NRDC OnEarth
NRDC   OnEarth
The Earth’s Best Defense

Current Issue
About OnEarth

Cover, Current Issue
Letter from the Editor
Contact OnEarth
Full Table of Contents
Back Issues
Media Kit

NRDC Membership

A NEW WEBSITE! blogs, more multimedia, and award-winning journalism come join the conversation at


By Stephen J. Pyne
University of Arizona Press, 260 pp., $19.95

Reviewed by Philip Connors

Scholar Stephen Pyne worked 15 seasons as a firefighter on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon before embarking on an academic career that has established him as America's premier historian of fire. In Smokechasing, his 11th book about fire, he assembles a series of 31 short, briskly paced essays that probe the subject with a sophistication and historical context unmatched in the recent tide of fire-obsessed memoirs and journalistic blockbusters (see, for instance, Sebastian Junger's book Fire ) that are suddenly so beloved by American publishers. Pyne ranges across time and geography to probe the intersection of people, place, and fire in all its environmental, political, and psychological complexity. Instead of simple answers and sensationalism, Pyne gives us ambiguity and tough questions.


In particular, Pyne demonstrates how we tend to react to fire's impact on the landscape in one of two extreme ways -- -- either accepting it as an unpredictable "natural" occurrence or marshalling all our resources and technology to bring about its absolute suppression -- -- and attempts to map a more moderate ecological alternative. The challenge in the United States, he argues, is to govern our public lands with a sophistication and understanding not evident in recent fire -- management policy, while not abandoning our responsibility to use fire as a necessary tool in wilderness management. Along the way, Pyne reminds us that the primordial power of fire continues to thwart the best of human intentions.

In several of his essays, Pyne explores this power within a larger social context by describing a dialectic between what he calls open flame and hidden flame. In the developing world, fires still sweep across the landscape as a tool of agriculture, fighting weeds, and replenishing nutrients in the soil. In industrialized nations, most burning takes place out of sight, in car engines and power plants. This transformation, Pyne argues, severed an age -- old link between fire and the human hand, so that fire on the land came to be seen as a scourge instead of a natural occurrence or a tool. The great fires of 1910, which burned millions of acres in the West and were the subject of Pyne's last book, solidified the government's posture of total war against wildland fire. By the start of World War II, the Forest Service's policy of almost zero tolerance for fires on its watch was encoded in the "10 a.m." dictum, whose aim was simple and uncompromising: to contain any forest fire by 10 a.m. the morning after its detection.

After the war, the Forest Service was granted use of excess military hardware in its battles against wildland fire, and these were often managed by veterans of the armed services. Airplane spotters performed surveillance over the public lands, searching for evidence of smoke; tankers dropped water and fire -- suppressing chemicals in the equivalent of bombing raids. The inherent drama of the fight -- -- and its almost moralistic fervor -- -- overwhelmed those critics who argued for fire's essential role in the landscape.

The public lands on which this battle took place tend to be thought of as a birthright by Americans -- -- a slice of Eden saved for our pleasure. Pyne reminds us that these reserves are an historical anomaly. In much of the settled world, no such places exist -- -- certainly not to the extent they do here. "These reserves were an imperial invention; they were possible because the lands were (or partially could be made to be) vacant; and they created an imperative for institutions to administer them," Pyne writes. Thus he dismisses the notion that fires on public lands are a "natural" occurrence in "natural" places, reminding us that indigenous people lived on much of that land for centuries and often used fire for their own purposes, including agriculture and hunting. Nature devoid of human influence simply doesn't exist.

But it is precisely what sort of influence we exert that is critical, in Pyne's view. Beginning in the late 1960s, the federal land agencies began to understand that rabid fire -- suppression had created, in many places, an overgrown tinderbox waiting to explode. They altered their mandate to allow for "natural" fires to burn, and even for humans to use the tool of "prescribed" fire, developments that Pyne applauds, but with caveats: "Simply thrusting torches into forests that have little resemblance to those that existed a century or two previously will not yield fires like those of the past." It's not hard to find chastening examples, the most prominent being the disastrous fire that escaped Bandelier National Monument in spring 2000 and raged toward Los Alamos, New Mexico, at great cost and embarrassment to federal agencies. "One can't suppress and restore fire as one can flip on and off a light switch," observes Pyne. "Reinstating fire in fire -- famished places such as the American West is akin to reinstating a lost species. It demands considerable work to create a suitable habitat; it is costly, laborious, controversial, and dangerous."

Nor should humans simply get out of the way and allow lightning -- ignited forest fires, for instance, simply to take their course. Pyne recognizes that in a culture where fire is largely hidden, it may be tempting to accept naturally occurring fires as an expression of pure nature, an antidote to our relentless exploitation of the environment, as though to say, Let the environment exploit us for once . But such a romantic attitude toward natural fire is environmentally nave and irresponsible, Pyne points out. Most of our public lands bear little resemblance to pre -- Columbian landscapes: Logging has since removed vast swaths of old-growth trees that had minimized the conditions conducive to blowups, and livestock have devoured the grasses that once allowed fire to move more gently around and among forested land.

Instead, Pyne argues, we must encourage natural fires where it's justified and temper them when they could cause more harm than good. Similarly, we must use prescribed burning with extreme caution and a humble appreciation of its devastating power. Otherwise, he warns, demagogues will pounce on the most egregious mistakes (such as Bandelier) in order to argue that human-induced fires are unnatural. It is all too easy to proceed from that argument to the sort of policy now being advocated by the Bush administration: Indeed, the president's so-called "Healthy Forests Initiative," a plan crafted in response to last summer's massive burns, urges the "management" and "thinning" of forests, a thinly disguised rationale for abandoning public lands to logging and other private exploitation.

Again and again Pyne drives home his central point: As a species, we have a monopoly over the control of fire, and we have no choice but to use it wisely. "If fire management succeeds," Pyne writes, "it will be not only because new funds are found and new tools and organizations are created to reinstate fire in the land, but also because a new language will exist by which to convey the importance and excitement of wildland fire." Language and fire: these two gifts have done more than any other to make humans exceptional, and Pyne is particularly well suited to explore the dynamism of the latter by using the tools of the former. Indeed, Pyne may be overly modest when he implies that a "new language" for understanding wildfire does not yet exist, for in this volume, and throughout his career, Pyne has done more than anyone else to nudge that new language into being.

Page:  1  2  

Philip Connors is a New York-based freelance writer who spends his summers as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico.

OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council