Between two fires: A fire history of contemporary America

Between two fires: A fire history of contemporary America

13 November 2016

published by

USA —   Editor’s note: The following review was written by John C. Miles, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University. He is author of Guardians of the Parks: A History of the National Parks and Conservation Association (1995) and Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve (2009) among other books. He lives and writes about parks and wilderness in Taos, New Mexico.

No one knows more about the history of wildland fire in the United States than Stephen Pyne, a prodigious scholar, prolific writer, and former wildland firefighter who spent 15 years on the ground with the North Rim Hotshots. His encyclopedic knowledge and personal experience of wildland fire are exceptional credentials for writing this book, which traces the history of wildfire in America over the past half century.

While Between Two Fires does not deal primarily with national parks and wildfire (for that, see the late Hal K. Rothman’s Blazing Heritage: A History of Wildland Fire in the National Parks, published in 2007), the story he chronicles of attitudes toward fire, ideas about it, public policy on it, and organizational development to cope with it applies to all public lands. Important national park contributions to the history, such as early efforts to use prescribed fire in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, the big burn in 1988 in Yellowstone National Park, and the Cerro Grande fire that escaped a Bandelier National Monument prescribed fire crew in 2000, are covered and their significance assessed.

Pyne focuses primarily on the U.S. Forest Service because at the beginning of the period he studies, it “dominated the fire scene.” Its 1935 10 a.m. policy, which was to get on every fire by 10 a.m. and have it out by 6 p.m. on the first day of the burn, dominated the fire scene for decades. The goal was clear, to suppress the fire as quickly as possible, and that was the policy norm in the era of the “first” fire of the title. Then, beginning in the 1960s, unquestioned adherence to this policy was challenged as the ecological and wildfire consequences of the policy began to emerge. Pyne describes who challenged it and why after summarizing the history of fires on the American landscape and ideas about them that birthed the 10 a.m. policy. Challenges to suppression as the first response led to decades of debate about what else to do, with prescribed fire and natural fire emerging as alternatives to suppression.

One interpretation of the “two fires” of the book’s title is that the first fire was “bad fire,” to be suppressed as soon as and whenever possible, and the second fire was “good fire” and the good involved the ecological role of fire in many forest communities. But, as Pyne clearly explains, this is too simple a dichotomy. “Good fires” could turn into bad fires, and did when prescribed fire escaped, and “bad fires” could do good even as they caused damage to human values. A “fire revolution” began as fire managers sought to decide which fires were good and bad and thus when they should be suppressed, nurtured, or even ignited. Pyne describes how science influenced this revolution, and the roles played in it by politics and economics. The Forest Service lost its hegemony over the fire scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and interagency institutions emerged “amid consensus agreement on a policy of fire by prescription.” For a time in the 1970s it seemed the revolution might succeed, but then with the Reagan and Bush presidencies ,“A lost decade followed, after which the project had to be reconstructed.”

One change in fire that comes repeatedly into the story is the increasing challenge of community sprawl into the “wildland urban interface,” which accelerated at the same time as the revolution in thinking about fire occurred. In Pyne’s view, the sprawl of houses and communities into places threatened by fire complicated the revolution in many ways. More fires were “bad” because they threatened human structures. The issue of whose responsibility these fires were complicated institutional and organizational policy, funding, and action. An obvious solution to the growing problem was to prevent sprawl or at least enact policy to reduce risk to structures in the wildland urban interface, but this was beyond the reach of the “fire community,” and planners and developers outside that community failed to address the challenge.

When reconstruction of the “revolution” was attempted in the 1990s, the fire scene was chaotic.

Now, like separate streams of stars caught in a spiraling nebulae, institutions, ideas, and events swirled together – the Model 6 engines and P2V and DC-10 air tankers, the Brookings consultants and the old-guard bureaucrats, the prescribed flames washing through longleaf glades and the ravenous plumes over lodgepole-clad mountains, the smoking snags and incinerated suburbs, the GAO and Congressional Research Service reviews, the hotshots and congressional hearings, the WFUs and the WUIs, the nimble new agencies and the recovering legacy ones, the honored dead and the living memorials. The largest fires increased a hundredfold; costs swelled by an order of magnitude. Year by year the chronicle beat on . . .The millennium began boldly and badly, and got bigger and worse. The American fire scene blew up.

Pyne’s account describes dozens of task forces, working groups, and committees over the decades that sought to address this situation, but despite their best efforts the fires grew larger, the costs of addressing them greater, and everything about the fire scene became more complex, confusing, and beset by politics. “A divided society was reflected in a divided approach that left wildfire suppression as the only common practice even as fire officers, scientists, and thoughtful observers agreed that suppression, however necessary as an emergency response, only aggravated the underlying conditions.” These conditions were too much fuel, too many humans and their fire-prone constructions in fire-prone places (as Pyne notes, houses are fuel too), too few trained and experienced personnel to identify and implement an “appropriate management response” other than suppression, too little funding to deal with all of this, and a public with little knowledge of the fire situation and options for dealing with it. All of this is within a context of climate change, which of course was beyond the fire community’s control but to which it had to respond. As the millennium unfolded the fires seemed to grow ever larger and more intense, what came to be known as megafires.

