Fiery anthropocentrism

  Dear HCN,

Steve Pyne's fine article on Ed Pulaski, and the Forest Service's corporate culture about forest fires, is a great read (HCN, 4/23/01: The Big Blowup). But Steve, like so many others, fails to see the main point about humans vs. fires. Fires happen. It's not our fault.

The idea that finding "a Pulaski" of "fire management" policy will lead to the right balance between "fire lighting over firefighting" is misguided anthropocentric fantasy.

The forests in the future will burn on much their own terms, as they always have in the past. The era of suppression-first was sincere and heroic, but in the scale of time and space of the national forests it was short-lived and never comprehensive. Suppression-first tactics on national forests were only significant from about 1950 to 1980, and they were not totally effective even then.

The fires of 1988 were caused more by the suppression of Native Americans and their pre-Columbian fire policies, than by Forest Service firefighting. There will be fires of 2110, too, and thereafter, so long as the biology of conifers and photosynthesis conspire. They will not be "caused" by humans igniting them (Smokey to the contrary notwithstanding) any more than they will be "caused" by "unnatural suppression" of minuscule fragments of the total fuel load.

We cannot "manage" the fire ecology of the Northern Rockies - which is sometimes very big, very dangerous and very scary - without obliterating the ecosystem to which it is integral. This seems to be very hard for human beings - and particularly journalists - to accept, but the forest doesn't mind our anthropocentrism.

For a great history of the heroic days, when extinguishing forest fires was an unquestioned and exciting adventure, read Two-Man Stick by Bud Filler (Burning Mountain Press, Boise, Idaho, 1999).

Philip M. Hocker
Alexandria, Virginia