Westerners must be fire-starters as well as firefighters

  In one of his 16 books on fire, historian Stephen Pyne wrote: "If fire were captured today, it would never make it past the federal regulatory agencies." Letting fire run free is a huge deal; early man must have wondered if it was worth the trouble.

Fire empowered our ancestors not just to cook food, harden pots and refine metals, but to create new landscapes. Fire was a god-like tool that cut for good and for evil. But long ago, we came to terms with fire and used it to shape land and wildlife.

That equilibrium was disrupted, fire-guru Pyne writes in his latest book, Smokechasing, when open, rural fire was "industrialized" by being compressed in the innards of the steam turbine and internal combustion engine. Suddenly, there were incompatible fires on the land.

Think, for example, of the great Chicago fire of 1871, which left 75,000 homeless. Industrialization created Chicago, but the fire was started by the city’s rural roots -- a cow kicking over a kerosene lantern -- and much of the city’s wooden buildings and wooden sidewalks turned to ashes. A city may have overrun the country, but the country had struck back.

The transition between a society in which fires burn on the landscape and fire is also confined to engines and electric light bulbs is always dramatic, and we in the West are in such a transition. Each summer, slurry bombers, bulldozers and helicopters pit their force against wildfires. In a fair match, wildland fires would win. Industrial fire dominates by powering the bulldozers and cranes and by helping to manufacture the asphalt and concrete to fireproof our world.

In the West, the struggle between rural fire and industrial fire is taking place along our forest edges, where fire can quickly destroy valuable homes. Fire can also restore to health the surrounding forests and grasslands that depend on it.

Torn by the twin needs of fire protection and land health, we lurch from policy to policy. First we allow lightning-caused fires to burn in wilderness, and when that doesn't work, we set controlled burns that often turn uncontrolled. Then we revert to putting out all fires by 10 a.m.

There is no better guide to this policy lurch than Pyne, who spent 15 years fighting fires on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. In contrast to his massive histories -- Fire in America and World Fire, the 32 essays in 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 peoples’ vision of a benevolent nature and sustainable habitat."

By comparison to the myth of a waste- and pollution-free system where each iota of waste or pollution becomes another system’s input, 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 man-set fire at our peril. The most profound extinction of our time, he says, may turn out to be fire itself. 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 solution, Pyne does not oblige. He rejects the Smokey Bear story of putting all wildfires out and also rejects the pursuit of "natural" landscapes shaped by "natural" fires," since whatever was natural 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 hand continue to shape the land through fire.

We have taken fire from nature, he writes, and over the millennia learned to use it. We cannot escape our role on earth by eliminating it from the landscape.

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed service of High Country News, whose web site, hcn.org, now features many stories on wildfire. He is senior journalist at the paper. The next issue of High Country News, dated May 26, focuses on our losing battle with wildfire.