And Then There Was Fire

In 'Smokechasing', Stephen Pyne compiles essays that take a new look at wildfires.

You want to know about fire? You want to know exactly why Mount Lemmon burned the way it did, and why the Forest Service fought it the way it did, and what the choices are now? You need to read Stephen Pyne.

The cover of his latest book radically underhypes Pyne by identifying him as "one of America's leading fire scholars." This ASU professor and 15-year veteran of North Rim fire crews is not only the leading scholar and writer in his field; he's its inventor.

His magisterial, five-volume Cycle of Fire series is about nothing less that the natural history of man's favorite "element" throughout the world--and its thousands of pages throw light at every turn on why both the human and natural world are the way they are. Pyne remarks in the forward to his latest book, Smokechasing, that fire does not have its own literature: That's just wrong. It didn't have its own literature until Pyne started creating it.

If we'd had to wait for a smart magazine writer to come along and synthesize the new study of fire in books for the general public, none of us would now be conversant in the fascinating and ever-pertinent subject of how Homo sapiens, "the fire animal," shapes the world. Pyne, fortunately, is a terrific writer who somehow manages to convey both the dense factual detail and the great patterns of his subject in graceful, lively and sometimes genuinely poetic prose. (With endnotes, it's true, but nobody says you have to mess with those.) Fire in America and World Fire--the two Cycle of Fire installments I've been through--are both absorbing reads, and if I ever again find myself on a fire-lookout during a dull fire season, I'll take the whole set up the ladder. Whenever you feel yourself losing interest, say, in the finer points of Swedish fire prevention, you can skip ahead. But if you hang in, you'll find that the control-freak Swedes and their insistence on well-groomed woods turn out to be strangely intriguing. Pyne is always marshalling his massive arrays of fact toward synthesis.

And those are the scholarly monsters. His shorter, lighter productions--such as The Year of the Fires (Penguin, 2001) and Fire on the Rim (U of Washington Press, 1995)--he's even more accessible. Smokechasing, just out as a handsome paperback from U of A Press, is in this vein. It's a collection of new short pieces and particularly good bits culled from Pyne's previous 15 (!!!) books.

In these essays, Pyne's subjects range from why the cataclysmic, life-giving bushfires of Australia are back to forest fire movies to why prescribed burns may not be God's gift to the cabin-owner. There's also a six-page essay on Sonoran desert fires in which he calmly explains that "Arizona was built to burn." Word.

Any story with a big fire in it is interesting--a truth that no one understands better than Pyne--but it's his reading of fire that makes his books so compelling: He offers nothing less than a new, universally illuminating perspective on nature and our fire-dribbling species, and to read Pyne is to look at the world in a new way. Like the apples and tulips in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, fire comes alive in these pages and takes its place as a major character in human history. (This, in spite of the fact that, as Pyne points out, fire is not a god, or an "element," or even a thing. Fire is a process; it's just what happens when heat, fuel and oxygen combine under suitable conditions. Only that.)

Pyne's theses are exhilarating: Fire uses us as much as we use fire; the wilderness has never been a wilderness since man, any man, entered it; our feelings about fire in the city have infected our handling of fire out beyond the edges. When fire suppression itself actually starts a fire--when a controlled burn gets loose in near Los Alamos or an unemployed firefighter decides to make some work for himself up on the Mogollon Rim--it's not ironic. It's just predictable, once you understand something about the true history of man and fire.

While the Aspen Fire burned, I've went out every half hour or so to watch the south edge of it work its way down and east, toward "the wildland/urban interface"--a term that is fated to become more and more familiar in the years to come. To understand why, go read some Stephen Pyne.

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