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Up From the Ashes

Remembering Montana’s original baptism by fire

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As if we needed a reminder, the summer of 2000 hammered home the point that wildfire—much like the critters in the woods and rivers that draw many of us here—is a perpetual neighbor of residents in the Northwest. The relationship between man and fire is an ancient and universal one, of course, and there’s no telling how or even if the human race would have evolved without the life-giving powers that fire bestows. Despite our ingrained fascination with the benevolence of fire, though, it doesn’t take much for fire to become, in the eyes of us beholders, an evil to be feared and battled rather than a good to be cherished and embraced.

This long-standing and elemental dichotomy goes a long way in explaining why we are so obsessed with fire and also why it is so damn hard to verbalize that obsession. Take Norman Maclean’s opus on the 1949 Mann Gulch tragedy, Young Men and Fire, for example. A writer of no small ability, Maclean worked that fire in his mind for nearly 40 years before he started to write about it, and by then the productive years he had left were not enough to complete the work.

In his new book Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910, Arizona State University history professor Stephen J. Pyne generally avoids the individual-man-vs.-fire dynamic that made Maclean’s book at once so compelling and so convoluted. Instead, Pyne focuses on how the monster fire season of 1910—with at least 88 dead in the Couer d’Alene district alone and roughly 2.6 million acres of national forest alone burned in the Northern Rockies, it’s the been called the “millennial fire season”—became a political hammer that shaped fire policy across the nation. The result is an often fascinating and incredibly relevant account of the events that reverberate strongly to this day.

Pyne addresses the wave of frontiersmen and miners—and the subsequent railroads that fed the burgeoning stream of settlers—that first pitted man against fire on a major scale in the West. He does a fine job in contrasting the role of fire before settlement, when Indians used fire as a localized agricultural tool and larger woodland fires burned naturally and cyclically, and after settlement, when the combination of increased fire ignitions (caused primarily by the railroads) and increased populations made the issue of fire one that had to be actively tackled.

He then traces the shift in popular thinking on wildfires as an inherent and even healthy part of the landscape (a significant school of thought before the disasters of the early 1900s) to an evil that threatened some of the country’s greatest natural resources. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this debate is Pyne’s meticulously researched account of how Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s head man in 1905, almost single-handedly equated fire suppression with the conservation movement and, consequently, dictated the Forest Service’s total suppression policy that has only recently begun to unravel.

Thankfully, Pyne does not emphasize the greater political winds of the day to the point of excluding the sheer wonder and awful power of the fires, and his prose is remarkably sharp in this capacity. Summarizing the fire season, Pyne writes that “as the weeks wore on, the fires crept and swept, thickening during calms into smoke dense as pea fog, then flaring into wild rushes through the crowns until they eventually scorched millions of acres across the middle tier of North America and, climbing to a summit in August, shattered vast patches of Washington, Oregon, and especially Idaho and Montana.” Describing the movement of a specific fire, Pyne shows a deft touch with metaphor when he writes that “the fire had smoldered for days in dry muskeg before worming into open timber and then, unfurled, sailing before the wind.”

Perhaps most powerful, though, is Pyne’s occasional translation of individual firefighters’ experiences with the massive conflagration, done through exhaustive research and just enough poetic license to slam the experience home. Writing about a fire that would claim the lives of 10 firefighters, Pyne describes the worsening conditions thusly: “The rising winds blew their fire beyond its trenches and as indrafts clashed with the gale, the air became violent with streamers of flame, gasping with a smoke thick with ash and dirt that shot up and slammed down and throbbing with a vast plucking motion that uprooted 150-foot white pines and flung them about like litter.”

The book also carries a specific interest for those who have come to know and love life in these parts. Particularly amusing is an eastern forester’s account of Western life: “’I think people live easier out in this country, than home. They sleep late, and are more or less lazy and independent …’”; accounts of Missoula jailbirds being released to fight the fires; the “’punks and stew bums,’” as described by a forester, that often comprised firefighting teams in the labor-starved region.

One passage has a particular resonance with recent events here. Describing the long-awaited rains that finally ended the fire season, Pyne quotes a fire ranger: “’Never do I remember having before and never do I expect again to have a similar feeling of high exultation over the fresh smell of rain-filled atmosphere.’”

Amen to that.

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