Edward Struzik. Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 304 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-228-01209-2.
Reviewed by Eric B. Kennedy (York University)
Published on H-Environment (April, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
For such a profoundly visual topic, it is rare to find a book on wildfire that actually depicts its subject between its covers. Many of the cornerstone books in wildfire history seek to capture the flames in hundreds of pages of text alone, with maps, images, and visuals relegated to a select few pages (if there are any at all). Edward Struzik’s Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire is a breath of fresh air in this regard: it is easily one of the most beautiful books on wildfire I have encountered, with dozens of rich illustrations—from fire photography to newspaper cartoons, and from archival materials to Struzik’s own travel photography—not simply creating a more engaging reader experience but also providing complementary material that empowers the reader to really understand the subjects Struzik is writing about.
What is clear, however, is that this visual-forward approach is not an editorial afterthought or a watering down to increase marketability. Rather, it is indicative of the richness with which Struzik approaches the subject: of how his standpoint as a journalistic writer, interviewer, and traveler equips him to tell engaging stories with impact; of his commitment to putting these stories into a meaningful context; and of his understanding that our imaginaries, experiences, and mental images of fire matter. These philosophies have led him to write not one but two books on fire (first, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, published in 2017, and now Dark Days at Noon) that make the subject simultaneously approachable and rich. Because of this, they have become my go-to texts for introducing newcomers to the complexity and importance of wildfire as a topic.
That is a central project of both of Struzik’s books: to reveal the many dimensions of fire that go unnoticed in popular discourse. We tend to fixate on prominent fire moments like (in Canada) the destruction of Fort McMurray, Alberta, or Lytton, British Columbia. But this focus on the big comes at the expense of realizing just how multifaceted fire is. Struzik is the ideal tour guide, leading the reader from fire’s impact on water and air quality, to the inner workings of scientific experiments on fire management, to the ways that newspaper coverage shapes our understandings, to the emerging fire regimes of the high arctic. And he is quick and explicit to differentiate between the prominent and the important, such as moments when he helps the reader discern the fires that actually affected policy regimes. In this sense, Dark Days at Noon is the ideal book to introduce someone to dozens of aspects that they have likely never considered about wildfire.
At a deeper level, though, Dark Days at Noon orbits around an anchoring question: are we facing an unprecedented era of wildfire, or are we simply forgetting the intensity, impact, and awful splendor of the fires of previous centuries? In my estimation, Dark Days at Noon represents a real maturing in Struzik’s analysis from the earlier Firestorm in terms of how it grapples with the difficulty of this question. Where Firestorm largely framed its project around depicting the new era of “megafires,” Dark Days at Noon finds its strength in staying with and embracing the tension between these two realities. By offering both a fire history and fire foresight, it allows us to avoid this simplistic dichotomy. It shows how today’s fires are indeed remarkable, while contextualizing this in the reality of centuries of oft-forgotten massive, impactful, and influential fires. A particularly poignant quip to this end occurs when Struzik uses a quotation about how “nobody had ever seen this combination of weather and fires before” to tee up a recounting of the many stories the book had already covered of these conditions being seen over the past seventy years (pp. 162-63).
In the introduction, Struzik explicitly frames the book as taking up the baton last carried by Stephen Pyne’s Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada (2007). Struzik points out the irony that Canada’s primary fire history had to be written by an American, who offered an “exhaustingly comprehensive ... sympathetic ... but ultimately harsh” portrait of fire in the country (p. 9). Yet, despite this framing, Dark Days at Noon ends up covering nearly as much American fire history as Canadian. From Teddy Roosevelt and John Wesley Powell to Yosemite and Yellowstone, the actors, events, and places that anchor Struzik’s history are as likely to be found south of the forty-ninth parallel as north of it and are overwhelmingly American, rather than Australian, European, or otherwise global. Indeed, perhaps this is what makes the book deeply Canadian at its core: that it frames the Canadian fire story in inexorable relation to the American, as we are wont to do with virtually every aspect of our culture.
Despite being pitched as an introduction to fire, Dark Days at Noon offers insights for even the most well versed in the field. One particularly valuable contribution is Struzik’s emphasis on how the imaginations we hold and stories that we tell shape the management of fire. He points this out early, suggesting that “blind assumptions” toward free market systems and suppression mentalities serve as a constraining force, preventing us from imagining the kinds of fire behavior and comprehensive infrastructural impacts that have defined the recent decades (p. 21). Narrative framings, too, from seeing fire as a “demon” or an “enemy” to a very useful chapter on the role of newspaper rhetoric, serve as powerful influences on our understandings (pp. 34, 47).
Struzik also deserves commendation for several of the chapters that extend beyond the common tropes of introductory fire books. His brief chapter on the role of royal commissions whets an appetite for more learning about this important (or, perhaps, less influential than expected) pathway for post-disaster learning. His chapter on the role of newspapers is excellent in looking at how reporting and editorial choices can frame, constrain, and enable particular approaches to addressing the fire problem. And his chapter on smoke hits a topic that is only beginning to get the attention it deserves—and still has a long way to go in terms of appreciating the effect that low levels of smoke exposure across massive terrains can dramatically affect health.
Overall, Dark Days at Noon is an equally approachable and rich surveying of wildfire in Canada and beyond. While its function of exploring a variety of dimensions within fire is different than Pyne’s efforts in Awful Splendour to provide a comprehensive fire history of the country, it ultimately becomes a complementary resource in the corpus of Canadian fire texts. It is a book that proves accessible and enjoyable for the casual reader, insightful for the already informed, and highly useful for the experts in the subject—all while finally linking the visual and textual dimensions of fire in a well-deserved way.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Eric B. Kennedy. Review of Struzik, Edward, Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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