The Conservation of Catastrophe

Fire

by Sebastian Junger
Norton, 224 pp., $24.95

The books under review will surprise anyone who listened to TV anchormen this past August deploring all the destructive forest fires then raging in the western United States, since the authors all conclude that such fires are not an unmitigated evil. Murry Taylor, a retired firefighter, is robustly ambivalent, loving the fires that tested his manhood while hating and fearing them at the same time. Stephen Pyne, a professor, and Sebastian Junger, a journalist, approaching the subject from rather different viewpoints, nonetheless agree that firefighting and fire prevention are not as straightforward as was once supposed. The ideal goal of extinguishing wildfires within twelve hours of their detection, formerly projected by the US Forest Service, if Congress would only appropriate sufficient funds, has proved to be utterly unattainable—and, they claim, is not even desirable. But what to do instead remains entirely unclear.

Having been brought up by Smokey the Bear to suppose that I and my fellow humans could prevent forest fires by being careful with matches, campfires, and cigarettes, I was surprised to learn that lightning bolts striking in remote places start most troublesome wildfires. And it is obvious that quickly snuffing out natural and man-made fires allows dead and live wood and other fuel to accumulate in the forests, year after year, so that fires, when they do break loose, are sure to be fiercer and far more destructive than they would otherwise be. If so, how did the idea of trying to stop wildfires totally and completely ever take hold among the American public?

That is the subject of Stephen Pyne’s new book. He explains that when summer drought and the disruption of traditional Indian practices of burning underbrush provoked fierce and extensive wildfires in August 1910, they intersected with intense personal and bureaucratic rivalries in Washington to define the US government’s fire-fighting policy for the rest of the century. The fledgling US Forest Service strove valiantly but vainly to control the fires of 1910 and more than seventy men died in the attempt. Yet, ironically, this unmitigated failure simply committed the Forest Service and the American public to greater effort, and more funding for firefighting, while those who had argued that fire was necessary for taming the wilderness, clearing land, and making it more useful to ranchers and settlers were discredited and eventually harried from public office.

Pyne approaches his theme with characteristic hyperbole: “What happened in that astonishing summer was that American society and American nature collided with almost tectonic force.” And he goes on to proclaim:

Fires express their surroundings: The big fires of 1910 became Great Fires because they grew out of an extraordinary cultural context…. In 1910 America’s politics were as eruptive as its landscapes. It was a reformist era, an age that sought to act. The fires brought to a fast boil institutions, policies, beliefs, and land practices that might otherwise have simmered for decades. Controversy swirled, in particular, over the legacy of conservation as a popular …

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