A fire ecologist I knew once had an expression: "Pay now or pay later." Meaning that if you are successful in actually extinguishing a wild fire, it will burn at a later date anyway. I think what would be interesting is to ask them what they feel the fire frequencies were in the lower elevational sagebrush communities, since there seems to be disagreement there, especially when it comes to sage-grouse habitat.

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