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
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
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.
By Stephen J.
270 pages, hardcover $37.50; softcover $19.95.
University of Arizona Press, 2003.
Westerners must be fire-starters as well as firefighters
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