Arizona State University fire historian Stephen Pyne initially told those stories -- and those of other major wildfires that blackened the skies that year -- in his 2001 book Year of the Fires. Pyne's book -- recently reissued by Mountain Press Publishing Company -- is worth the read just for those. But readers who are also interested in the politics and history of U.S. fire suppression policies will also find gold here, for it shows how America's attitudes toward forests and fire have changed in 100 years.
In the days of Teddy Roosevelt, when the government was setting aside hundreds of thousands of forested acres for use by the public -- some of them our current national forests -- fire was seen as a menace. And it was everywhere, used as a tool to turn forests into farms and for other land uses. Millions of acres burned -- intentionally and unintentionally -- every year. Eventually, conservationists like Gifford Pinchot vowed to make aggressive fire suppression the federal policy. That led to the creation of the Forest Service, Smokey Bear and an all-out assault on forest fires.
But critics argue that policy also led to today's unnaturally crowded, diseased federal forests. Some believe the wildfires we hear about every summer and fall are so intense because of the buildup of fuels in the forests, fuels that used to be removed through low-intensity burns. The Forest Service has in the last few years reversed course and brought prescribed fire back into its toolbox. But that too has its problems. With people now living at the edges of those forests, the last thing they want is to breathe that smoke. Oh, and there are questions about how that burning contributes to climate change.
Stephen Pyne's book provides us with timely history and policy lessons.