Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review - Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910 by Stephen J. Pyne

Short review: The U.S. Forestry Service is born in a baptism of fire that was probably misguided and unnecessary.

The forest ablaze
Heroic firefighters
Sacrifice in vain

Full review: Names like Gifford Pinchot, Richard Ballinger, Henry Graves, Coert DuBois, Joe Halm, Ferdinand Silcox, Ed Pulaski, and William Weigle are probably completely unfamiliar to the majority of people in the United States. This is understandable, since most of them are fairly obscure figures who were involved in politics and forestry in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, but it is also, to a certain degree, unfortunate as these people and their actions largely determined the course the U.S. government took in administering the vast public lands of the American west for most of the Twentieth century. Year of the Fires focuses mostly on the pivotal year of forest fighting in the northern Rocky Mountains in Montana, Idaho and Washington, and the events that led to the embryonic U.S. Forestry Service's determination that all forest fires must be fought in the name of progressive virtue. But the real crux of the book is the conflict between science and ideology, and the dangers of allowing ideology and public sentiment to triumph over science, and the cost that this can entail, not just in terms of money and resources, but also in terms of human lives.

At its heart, the book is about the conflict between Teddy Roosevelt's protege Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the nascent U.S. Forestry Service and President Taft's Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger over the proper administration of the national forest reserves. Pinchot was a committed conservationist, but one who would brook no opposition to his view of how conservation should be undertaken, and as a result, he clashed with Ballinger, who was technically his superior, as well as just about every other Taft administration official in the Department of the Interior. But what was the clash about? As Pyne details, the clash was a conflict of ideology with Pinchot and the progressive movement on the one side buttressed (somewhat) by the newly formed Yale School of Forestry, and basically everyone else on the other. Pinchot and his followers, who populated the newly formed Forestry Service, were eager, brash, well-meaning, and committed to their cause. They were also, as Pyne amply illustrates, probably dead wrong in their views.

The basis of the problem was that the Forestry Service needed to find a reason to justify its existence, and the newly minted graduates of the Yale School of Forestry needed to find a purpose for their chosen profession. Pinchot, like many conservationists of the era, was an believer in the idea that the U.S. was wasting its natural resources (and waste, to a progressive activist at the time was an anathema), variously espousing the views that the U.S. faced an impending timber famine, that forests were needed to regulate climate, and that forests prevented flooding. Unfortunately, almost all of these arguments were shown to be at odds with the science, which left only the question of fire policy to serve as the sine qua non of the Forestry Service's existence. Fire, in the minds of the progressive conservationists of the era such as Pinchot, was nothing but a destructive force that harmed the natural beauty and wealth of the nation. Unfortunately, the denizens of the rural countryside of the time saw fire as a potential tool, to be used to clear land, drive out or kill vermin, reduce the available "slash" or fuel that might keep bigger , uncontrolled fires going, and a number of other purposes. As Pyne writes, 'the rural South was alight with flame". Further, Pyne shows that the available science seemed to suggest that fire was not wholly bad, was probably necessary, and was likely responsible in large part for the majestic nature of the vast western forests the Forestry Service purported to be guarding. Scientific studies on the effects of fire commissioned by the U.S. government suggested that not only did some species not suffer from forest fires, but some depended upon them as part of their reproductive cycle. Native American practices predating the arrival of white settlers in which Indian tribes would engage in controlled burning of forested regions were highlighted as evidence that fire, when properly used, was actually advantageous to the health of a forest.

But these pieces of evidence conflicted with the ideology of the progressive activists, and were swept aside. The studies that indicated the benefits of fire were either dismissed or suppressed. The Native American forest management practices were tagged with the derogatory label "Pauite Forestry", and treated as little more than the foolishness of savages. Fire, Pinchot and Harry Graves (Pinchot's successor as the Chief Forester) declared, was always bad, and should be prevented if possible, and immediately stopped if not. There was no such thing as a good fire, no matter the source, all forest fires should be fought, and further, it was the Forestry Service who would do the fighting. It was this conviction that led to the Forestry Service taking the lead and placing its foresters, its hired crews, and the U.S. Army in the path of the great forest fires of 1910 which created the story that dominates much of Pyne's account in Year of the Fires.

