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.
Having thus set the scene for his story, Pyne devotes most of the book to a detailed, month-by-month chronicle of events, climaxing in a careful exploration of the hour-by-hour experiences of nine different Forest Service crews on August 20 and 21, 1910, as they tried in vain to contain a “Big Blowup” that raged across the mountain crest that defines the Idaho–Montana border, killing seventy-two of them. Pyne scoured available records, including, most notably, one crew chief’s correspondence with his family back east, describing with vivid detail everyday routines, moments of crisis, and his reactions to the scene. Pyne also drew on official reports and subsequent propagandistic materials—stories of individual heroism and folkloric reminiscences picked up by journalists—with a sophisticated awareness of how such tales fitted into the personal and bureaucratic struggles in Washington.
I must confess that I found his month-by-month chapters difficult to follow, since they constantly shift focus from place to place, person to person, crew to crew. Even with the help of repeated references to the lengthy list of “Dramatis Personae” in the front of the book, I lost track of the continuity of what happened to so many different people in so many different places. Sticking carefully and conscientiously to all the scrappy information he was able to gather, Pyne describes episode after episode, here and there, without keeping the overall course of events clear enough to avoid bewildering his readers. This preserves the confusion that prevailed at the time, and one can argue that it is the only accurate and truthful account a careful scholar can conscientiously arrive at.
Yet historians have always made their living by smoothing over gaps in available evidence and jumping to conclusions. Pyne does this with daring panache (and some rhetorical exaggeration) when discussing politics. That is what gives his book its bite, and makes it such a persuasive contribution to the history of fire management in this country; whereas the pages devoted to what really happened on the scene smack too much of the haste, confusion, fear, and flight that actually prevailed to be reduced (or rise?) to easy intelligibility and so become memorable.
To be sure, I learned a good deal about the dynamics of wildfire “blow outs,” like that which occurred in Idaho and Montana on August 20 and 21, 1910. Here is how Pyne explains it:
…Higher winds were too weak to scatter those convective columns which tightened and towered upward [above dispersed forest fires]. Each column began to draw air into itself, and the fight between the two winds—one of tangled streams sucking into the convecting fires, the other flowing around those black-smoking columns—created vortices and picked up other whirls where the surging air churned and eddied over a jagged landscape of ridges and ravines like water splashing over boulders in a mountain stream. The firewhirls spun trees around like a lathe. In their concentrated funnels combustion strengthened, perhaps fivefold. Small fires became large, and large fires burned hugely, able both to spread and incinerate and to leap over mountains in a sandstorm of firebrands. Convective columns became the thunderheads of firestorms. The massed fires became a veritable “hurricane of flame.” Their smoke eventually darkened Montreal and yellowed the skies over Massachusetts.
It was therefore no wonder that hundreds of men, hastily recruited to fight those fires, were overwhelmed; no wonder so many died; no wonder, either, that nature instead of the Forest Service was what put the fires out when, after August 24, the winds changed direction and rains began to fall. But the Forest Service soon turned this ignominious defeat into bureaucratic victory. No one asked why so many men had been ordered to hike across mountainous terrain into the fire’s path only to lose their lives. Instead, the Service basked in tales of heroism, particularly focused on the feats of Edward Pulaski, a shy, inarticulate backwoodsman and crew chief who saved the lives of most of his crew by finding an abandoned mine shaft in which to take refuge when fire overtook them. That was what filled the newspapers, glorifying those who had so gallantly survived.
Accordingly, Forest Service spokesmen in Washington reaffirmed the possibility—nay, the necessity—of preventing another such disaster, if only Congress would finance appropriate expansion so that enough men and resources could be marshaled to do the job. After suffering initial cutbacks in 1911, when sloppy accounting for wasteful emergency expenditures during the fire emergency of 1910 scandalized some congressmen, the Forest Service gained general support among the American public, and Congress soon came into line by authorizing mounting federal expenditures for the Forest Service and related firefighting agencies. Their budgets, in fact, rose from a mere $54,670 in 1909 to $1.6 billion in 2000.
That upshot was symbolized and accelerated by the fact that, in March 1911, after some nasty infighting, Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger gave up his struggle against Pinchot and the insurgent, extravagant Fire Service by requesting Taft to accept his resignation. Pyne summarizes the political fallout as follows: “The Big Blowup would align symmetrically with the political firestorm that Pinchot’s dismissal had kindled and that would end over the next two years in Taft’s collapse, Ballinger’s resignation, and Roosevelt’s second coming.”