Where does Pyne’s analysis lead? He writes, in his concluding chapter titled “Burning Out,” “The core story was the nation’s growing fire famine (italics mine), the continued loss of fire from places that needed it, and the inability to build new regimes on the charred landscapes left in the smoking wake of megafires.” He concludes his account in 2013 when fires burned into exurbs of Colorado Springs, killed 19 firefighters in Arizona’s Yarnell fire, and rampaged through portions of Yosemite National Park. “What was unchanged over more than 50 years was the reality of fire, a natural fact, and the need to choose, a moral one. The American fire community existed because of fires; its character was shaped by, and in turn helped shape, those fires; and by fires it would be judged.”

Pyne clearly admires and respects the “fire community.” In the end, though, he describes a community that has not met the challenge, and he does not blame it for this.

So why has the fire situation worsened despite its best efforts? To me he suggests that it comes down to culture and politics.

“The American system works on the belief of abundance, and there is no need to ration or distribute because there is enough on the table for everyone. When that assumption fails, the system appears cruel and unfair, and it unravels.” He writes here of all the good ideas that have come out of the fire community, but which have not been funded. Research, training, identification of “strategic” and “appropriate” responses beyond suppression are expensive and require a long view, which is lacking in politicians and in the public generally.

Assumptions we in the public hold about fire on the landscape have failed and we face a crisis to which at this point there seems no adequate response. I recall a trip to Michigan to visit family that took me over the Yellowstone fires in August 1988. Smoke was visible all the way to Chicago, and people in Michigan asked me in all sincerity, “Why don’t they just put the fires out?” The scale of those fires was beyond their comprehension. If we can put someone on the Moon, they thought, why can’t we put out those fires that are destroying the crown jewel of our beloved National Park System.

I encountered several assumptions: that we humans have unlimited power to control such things as wildfires, and that these fires are “destroying” the natural world. Those Yellowstone fires initiated a blame game that went on and on because the only explanation seemed to many that someone or some organization had failed. Pyne’s account in Between Two Fires shows the failures of our assumptions about ourselves and nature when it comes to wildland fire. We are all to blame in our misapprehensions and ignorance.

This book is not a light read, as my description of it should make clear. For someone who lives in country touched by wildfire (I live in northern New Mexico), or who has watched fires course across landscapes as I have in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and now the Southwest, the story as Pyne tells it is profoundly discouraging. He suggests time and again in his account that we really know much of what should be done to return fire to the landscapes that need it and in the long run learn to live with fire, but we do not have the will to do it. We have not been able to make that moral choice he alludes to in the above quote. In his epilogue Pyne writes of a young fire manager in the Gila today, and what he faces:

The prospect for returning fire to a golden age in the past, or for projecting it into an invented golden age to come, created by applied science, was gone. Fire’s restoration was happening but on fire’s terms, not humanity’s. Gone was the illusion of resistance and control, of suppressing fire. Gone too, was the faith in restoration or of imagined desired conditions. What remained was the hope of resilience. Gabe Holguin would play the hand he was dealt.

“Fire is fire is fire, and we’ll manage it.”

The word “resilience” is working its way into much discussion about nature and environment today. We need resilient communities facing wildfire, global climate change, and many other challenges to the status quo. No longer do we seem likely to control or restore, only to persist in the face of forces we once thought we had under control.

Stephen Pyne is an amazing scholar, and that certainly shows in Between Two Fires. For someone deeply interested in the history and challenge of wildland fires, his scholarship is wonderful and enlightening. On the other hand, the reader who tackles this 539-page study better be ready for work. Thankfully, Pyne provides a three-and-a-half page index of abbreviations at the back of the book that I had to repeatedly (and somewhat laboriously) consult to keep all the bureaucracy and terminology straight. An example: “For those committed to fire’s restoration, the AMR [appropriate management response] option replaced the WFU [wildland fire use] just as the WFU had replaced the PNF [prescribed natural fire], and the PNF had replaced the let-burn – the parade of acronyms is an apt expression of the ceaseless confusion.”

Pyne shortened the book length and reduced repetition at the expense of readability with all the abbreviations, but he had to do it. This is truly a scholarly work worthy of the effort it takes to get through all the necessary detail. I understand the wildland fire situation we are in much better now for having persisted through this book.

Amazon Detail : Product Description

From a fire policy of prevention at all costs to today’s restored burning, Between Two Fires is America’s history channeled through the story of wildland fire management. Stephen J. Pyne tells of a fire revolution that began in the 1960s as a reaction to simple suppression and single-agency hegemony, and then matured into more enlightened programs of fire management. It describes the counterrevolution of the 1980s that stalled the movement, the revival of reform after 1994, and the fire scene that has evolved since then.

Pyne is uniquely qualified to tell America’s fire story. The author of more than a score of books, he has told fire’s history in the United States, Australia, Canada, Europe, and the Earth overall. In his earlier life, he spent fifteen seasons with the North Rim Longshots at Grand Canyon National Park.

In Between Two Fires, Pyne recounts how, after the Great Fires of 1910, a policy of fire suppression spread from America’s founding corps of foresters into a national policy that manifested itself as a costly all-out war on fire. After fifty years of attempted fire suppression, a revolution in thinking led to a more pluralistic strategy for fire’s restoration. The revolution succeeded in displacing suppression as a sole strategy, but it has failed to fully integrate fire and land management and has fallen short of its goals.

Today, the nation’s backcountry and increasingly its exurban fringe are threatened by larger and more damaging burns, fire agencies are scrambling for funds, firefighters continue to die, and the country seems unable to come to grips with the fundamentals behind a rising tide of megafires. Pyne has once again constructed a history of record that will shape our next century of fire management. Between Two Fires is a story of ideas, institutions, and fires. It’s America’s story told through the nation’s flames.

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