Westerners must be fire-starters as well as firefighters

  There is no better guide to fire in the West than Stephen Pyne, who spent 15 years fighting fires on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and has written 16 books on fire. The 32 essays in his most recent book, Smokechasing, are a mixed, uncoordinated group, but so brilliant and thoughtful that they kept me indoors on a sunny, windless spring day I had planned to spend on my favorite chore: burning ditch-side weeds.

Pyne asks, for example, why Biosphere 2, the glassed-in mini-world in Oracle, Ariz., excludes fire. The immediate answer is that a decent-sized fire would consume the dome’s air. But beyond scale lies ideology. Pyne writes that Biosphere 2 is “the very image of an urban people’s vision of a benevolent nature and sustainable habitat.”

In comparison, there is the messy earth. Pyne believes that fire “exists because the real world is not a machine, engineered to exact specifications. It is … a fermenting, crawling concoction that allows fire and not infrequently demands it — to unclog and spark its peculiar and often unpredictable biochemistry.”

Biosphere 2 may do fine without fire, but Pyne thinks we exclude human-set fire from the landscape at our peril. He even links the decline of species to the decline of fire: “By the 1990s, U.S. public lands were immersed in a crisis of ‘forest health’ that was provoked in good measure by a fire famine.” If we could keep man-set fire on the land, he says, other species would take care of themselves.

But if you’re looking for a policy solution, Pyne does not oblige. He rejects the Smokey Bear story of putting all wildfires out, but he also rejects the pursuit of “natural” landscapes shaped by “natural” fires, since that condition disappeared a long time ago. Humanity’s fire-wielding hand has been on the land an estimated 1.7 million years, and Pyne wants to see that continue.

Smokechasing
By Stephen J. Pyne
270 pages, hardcover $37.50; softcover $19.95. University of Arizona Press, 2003.