Much else of interest may be found in Pyne’s pages for he also follows lesser fallouts from the Big Fire of 1910—in particular, a variety of private financial claims against the government. He also sketches the subsequent careers of some of the main actors—most notably Ed Pulaski, whose name attaches today to the all-purpose firefighting tool he later invented by affixing axe and mattock blades to a single handle.
Overall, Pyne’s claim that 1910 was a decisive moment for US efforts at fire management is thoroughly convincing, but the book ends with a big question mark—referring, on the next-to-last page, to 1994 when
thirty-four firefighters died, two million acres burned, and emergency fire costs reached a ballistic $965 million. Everyone admitted that the system was broken. The policy that had boiled out of the Great Fire had, like the conflagrations themselves, at last ended its colossal run. The federal agencies sought to salvage what they could, and they intended to do so by reintroducing some species of controlled (or prescribed) burning.
…Then, as the agencies, penitential, enlightened, resolute, began to ramp up their burning programs, prescribed fire crashed. What the summer of 1994 did for fire suppression, the spring of 2000 threatened to do for controlled burning. The National Park Service lost two fires simultaneously …[one near the Grand Canyon, the other close to Los Alamos]. West of the 100th meridian prescribed fire stalled under a thirty-day stand-down; the Park Service faced an indefinite moratorium. …The nation’s fire mission lost its beguiling, if quixotic, simplicity. It was clear that wildland fire management must involve awkward mixes of firefighting and fire lighting, and, somehow, fire storytelling….
But, as TV anchormen’s naive commentary showed last August, that story has yet to be told in such a way as to rally public support for such an awkward mix. Maybe Stephen Pyne should devote his next book to doing so.
Assuredly, the other books under review fall short of such a goal. Jumping Fire is a jazzed-up personal record of a proud man’s 1991 summer of parachuting from the sky to fight wildfires in Alaska, followed by some weeks in Idaho after the Alaskan fire season ended. Taylor both affirms and shame-facedly caricatures his own heroic self-image. After injuring his leg in a jump, he writes: “Buck Nelson…gazed out over the canyon. ‘Tell me,’ he said. ‘Are we, or are we not, the greatest fucking heroes that ever lived?’ We all unanimously agreed that certainly we were.” Or again, after a cold night sleeping near an unextinguished fire: “‘No damn doubt about it,’ Charlie said, ‘We’re living a dream.'” A dream compounded of idle waiting, punctuated by sudden extreme exertion, danger, and bravado; and teetering between masculine bonding and per-sistent yearnings, on Taylor’s part, for more lasting female companionship than anything his occasional one-night stands allowed.
Jumping Fire incidentally reveals a good deal about how technologically sophisticated firefighting had become by the year 1991. Communications systems to detect fires, assess local weather, and monitor levels of flammability make today’s firefighters very dif-ferent from the ignorant, isolated footsloggers who fought the fires of 1910. Yet despite elaborate protective clothing and other improvements in their personal equipment, together with deluges of fire-retardant chemicals delivered by air, and bulldozers to scrape the ground bare on favorable terrain, the prevailing method of extinguishing wildfires continues to rely on, first, human muscles to create a barren strip by scraping, digging, and felling in frantic haste, and then the setting of backfires so as to starve the fire of the fuel that feeds it.
Taylor registers the contemporary confusion of firefighting policy in his account of how experts, hoping to improve forage for moose, decided to call off a group of firefighters so as to allow a fire that was on the verge of containment to burn a bit longer, only to have it flare up so suddenly as to compel a fire crew to run for their lives. Taylor’s comment is acid: “After the ‘experts’ had enjoyed a considerable romp in second guessing, these same managers would most likely do a lot of posturing in the name of safety, issuing meaningless ‘zero tolerance’ statements, and, worst yet, making certain unfair judgments against people in the field.” For him, overcoming forest fires is a way of life, an end in itself, and, above all, a definition of heroic manhood, rather than a question of policy.
Sebastian Junger, a journalist, whose easy prose improves on Pyne’s prodigal metaphors and Taylor’s vulgar colloquialism, was, like Taylor, attracted to forest fires by a personal fascina-tion with heroic risk-taking. His new book, Fire, is in fact a collection of previously published magazine articles, only two of which deal with wildfire, while six of the eight others deal with “the awful drama of human events” expressed in politics and war. What unites them, aside from a wish to cash in on the success of his recent book The Perfect Storm, is that they (like The Perfect Storm) all portray “people confronting situations that could easily destroy them.”
