Twelve days after ignition the Wallow Fire continues to grow. According to Wallow fire updates on InciWeb, as of late Thursday 386,690 acres have been consumed, 24 structures destroyed, 3012 personnel are involved in response, and several communities have been required to evacuate, including Springerville (population 2000) and Eagar (population 4000). The wildfire is roughly five percent contained.
Ponderosa Pines are adapted to wildfire. Over geologic time, lightning strikes started fires every two or three years. The fires would sweep through meadows and grassy understories. The grass fires were seldom hot or high enough to threaten mature trees with fire-resistant bark, but would clear the understory of woody firs and other plants. The grasslands themselves quickly recovered from fire. The interval between fires was sufficient for new generations of Ponderosa Pines to emerge. With a lifespan of 300 to 600 years the Ponderosa tends to be patient (if prolific) regarding reproduction.
In historic time — roughly the last 150 years — wildfires have been less frequent. Grazing by sheep, goats, and cattle reduced the grasses that carried cooler ground fires. Beginning in the early 1900s a comparatively wet half-century or so further reduced the frequency of fire. Human fire suppression has also been a factor. With less grass and fewer fires, dwarf mistletoe, sagebrush, Douglas fir and other woody flora have been able to establish dense thickets beneath the Ponderosa Pines.
The onset of persistent drought has resulted in what we see unfolding across the high plateau of Northeast Arizona. According to the Arizona Republic the understory now holds as much as 50 tons per acre of dry fuel.
I perceive strategic analogies in this. (I have been accused of seeing strategic implications in whether a bologna sandwich is served with mustard or mayonnaise):
A complex adaptive system that we do not (cannot?) fully understand is under stress. The complex adaptive system in this case is the ecology of the mountainous plateaus of the American Southwest. But it could be nearly any complex adaptive system: nationalism, federalism, capitalism, the supply chain, et cetera, et cetera.
The source of stress is multifaceted. Explicit human decisions certainly influence the system and can be sources of stress. But there are also larger, more implicit — even innate — influences and sources of stress: climate, demography, technology, prices, randomness, crowd behavior, et cetera, et cetera.
Whatever the sources of stress, the existing equilibrium of the complex adaptive system is threatened. Perhaps Ponderosa Pines are no longer well-matched for the long-term climatic conditions of Arizona (are humans?). Perhaps a new climax community is emerging. Perhaps the Westphalian system of nation-states is disintegrating. Perhaps the traditional frameworks of Christianity and Islam are fracturing. Perhaps the “strange attractor of meaning” around which several core systems have long self-organized are shifting.
Into this precarious situation an “event” is inserted. Perhaps it is natural, such as a lightning strike. Or it may be accidental, as when a campfire’s embers are not fully extinguished (thought to be the cause of the Wallow fire). It might also be intentional arson. In any case, a fire is started and two weeks later we are trying to deal with an inferno.
In such precarious situations if we wait for the spark — regardless of source — it is already too late. If we seek to preserve the current equilibrium we need to invest in deepening and widening the basin of attraction well in advance. There are also situations where the forces of change are far too compelling to resist and our best bet is to invest as we can in nudging the system toward a new attractor of meaning. Knowing when to fold or call is not always clear.
If homeland security has any comparative advantage to offer the pre-existing disciplines and professions, it may be — should be — in brokering the bet.