Stephen J. Pyne. Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004. xvii + 238 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55963-565-3.
Reviewed by Kevin Marsh (Department of History, Idaho State University)
Published on H-Environment (September, 2006)
In Relationship with Fire
As we move through the summer of 2006, wildland fires are once again exploding in the American West, fueled by record-breaking drought in the Southwest and a public domain loaded with combustible fuels. Fire provides some of the starkest public images of modern land-use. Soot-covered fire fighters are portrayed as the unsung heroes of the contemporary West, while politicians race to the scene before the embers have cooled to promise a solution to the annual conflagrations. Two new books with quite different approaches and purposes both warn readers not to fall into the trap of these simplistic images. Stephen Pyne in Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires and David Strohmaier in Drift Smoke: Loss and Renewal in a Land of Fire ask us to think more deeply about the fundamental human relationship with fire in order to understand the modern dilemmas we face.
Although Tending Fire provides a wide range of insights and arguments it boils down to the message that complex problems require complex solutions. This is not a slogan that gains much traction in political debates, but it is a perspective that leads readers through a much deeper analysis of fire than is commonly available. Current discussions in the general media as well as along fire lines focus on whether to use prescribed fire or whether to extinguish fire. Pyne lambastes this "false rivalry between lighting and fighting," pointing out that the fire community accepted controlled burns over thirty years ago (p. 106). His book pushes all sides (land managers, conservationists, resource industries, politicians, fire fighters, exurban home owners) to step back from the canonic narrative of wildland fire--a framework Pyne's own books helped to build--and to consider wildfire more carefully within its ecological and historical context. "Fire is a sensitive synthesizer of all around it," Pyne insists (p. 67).
Tending Fire is not intended to provide a summary of the history of fire and fire policy; this can be found in Pyne's prodigious collection of earlier works. Rather, this book is much more of a daring, free-form set of ruminations on the contemporary, annual crisis of extreme wildland fires, with explanations for how we got to this situation and prescriptive suggestions on how to get out of it. In a wide-ranging, somewhat playful style that at times seems cynical, Pyne explains, "here's what I'd do, if I ran the zoo" (p. xviii). Given his status as the world's foremost expert on fire history, there are many readers who would be eager to find out just what he would do, but if they are looking for a simple solution, those readers will be disappointed. Instead, Pyne presents a wide range of responses based firmly in the specific context of time and place for any given fire. Aggressive fire suppression has its place, as do prescribed burning--including crown fires--and fuel reduction through logging. However, it is not his intent to prescribe any particular combination of responses. "There will be no universal prescription, only a universal process," he explains (p. 16).
That process is not one of improving simply scientific tools to understand and manage fire, it is to develop a more cohesive, holistic relationship with fire. To do this, the traditional fire managers must expand beyond the federal bureaucracies. The Nature Conservancy receives ample praise as just the sort of player that should have a larger role. Because human values are central to this relationship, Pyne agues for a larger role of the humanities in fire policy. The crisis of large fires and the political stumbles of the fire community over the past several decades are not due to poor science, but to the inability of that community of experts to engage with core, cultural values. "The fire community did not need another data set," he writes. "It did not need another policy wonk. It needed novelists, artists, philosophers, pundits, critics. It needed a poet" (p. 142). It needed more Norman Macleans, the University of Chicago literature professor whose book Young Men and Fire (1992) Pyne calls "the most dazzling achievement" of the fire community (p. 142).
Pyne has written a wide-ranging book, often more notable for its crystalline parts than its amorphous whole. It is intended for a general audience, and reference notes are limited to a small handful per chapter. Scholars might be bothered by the quick references to important points. Environmentalists might feel besieged by some of the criticism leveled at activists for their role in shaping our misunderstanding of fire and for their role in blocking efforts to manage fuels through thinning and logging, which Pyne argues must be an essential, though "site-specific" tool (p. 119).
Even though Pyne's book is not intended to provide a comprehensive history, I found some of the most valuable material came from the historical insights he provides on a global scale. In his emphasis on context, he points out that relevant factors are often global, providing an important antidote to the American or regional exceptionalism that often pervades popular portrayals of wildfires in the West. The United States shares many similarities with other developed nations who manage a large domain of public land, a common legacy of imperialism and industrialization. Students of world history will appreciate Pyne's explanation and analysis of the "pyric transition" from open, anthropogenic burning of biomass to contained, industrial burning of fossil fuels (p. 26). While this observation of the industrial revolution is not new, Pyne's clear discussion of its significance helps the reader to more fully understand the larger meaning of western wildfires. In this light, the current summer conflagrations are not a story of too much fire, they are a product of the modern world's loss of fire from the landscape of industrialized nations.
This loss of open burning is also a central theme of David Strohmaier's contemplative book, Drift Smoke. The result fits nicely into Stephen Pyne's call for a greater role for the humanities in our discussion of wildfire, since it incorporates philosophy, religion, and history into the discussion of fire policy. In this book, Strohmaier pursues the question, "is there some unifying principle that might help explain our ambivalence toward fire on the landscape of North America, particularly the landscape of the American West" (p. xi). An understanding of loss is the unifying principle he pursues through this book in four parts: "loss of fire from the landscape, loss of life, loss of livelihood, and loss of place" (p. xvi).
Strohmaier's own relationship with fire is shaped by the fifteen seasons he worked as a wildland fire fighter for the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. Each chapter includes memories of his own personal experiences on the fires of central Oregon as a tool to illustrate the central point of the chapter. The summer of 1994--Stephen Pyne's "annus horribilis" (Pyne, p. 61)--and the deaths that July of fourteen fire fighters on Storm King Mountain in Colorado were the catalyst for this book. The Storm King deaths along with many other fire tragedies through the twentieth century form the center of chapter 3 on the loss of life. That year, Strohmaier was both a fire fighter and a student at the Yale Divinity School, the combination of which seems to have informed his discussion with both practical understanding and spiritual depth. This mixture is a unique strength that runs through the course of his book.
While not meant to be a scholarly monograph, Drift Smoke makes many effective references to works in environmental history by Stephen Pyne, Nancy Langston, Dan Flores, and others. It also uses many first-hand accounts dating back to George Catlin. The historical material serves mainly to support and contextualize the discussions of loss. Among the strengths of this book is Strohmaier's effort to ground this discussion in specific places. From the richly described canyonlands of central Oregon to various points of hallowed ground (including Storm King Mountain; Mann Gulch, Montana; Wallace, Idaho; and Blackwater Creek, Wyoming) he takes readers to sites that help ground the spiritual discussion into time and place.
As a former wildland firefighter myself for many years, I process books on fire through my own experiences, especially a more personal set of stories such as those in Drift Smoke. I can relate to Strohmaier's musings, because I went through a similar process of questioning during the summer of 1994. This commonality strengthens my appreciation for his book. I cannot say whether others from outside the fire community will so easily relate and not see the book as too personal and too much of a therapeutic analysis. Certainly Maclean's Young Men and Fire was also a very personal story of fire and loss that reached a broad audience.
However, both of the books reviewed here represent an impressive transition in the literature of fire. Neither can be accused of being more of the same. They are daring in their analysis, creative and fluid in their style, and provocative in their impacts.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Kevin Marsh. Review of Pyne, Stephen J., Tending Fire: Coping with America's Wildland Fires and
Strohmaier, David J., Drift Smoke: Loss and Renewal in a Land of Fire.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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