All the same, Junger’s pair of essays on US firefighters nicely complement Pyne’s study of 1910, showing how they have become so very much better organized, better equipped, and better informed, yet no less liable to failure than they were in 1910. Junger first watched firefighters close up in 1992, shepherded by a public relations person from the Forest Service, and later made a second retrospective study of a sudden blowup in Colorado that killed fourteen firefighters in 1994. His resulting account of contemporary methods for combating forest fires is comprehensive and concise, and his explanation of how a Colorado hillside took fire almost instantaneously in 1994—and how computer models of wind, dryness, and terrain ought to have forewarned all concerned of that possibility—is a model of clarity. But human failure nullified technological wizardry. “Ground crews had been arrogant about the fire danger; supervisors had ignored local fuel and drought conditions, and the Western Slope Fire Coordination Center had failed to relay crucial weather information to the fire crews in the field.” Junger sums things up:
Many hotshots I spoke with attributed the increasing danger of their job to severe drought conditions in the northern Rockies, as well as to decades of fire suppression. Both have contributed to a huge buildup of dead fuel in our nation’s forests—fuel that ordinarily would have been cleared out by the small fires that regularly flare up in an unmanaged ecosystem. A disastrous fire season was inevitable and in 2000 it finally happened. Eighty-five thousand wildfires burned nearly seven million acres across the United States. Sixteen people died, and fire suppression cost over one billion dollars.
It was the worst season ever. With the western drought continuing unabated and high amounts of deadwood still choking many forests, fire behavior experts don’t expect conditions to get better anytime soon.
Drawn, as he is, like a moth to a flame, by extremes of human behavior, Junger lacks historical perspective to compare with what Pyne brings to his subject. This is true of both his essays about firefighting and those about politics and war. Yet he is a shrewd observer of the scene before him, and what Junger says about Serbs in Kosovo is worth quoting as a les-son for us all after the events of Sep-tember 11:
For the Serb military, the only solution is terror. Every time a cop is killed, wipe out a family. Every time a police patrol gets shot up, level a village. Slaughter is a lot easier—and cheaper—than war; and it forces the young idealists [read “terrorists”] of the KLA to decide whether they really want this or not. It’s nothing for a twenty-four-year-old with no future and no civil rights to sacrifice his life in a guerrilla movement; it happens all the time. But for him to sacrifice his kid brother and two sisters and mother: that’s another question entirely.
The dynamic of terror and counter-terror, so clearly expressed in those few lines, are worth pondering by all Americans as we undertake a “global war” against terrorists. How can we escape the Balkan pattern that brought down the mighty Turks, Germans, and Serbs in succession? And how to avoid what happened in Afghanistan first to British, then to Russian invaders?
Is there any answer to the obvious dilemmas confronting our most technologically sophisticated efforts at fighting wildfires and fighting terrorists? Or does the conservation of catastrophe prevail in spite of our very best efforts to regulate, manage, and control our natural and human environments?
Long ago I wrote an essay arguing that conservation of catastrophe was indeed a reality, manifesting the lim-its of our capacity to foresee and control economic, political, and natural events. That essay still seems worth quoting:
It certainly seems as though every gain in precision in the coordination of human activity and every heightening of efficiency in production were matched by a new vulnerability to breakdown. If this is really the case, then the conservation of catastrophe may indeed be a law of nature like the conservation of energy…. Nevertheless…as an historian who dwells cheerfully with the past, I am moved to say that in thinking ahead we ought to bear in mind how very many times human intelligence and ingenuity have prevailed, solving one sort of problem only to create new ones, of course, but nonetheless surviving and transforming the face of the earth far more rapidly and radically than any other species has ever done before. With such a record we ought not to despair, but rather to rejoice in how much we human beings can do in the way of capturing energy from the world around us and bending it to our purposes and wants, intensifying the risk of catastrophe with each new success.*
These books and the recent attacks on New York and Washington illustrate and confirm that opinion, but I remain as blind as Pyne, Taylor, and Junger—not to mention President Bush and Secretaries Rumsfeld and Powell—when it comes to knowing how best to use our new and enormous technological abilities when trying to handle, manage, and control both forest fires and human terrorists.
December 20, 2001