Unfortunately, it is this element of the book, focused on the individual foresters who hired, equipped, and led the crews through the firefighting season of 1910, that is the weakest. Pyne follows the various firefighters - men like Joe Halm, Will Morris, Major William Logan, and Ed Pulaski among many others - through the year with a month by month account starting in January and running through November. Pyne shifts from one story to another on a chronological basis, tying all the threads together in the "Big Blowup" of August 20-21, and then letting each play out to the end of the season. But by structuring his story this way Pyne's narrative isn't able to gain any momentum. As he is determined to keep all the dozen or so thread up to date through the book, just as soon as one forester's story begins to pick up steam, Pyne abandons that account, shifts to another forester and brings him up to date, and then shifts to a third, and a fourth, and so on before returning to the account of the original forester or Army officer and picking up where he left off. This means that all of the individual stories are hard to follow, and the overall narrative lacks substantial power, as the reader is always having to make mental notes to keep all the players straight. Further, since the reader is always up to date on all the stories, many of the dramatic (and highly publicized) turns of events of the summer (and most especially the Big Blowup) lose their impact. When William Weigle is told, for example, that Ed Pulaski and his entire crew have died in the fire, the moment has almost no emotional impact for the reader, since the reader knows (because Pyne has told him) that Pulaski and his crew are not dead, merely cut off from communication by the path of the fire. If Pyne had instead told each individual fire fighter's story in turn, or at least in larger chunks than the rapidly rotating snippets in the book, then not only would the history be much easier to follow, it would allow for much more emotional impact, and impress on the reader to a much greater degree how these events played out to the public.

Because as Pyne makes clear, it was the mythologizing of the brave foresters who stood against the fires that carried the day for the Forest Service's firefighting in the face of contradictory science and theory. The fact that during the Big Blowup of August 20-21 between 70 and 90 men died (Forestry Service and U.S. Army records are contradictory as to the actual number of the dead) as the fires they were fighting, stoked by the winds, swept over their lines and sent them running for any refuge they could find, allowed the Forestry Service to create a cadre of heroes who would have been dishonored should the nation decide that the cause they fought in was not justified. Never mind that no actual foresters died fighting the fires, and those who did were mostly men who were considered so unreliable that the Forestry Service could not give them their train tickets to travel to the fires directly for fear that they would immediately cash in their tickets and head for the nearest saloon. (One interesting aside is that the events of the summer of 1910 seem to indicate that while you can induce a man to take a dangerous job with the promise of high pay and good food, this is insufficient inducement to get him to care enough to actually do the job well). Never mind that many of the men who fought the fires were employees of the less than popular railroad and lumber companies, or Army privates grumbling about the damage the fires did to their uniforms as they were ordered into action. Never mind that when called upon to compensate those injured in the flames and the families of the dead, the Forestry Service proved to be difficult to deal with at best. The resulting account of the Big Blowup was written by three heroic foresters, whose most important qualification was that they lived, and filed reports with their version of events. And because they crafted the account, the lesson of the Big Blowup and the rest of the terrible fire season of 1910 was not that the policy adopted was misguided and should be revised, but rather that what was needed was simply more commitment to the cause, more money, more men, and more effort.

And this is why U.S. forestry policy from 1910 until the 1990s was one of almost rigid adherence to the doctrine of fighting fires no matter how small they might be. True the policy relaxed somewhat in the 1930s, when the service began to allow some naturally occurring fires to burn out on their own, but on the other hand the creation of the Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps gave the Forestry Service a massive number of available bodies to throw into their fire prevention and fire fighting efforts. What makes Year of the Fires compelling to read is the careful account given by Pyne that illustrates how a government service clinging to an ideology with almost no substance behind it managed to secure its vision for the administration of public lands across the entire United States for the better part of a century. Despite the sometimes confusing nature of the account, Pyne's thorough and comprehensive treatment of the data that was at best poorly preserved will allow a careful reader to understand how ideological advocacy and a little myth-making can triumph over fact, and exactly how dangerous this truly is. This is, in the end, a superior piece of historical scholarship, and well-worth reading.

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