Fire is an essential element of summer in the American West.
Fire scours the landscape, threatens encroaching communities, sometimes results in tragedies emblazoned on TV news and front pages. But fire also plays a beneficial role in the West’s ecology, regenerating forests and meadows in many crucial ways.
Whether fire is a rampant evil or a necessary agent of change is the central dilemma in the American West. It is also the central concern of an important new book by a prize-winning environmental writer for the Idaho Statesman in Boise.
Rocky Barker’s “Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America” (Island Press, 247 pages, $24.95) is an ambitious history that belies its brevity. This rich Western tapestry is crowded with fascinating characters, improbable developments, startling discoveries, urgent science and delicious trivia that includes the genesis and impact of Smokey Bear.
Barker begins with the 1988 conflagration that imperiled some of the most treasured sites at beloved Yellowstone National Park. Raging fires pushed by gale-force winds rushed to the very doorstep of the historic Old Faithful Inn, while 9,400 firefighters fought back as the anxious country watched the drama at the world’s first national park play out on live television.
Then the writer does a dramatic turnaround, perhaps too dramatic, flashing back to the early days of Yellowstone with much focus on the pivotal role played in the park’s founding by Gen. Philip Sheridan, the controversial Union raider who laid waste the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War.
Sheridan was revered by the North and reviled by the South and remains controversial even today because of his later roles in the Indian Wars and his often-repeated quote, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” (later transformed into “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”).
Barker faces a formidable task in trying to elevate Sheridan’s blood-stained reputation, but the writer does succeed in demonstrating Sheridan’s absolutely crucial role in preserving Yellowstone from development by railroads and other commercial interests. He also oversaw the Army cavalry troops that protected the park in its imperiled infancy.
From those troops sprung the policy of fighting fires in Yellowstone. As Barker summarizes, “Now that the wilderness was tamed, fire must be brought under human control.”
For most of the next 100 years, that initial Yellowstone policy influenced fire policy in the American West. This is the third section of “Scorched Earth,” as Barker tracks the changes and challenges in firefighting policy through the following years. It all leads up to the climatic 1988 Yellowstone fires, where Barker, working as a reporter, almost lost his life in one frightening moment in the horrific conflagration.
The final riveting section of “Scorched Earth” reprises the 1988 fires and shows that they not only devastated 1.2 million acres in the park, but that they also dealt a death blow to an evolving policy of recognizing fire’s crucial role in the West’s ecology and allowing some fires to indeed burn to their beneficial effect.
“The federal government had not managed to develop a way for Americans to live with wildland fire,” Barker concludes. “… Just like floods, hurricanes, volcanoes and other natural phenomena, forest fires present humans with cataclysmic forces that are disruptive and painful. We have measured our human progress in part by our ability to control these forces. But our humanity may be found in our ability to live with them.”
Barker’s “Scorched Earth” underscores that lesson in profound ways. But the book’s impact is lessened by the writer’s abrupt shifts in narrative focus, as well as a hyperbolic subtitle that creates expectations in the reader that this 247-page book simply cannot fulfill.