After the fires, Part I

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Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Reforming an agency such as the Forest Service is like pushing an old truck up a hill. It’s grunt work, and unless you have a lot of friends, you won’t get anywhere. But every once in a long while, there’s a shift. A moment when you’ve crested the rise and start picking up speed. A moment when, if you know where you’re headed, you might actually steer down a new road.

In this issue of High Country News, you’ll read about just such a moment: the Big Blowup of 1910, when wildfires exploded across the Northern Rockies. Historian and fire ecologist Stephen Pyne writes that the huge fires arrived as foresters were pushing the young U.S. Forest Service to fight fires, rather than light them as the Indians and early settlers did. The Big Blowup pushed the Forest Service over the top. For the next 90 years it would wage war on what the agency’s first chief, Gifford Pinchot, called "the Dragon of Devastation."

Scientists have since come to understand that, to some degree, catastrophic wildfire is a monster of our own creation. Stamping out forest fires, combined with aggressive road building and logging, has changed the West’s woods. At one time, these forests saw frequent, cleansing fires. They now burn less often, but when they do, they go big. Wildland firefighting, meanwhile, has become a monster in its own right, as the Forest Service dips into emergency coffers, throwing billions at fires that only get worse the more we fight them.

In the next issue of High Country News, Mark Matthews writes about another big blowup — the fires of 2000. Last summer’s fires are remarkable not just for the destruction they wrought but for the wake-up call they gave members of Congress. For the first time, lawmakers have thrown mountains of money behind fire prevention, instead of fire suppression. As we write, the Forest Service is training crews to thin out doghair thickets so that fire can return as a restorative, rather than a destructive, force.

Whether or not the agency sticks to this new course will depend on many things, not the least of which is President Bush’s pick for Forest Service chief. But at its heart, as Pyne points out, the Forest Service’s direction will depend not on new firefighting techniques or lots of money, but on the agency and those who care about the forests creating a new mythology, a new vision for the public woods. A 9-to-5 bureaucracy can’t transform the national forests. The trouble is not a lack of policy. It’s a lack of story and people committed to that story.