Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A conversation with environmental historian Stephen Pyne on wildfire

Since the publication of his book Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire in 1982, Stephen Pyne has been regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in the environmental history of fire. He spent 15 seasons as a wildland firefighter on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988. He is a professor at Arizona State University, specializing in the history of ecology, the history of exploration, and the history of fire. He is at work on a book on the history of wildland fire in the U.S. from 1960 to the present day. Why 1960? My previous history, Fire in America, ends in the 1970s, but a lot has happened since then. We need a new story, not just a continuation of the old one. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the opening salvo in our modern battle over what to do about wildfire — it was the Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference in Florida in 1962. That’s where the idea of reintroducing fire into the landscape, particularly prescribed fire, was really pushed. They were arguing against this firefighting juggernaut, as they saw it, that was sort of mindlessly putting out fires and causing all kinds of problems in doing so. There’s a lot that works with 1960. There’s Kennedy’s comment, about the torch being passed to a new generation. And 1961 was a relatively big fire year in the Northern Rockies. The Brentwood-Bel Air Fire in L.A. in 1961 announces in a celebrity sort of way that the wildland-urban interface, what we now call the WUI, is here. What was going on with the land-management agencies in 1960? The U.S. Forest Service was the dominant power, really, when it came to wildland fire policy, but in 1962 the wheels start coming off. By 1968 the National Park Service has broken ranks and created its own fire policy, and the other federal agencies follow suit. So the whole thing fragments...more

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