Book: Pyne explores differences in approaches to forest fires

Book: Pyne explores differences in approaches to forest fires

7 December 2005

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How disillusioning – Smokey Bear all these years has been a fraud.

Follow his logic about “only you preventing forest fires,” suggests fire scholar Stephen J. Pyne in “Smokechasing,” and you’ll wait for a holocaust. Or take the opposite extreme and believe in the inexact and often disastrous science of prescribed burning.

What to do about wildfire and the toll it takes on property, emotion and our imagined custodianship of natural beauty?

In 32 essays, Pyne explains that the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes of suppression and burning as a tool.

“Do we have another choice?” he asks. We have the responsibility of learning how to make the right choice.

The term “smokechasing” refers to the process of firefighters sighting and rushing out to track down and smack out fire sources, and thereby put a questionable twist on nature.

Fire is natural. It was here long before homo sapiens and always has been an ecological celebrity. It is wild in the sense water is, seeking its own level, and controlling it has always been an iffy proposition. In a sense, wildfire is not good, bad or even wild. How to look at it, writes Pyne, is to rethink our perspective, examine our historical relationship and redirect our attitude.

Pyne looks at fire in history, culture and nations and how we have bumblingly tried to be “keepers of the flame.”

He talks of Arizona, “always ready to combust.” Fire and rain and dry desert. Marvelous plants, “dramatic, dangerous and inspiring.” Suppressing a forest for 40 years, then having a conflagration, is like having a whole year’s rain in one thunderstorm.

Fire suppression requires burning, and prescribed fire requires control. Are they converging?

Pyne says America’s wildland fire management needs three things: “Practice, poetry and policy. “

It needs practice to make things happen on the ground, it needs poetry to inspire people.

And it needs policy, like a handle, to hold those two opposite-facing edges together . . .

“Smokey the Bear needs a sibling,” he writes. Give him a twin who wields a drip torch. “They were separated at birth, but now, arm in arm, shovel and torch, they are together again.”


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