In the field with fire

by Ali Macalady

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 forests.

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
by Douglas Gantenbein
288 pages, hardcover $24.95.
J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003. © High Country News