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The Conservation of Catastrophe


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 movement. The Great Fires did what fires do best: They quickened, destroyed, fused. Within two years the Big Blowup was followed by a Big Breakup of the Republican party. Meanwhile the young US Forest Service had the memory of the conflagration spliced into its institutional genes, shaped as profoundly by the Great Fires as modern China by the Long March. Not for more than thirty years…would the nation’s leading agency for administering wildlands consider fire as anything but a hostile force to be fought to the death.

That is a surprising claim for an almost forgotten event, but Pyne’s book makes a very convincing case. Moreover, having published no fewer than seven books on fire, he is acutely aware of how sharply the fire-extinguishing mission so blithely embraced by the US Forest Service diverged from age-old human habits of using fire to clear forested landscapes of underbrush, both to improve hunting and to make fields where forests once had stood.

Flames are dangerous as well as attractive and useful, as everyone who ever suffered a burn since our ancestors first began to play with fire already knows. Before long, however, the uses human beings found for fire far outweighed risks, and, like language, deliberate management of fire became a universal and distinguishing human trait. Consequently, campfires accompanied the amazingly rapid migration of Homo sapiens around the globe, beginning about 60,000 BCE; and the initial human impact on local environments can now be followed by detecting how assemblages of pollen, preserved in bogs, show sudden increases in fire-tolerant plant species. That is because Paleolithic hunting bands had learned how to improve forage for the game they fed on by deliberately burning grass or underbrush in times of drought. When the growing season returned, fresh ash fertilized the soil, and in forested landscapes more sunlight reached burned-over ground to nourish new growth. Moreover, burning off the forest underbrush opened up sight lines, so that hunters’ javelins, darts, and arrows became far more effective at a distance.

Then, about ten thousand years ago, when agriculture began to displace hunting and gathering, early farmers discovered how to make fields on forested land by killing off the large trees that survived hunters’ brush fires. They did so quite easily by using a stone axe to girdle trees (slashing their bark all the way around), thus interrupting the flow of sap to upper branches. Then, after crops of grain were planted in the leaf mold of the forest floor for a few years, the dried-out skeletons of the dead trees could be set on fire and their ashes used to fertilize the depleted soil. After a few more years, however, wind-blown weeds invaded such fields, and, as long as forested land remained within their reach, slash-and-burn cultivators found it easier to repeat the cycle by opening up a new field somewhere else than it was to stay put and allow weeds to diminish the harvest. Abandoned clearings then went back to forest as nature took its course, and invasive weeds gave way in natural succession to taller bushes and then to trees. As long as they remained few enough, slash-and-burn farmers could therefore establish something approximating a steady relation to nature by returning to such plots at suitably long intervals.

In several different parts of the world, however, denser populations learned how to maintain permanently cleared fields, and the role of fire in their lives altered accordingly. Hearth fires for cooking and heating remained important while industrial uses of fire for smelting metal, glazing pottery, and other purposes multiplied as cities and civilizations complicated the scene. But wherever permanent cultivation became normal, forests shrank back, and wildfires lost their role as an essential aid for food-getting. They became instead an enemy to be feared, since wooden houses, barns, and whole towns burned as readily as forests when accidentally ignited.

This general mind-set toward fire was what European settlers brought with them to America. Their encounter with diverse Indian uses of wildfire in the forest wilderness that dominated most of the eastern landscapes of the New World soon induced some of them—the pioneers—to revert to hunting and slash-and-burn farming, while others stayed back and established permanent fields and settled towns and villages more or less on the European model. But from the beginning, new American crops, maize in particular, and a wilderness frontier where wildfire remained an essential tool for wresting food from natural landscapes counterbalanced the approach to fire imported from Europe.

European settlement in America was also facilitated by quite new uses of fire. In particular, the gunpowder revolution between 1450 to 1650, ingeniously, though only for an instant, harnessed fire within the narrow confines of a gun barrel, with the result that firearms became decisive for both hunting and war. Then the industrial revolution, roughly coinciding with the establishment of the United States government, added other new dimensions to the uses of fire. Coal and then oil and gas raised old ceilings on fuel supply to previously unimaginable heights, and myriad uses of fire to power vast numbers of machines for manufacturing and transportation soon followed. By the time industrial fires, cunningly imprisoned in furnaces, had been established in the factories of American cities and projected via the railroads across the vast open spaces of the United States, the census of 1890 officially announced the closure of the American frontier.

With that, ancient patterns of using fire to clear the land for hunting and farming shrank. The remaining wilderness, once an enemy to be subdued by gun, fire, and axe, was rapidly transmuted into a dwindling and precious resource to be saved from further destruction. That, in turn, meant preventing forest fires, since from time immemorial fire had been the most rapid, most obvious, and most potent destroyer of forests.

This, according to Pyne, was the social and political background for the conservation movement, as conceived and championed by President Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the twentieth century. A galaxy of other urban, upper-class reformers from eastern cities joined Roosevelt in espousing the cause, of whom Gifford Pinchot was the most conspicuous. Roosevelt appointed him head of the new US Forest Service in 1905, and transferred extensive new “National Forests,” located in western states, to his control with the express purpose of checking destructive wildfires. Pinchot, having declared in public “that forest fires are wholly within the control of men,” hurried to staff the Forest Service with youthful experts, recruited in considerable part from a new School of Forestry at Yale. He was sure they knew their business. “The one secret of fighting fires,” Pinchot declared, “is to discover your fire as soon as possible and fight it as hard as you can and refuse to leave it until the last ember is dead.” His recipe for firefighting was “range patrol,” to detect fires when they still were small, and then starving the fire of fuel by marching gangs of muscular outdoorsmen to the scene for concerted digging, scraping, and sawing around its perimeter.

Then in January of the fateful year 1910, Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, dismissed Gifford Pinchot for insubordination because he had orchestrated a press campaign against his superior, Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger, accusing him of dishonestly disposing of coal fields in Alaska. This was no more than a ploy in an ongoing battle between the two men, for Ballinger, a westerner himself, opposed Pinchot’s brand of conservation, arguing that fire was ineradicable and still a necessary tool for taming the wilderness.

According to Pyne, Pinchot’s dismissal left “the Taft administration in tatters, and the Forest Service in shock.” Nonetheless, “with its medley of eastern youths out for adventure, Yalies, idealists and hard-bitten frontiersmen, Pinchot’s Forest Service was a bureaucratic analogue of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and thought of itself as such.” Held together by “its fighting spirit: its zealotry for conservation and its fealty to Gifford Pinchot,…they were…’Little GPs,’” prepared to fight forest fires and rival federal bureaucrats with equal vigor—but, as it turned out, with ironically opposite results.

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