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.
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.
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