Excerpts from Flame and Fortune; Quote from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt

  • Illustration of helicopter carrying water bucket/Mark Coyle


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, How the West's asbestos fires were turned into tinderboxes.

The fire-as-war metaphor fails, as all metaphors must. It fails first because, without a human antagonist, the moral drama centers within people, not between them. Firefighters get killed but don't kill. The metaphor fails more tellingly because warfare is not a good model for fire practices.

Our relationship to fire is profoundly symbiotic. We are the one species that can start and, within limits, stop fires. Historically, the first ability has enabled the second; the best way to control fire is with controlled fire; humans prevented wildfires by igniting their own.

Not until the industrial revolution put fire into machines and reordered our relationship to the natural world did people assume that free-burning fire could be suppressed and, if necessary, eradicated.

From "Flame and Fortune," an article by Stephen J. Pyne, in the September 1994 Wildfire, the quarterly publication of the International Association of Wildland Fire

"The closer people are to reality on the landscape, the more consistently you hear them say that fire is not an enemy to be defeated at all costs. We've got to find a way to go with the forces of nature a little more, rather than always taking them head on."

  - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, summer 1994

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