Federal spending on fire suppression is wildly out of control, forests are increasingly unhealthy — and everyone seems to have an opinion about how to fix the problem. A Season of Fire, by Seattle-based journalist Douglas Gantenbein, is one of the latest titles about fire in the West, and refreshingly, he doesn’t glamorize firefighters or simplify Western forests.
Gantenbein follows the 2001
season — starting in May, when he joins thousands of other
new firefighters for the standard firefighter training, to July and
August, when the blowups happen.
In mid-July, when the
Thirtymile Fire in Washington traps 14 mostly green firefighters
and kills four, Gantenbein cuts through the standard media
hero-talk and hits on the real tragedy of the deaths: Like the bulk
of the nation’s forest firefighters, three of the four who
died were undertrained kids, out to have fun and make money for
college. Gantenbein asks the tough question: Is our current system
worth it in terms of human lives and taxpayer dollars? Just letting
most fires burn isn’t the answer either, Gantenbein
concludes. If we do nothing, he says, we risk losing some of the
West’s classic landscapes, such as the ponderosa pine
Finding a middle ground, Gantenbein says, will
require a deep commitment to change on the part of federal land
management agencies, and a shift of attitude on the part of all
Westerners. “Fire is simply fire,” he writes. “It
has no sense of morality, has no persona, does not wish to do good
or bad, is neither deliberately enemy nor friend. It is a piece of
the Western landscape, as much as the West’s mountains and
rivers and forests.”
A Season of Fire: Four Months
on the Firelines of America’s Forests
288 pages, hardcover $24.95.
In the field with fire
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