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Know the West

Three fiery reads

  In the sixth chapter of his newly released book The Seasons of Fire, David J. Strohmaier pens an articulate elegy for the firefighters who died in Colorado's 1994 South Canyon Fire. When Strohmaier traveled to the fatality site, "it had been only six weeks since the fire, but already thousands of small, light-green Gambel oak shoots had groped their way up through the talcum-like ash.

"Close by," the former BLM firefighter continues, "were a dozen heavy-gauge spikes driven into the ground," each marking the spot where a firefighter died. He muses, "The presence of both, rooted in the ash next to each other, hints, however dimly, at possible moral dimensions of fire ..."

Strohmaier's is one of three new books that hint not only at fire's moral dimensions, but also at its spiritual, emotional and cultural aspects. It is a very personal work, based on years of chasing fire in the wilds of central Oregon's Deschutes and John Day River drainages. In the tradition of Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac and Rick Bass' Winter, Strohmaier meditates on the seasonal rhythms of a landscape - in this case, one shaped by the unbending force of fire.

Strohmaier, one of wildland fire's seasoned hands, recalls the near-evangelical message of early firefighter training films, namely that "green is good and black is bad." By the 1990s, 80-odd years of this sort of evangelism had created an explosion waiting to happen. But what prompted federal land-management agencies to pursue a policy of absolute fire suppression in the first place?

Stephen J. Pyne's new book, Year of the Fires, takes us back to where it all started: the incredible summer of 1910.

Pyne tells the story of the desperate fight against "a vast tsunami of flame" in which more than 2.6 million acres burned in the Northern Rockies alone. The tale centers on two days in August, "The Big Blowup," when high winds fanned flames into massive firestorms that swept northern Idaho (HCN, 4/23/01: The Big Blowup). Pyne paints a gritty picture of those two days' madness, including a series of rescues made by train crews "over trestles already aflame" and ranger Ed Pulaski's legendary stand to save his crew. Despite such heroism, 78 firefighters lost their lives.

Ultimately, the legacy of the 1910 fires proved not to be the deaths and damage they caused but a new insistence, voiced by Chief Forester Bill Greeley, that "the first and greatest commandment of American forestry is to keep fire out of the woods."

The third new book, Wildfire: A Reader, edited by Alianor True, is a collection of 24 essays and excerpts that approach fire from a wider range of perspectives.

The collection has a little of everything, including Cherokee and Miwok fire-origin tales; excerpts from Norman Maclean's tragic classic Young Men and Fire, and from his son John's book about the South Canyon Fire; Ed Engle's firsthand description of the firefighting subculture; Ted Williams' hilarious chronicle of bureaucratic and pseudo-scientific wrangling during the 1988 Yellowstone fires; and Margaret Millar's essay about regeneration in the chaparral ecosystem after fire.

All three books provide an emotional depth to wildland fire that moves beyond the stern warnings of (as Williams writes) "the fire-scarred, shovel-slinging black bear" named Smokey.
  • The Seasons of Fire: Reflections on Fire in the West, David J. Strohmaier, University of Nevada Press, 2001. 172 pages. Softcover: $21.95.

  • Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910, Stephen J. Pyne, Viking, 2001. 320 pages. Hardcover: $25.95.

  • Wildfire: A Reader, edited by Alianor True, Island Press, 2001. 224 pages. Softcover: $17.95.