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Smokechasing, by Stephen Pyne

Review by Ed Marston

Wildfire – July 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

Smokechasing: A New Look at Wildfires
by Stephen Pyne
Published in 2003 by University of Arizona Press
ISBN 0-816-52285-5

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 godlike 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, 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 at the city’s rural roots — a cow kicking over a kerosene lantern. 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 hearth and one where fire is confined to engines and electric light bulbs is dramatic, and we in the West are in such a transition. Each summer, slurry bombers, bulldozers and helicopters pit their force against wildfires.

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 Smoke- chasing are a mixed, un co√∂rdinated 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 people’s vision of a benevolent nature and sustainable habitat.”

But earth is not a waste- and pollution-free system where every bit of waste becomes another system’s input. 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 human-set fire at our peril. The most profound extinction of our time, he says, may turn out to be fire itself. But if you’re looking for a simple solution, Pyne won’t 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.

Condensed from a Writers on the Range essay.