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Sympathy for the scorched

Councilman elect/author Dave Strohmaier on wildfire, loss and change

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Dave Strohmaier’s tenth year fighting wildfire began not in the grasslands of central Oregon but in a classroom of bored and recalcitrant fire fighters. Strohmaier—an admittedly casual student himself—lectured his pupils about how the 1949 Mann Gulch fire killed 13 young people just like them on terrain similar to that the young fire fighters would soon be patrolling. In response, Strohmaier writes in Drift Smoke: Loss and Renewal in a Land of Fire, “The prelunch audience drifted in and out of consciousness.”

Strohmaier’s lesson on death by wildfire wasn’t merely academic. Later that summer, on July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters—nine from a Hot Shot crew based in Prineville, Ore., home of Strohmaier’s Bureau of Land Management crew—died on the south flank of Storm King Mountain in central Colorado when, Strohmaier writes, “winds associated with a dry cold front frothed a smoldering pain-in-the-ass fire into a roiling blowup.”

By the time Prineville was ready to grieve three days later, Strohmaier was battling his own wildfire. It wasn’t until later that summer, when he and his wife Gretchen traveled east to study at Yale Divinity School, that Strohmaier put the Storm King Mountain deaths in perspective. Like Norman Maclean in Young Men and Fire, he did it on the mountainside where his colleagues died, climbing from the nearby highway and navigating, he writes, by the memory of “aerial news clips of nine yellow tarps dotting a moonscape slope.”

In a recent interview, Strohmaier described his thoughts at that moment: “I saw on the hillside juxtaposed next to each other both the temporary steel body marker spikes protruding from the ground and, about the same height as those, these new shoots of Gambel oak. It was just such a stark contrast of life and death and asking myself and others, ‘What the hell are we doing out here not only risking our lives but sometimes losing our lives in the face of this force of nature that’s been with us since time immemorial?’”

Strohmaier—who, as a 12-year-old, watched his family’s double-wide trailer burn from the cab of the family pickup—knew something about enmity toward fire. He also knew something about philosophy, a subject in which he’d picked up a bachelor’s degree after losing interest three years into a wildlife biology major—all part of a longish undergraduate stint spread over a couple different colleges. All those years, Strohmaier kept his summer job as a wildland fire fighter and he continued with the seasonal gig through the acquisition of master’s degrees from both Yale Divinity School and the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program. He completed the latter in 1999.

Strohmaier’s sustained engagement with fire first intersected with his philosophical and theological tendencies in 2001’s Seasons of Fire: Reflections on Fire in the West, a work Strohmaier calls “an apologetic on behalf of fire, [an attempt] to…try to invent a new language to talk about fire as opposed to resorting to adversarial images or ways of speaking.”

Strohmaier limited the scope of Drift Smoke to wildfire, aiming to explain popular animus toward it with the concept of loss. Loss was a notion he drew from his wife’s work as a bereavement counselor. “In seeing the work that my wife was in with hospice…it struck me that we…vacillate between one of two poles,” he explains. “Either we’re paralyzed by loss…or feel personally compelled to trivialize the loss.”

In Drift Smoke, Strohmaier perceives four categories in the relationship between loss and fire and marks them with metaphorical cairns: loss of fire itself from the landscape (thanks to a century of wildfire suppression), and the losses of life, livelihood and place to fire when it obdurately finds a way around those efforts.

Talking now, Strohmaier ascribes animosity toward wildfire as the fear of losing places of particular importance, and thus the points of reference that define our own sense of place. “When we’ve grown up looking at a hillside that’s covered with old growth or second growth timber and suddenly that’s turned to charcoal, ecologically it may not be any worse for the wear. But certainly, at a personal, existential level, we feel dislocated…I think it’s important that we recognize that the loss is real and not simply try to shove it away or superimpose a smiley face on it.”

Strohmaier cites the hillsides around Missoula as an example of how human values play a role in nature, either constructive or constraining.

“Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel are going to burn. The north hills are going to burn. I can guarantee it,” he says. “Is it culturally acceptable to see all the timber that’s nestled in the nooks and crannies on the north side of Mount Jumbo all go up at once? I tend to think probably not, and with that we could possibly lose a lot of homes, and so that being the case, I think we need to think creatively about how we can lure and invite fire back in and do so on our terms, at least close in to town.”

Those terms, he thinks, should acknowledge a “sense of place [that] actually encompasses a sense of change…the intimate knowledge and even the expectation and hope, that fire might come through here and significantly change this place that is part of who I am.”

A refined sense of place that appreciates loss as a precursor to embracing change exercises empathy, which Strohmaier defines as “trying to feel as best I can what others feel, whether we’re talking about fire or endangered species or changes in our community.”

It’s a practice he’ll have a chance to employ as one of the newly elected members of City Council—and it’s a practice he sees having a purpose there. “Many of the cairns I talk about in this book relative to fire really have some interesting parallels in our urban environment,” he says. “Maybe, if anything, hopefully the work that I’m doing and others are doing relative to environmental loss will open up a broader discussion about loss and change within a much richer sense of what constitutes our habitat.”

Specifically, Strohmaier believes human response to the prospect of loss can explain hostility toward changes “to our urban landscape…Many of the controversies that we’ve faced in our community here in Missoula…boil down to a sense of loss and change…and what I hear far too infrequently from many of the folks who I sympathize with politically is a recognition that with change this is not easy, and it’s not always straightforward that change in and of itself is a good…You have those folks who are so willing to embrace change and progress that they fail to empathize.”

Unlike city politics, wildfire is seldom engaged within view of an urban center. Strohmaier’s effort to reconcile empathy for loss and an urban sense of place that embraces change—what he calls “this new political adventure of mine”—will take place considerably closer to public view.

Dave Strohmaier signs Drift Smoke: Loss and Renewal in a Land of Fire from noon to 2 PM Friday, Dec. 16, at Waldenbooks in Southgate Mall, and from noon to 2 PM on Saturday, Dec. 17, at Chapter One Book Store, 252 W. Main St., in Hamilton.

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