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Fighting Fire with Fire

An Interview with the Conservancy's Jeremy Bailey

"I always wanted to be a firefighter; from as early as I can remember I wanted to help people in emergency situations."

—Jeremy Bailey, shown here (second from the left) at age 4.

Ever since he was a little kid, Jeremy Bailey wanted to be a fireman. He tagged around adult firefighters at the local firehouse, and eventually became part of a U.S. Forest Service "hotshot" crew that fought fires around the country.

Today he teaches hundreds of conservationists, including those with the U.S. Forest Service, how to safely use controlled burns to bring nature back to health and reduce the risk of megafires.

He sat down with Nature.org for a Q&A:

Nature.org: Today’s western megafires are places you’ve fought fires yourself—what can you tell us about the conditions there?

Every year brings slightly different conditions, but this year is comparable to some of the worst I’ve seen. For those men and woman working wildfires in the west this year, there is no doubt it’s hot, steep and dangerous work. Our firefighters are professionals who train and prepare for years, but it’s still extremely demanding. Just staying hydrated is hard work. These firefighters may be carrying 20 pounds of drinking water alone, plus an additional 15-30 pounds of safety equipment like chainsaws, radios, batteries, pumps, hoses, fire shelters, ignition devices, navigation tools and food for 24 hours.

Nature.org: How did you get interested in fire?

Jeremy Bailey: I always wanted to be a firefighter. From as early as I can remember I wanted to help people in emergency situations. I joined the local volunteer fire department’s apprenticeship program when I was 14 and began fighting fires and responding to emergencies when I was 18. A few years later I was working on a fire in Glenwood Springs Colorado where 14 firefighters perished. I was appalled by the loss of human life and decided that I would become a wildland firefighter.

Nature.org: You started putting out fires—when did you realize fire could be used as a tool to make landscapes healthier?

Jeremy Bailey: The more I worked with professional land managers, tribes, ranchers and conservationists, the more I realized that fires have always been part of our world, and only recently has the earth seen an exclusion of fire. It was from that place I rapidly evolved from a firefighter to a fire practitioner. If we want a healthy planet, then we have to use fire in good and healthy ways.

Nature.org: What’s the difference between a wildfire and a controlled burn?

Jeremy Bailey: A wildfire is an unplanned event, either by accident or by lightning or lava. Natural fires, not ignited by people, are important and have certainly played a role in forming the vegetation communities around the planet. But clearly the human use of fire (anthropogenic fire) has been most significant to the distribution of forests and grasslands around the globe. Particularly here in North America, tribes from coast-to-coast have used fire to provide better hunting, material for basketry, and distribution of edible plants.

Nature.org: What’s the biggest myth about fire?

Jeremy Bailey: I think the biggest myth about fire is that you can live without it. You can’t, fire always arrives. But we do have a choice. We can use controlled burns so we are able to select the time and place to use fire, rather than a random event that isn’t so manageable. We can prepare and plan for a prescribed fire, and we conduct fire in a safe way with benefits to people, animals, and the forests, wetlands and prairies that we depend on.

Nature.org: What’s most rewarding about your job?

Jeremy Bailey: The most rewarding part of my job is seeing those places where men and woman have chosen to use fire. It transforms unhealthy lands to healthy ones and protects communities from the “big one”! Places like the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, or the Tallgrass Prairie in the Flint Hills of Kansas, and even the pine barrens at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve in downtown Albany, New York. These places use fire and are better for it. People are safer, and the plant and animals are protected. These are the places that we will pass to the next generation.
 

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