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Battling Blazes

Hal Rothman

Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910. Stephen J. Pyne. xiv + 322 pp. Viking, 2001. $25.95.

No one alive understands fire as thoroughly as Stephen J. Pyne. His mastery of not only the ecology of fire but also its social, cultural and economic ramifications is demonstrated in what he often refers to as his "fire suite," which includes Fire on the Rim (a narrative of his time as a Grand Canyon firefighter), Fire in America, Vestal Fire, World Fire, The Burning Bush and other books (joining these soon will be Fire: A Brief History, which is scheduled for October publication). So complete and so comprehensive is Pyne's work that few other scholars venture into his terrain, and everyone in the field acknowledges his work as the place to begin.

In recent years, Pyne has moved from the narrow audiences of academia to the broader one of the literate public. His first such venture, How the Canyon Became Grand, was a rousing success; in retelling the intellectual history of the Grand Canyon, the book helped redefine how Americans perceive this most important national symbol. Now Pyne has tackled the pivotal event in American fire-management history, the wildfires that scorched millions of acres in the summer of 1910.

Year of the Fires is a tour de force, a narrative that includes vivid portrayals and compelling analyses of technology, policy, human response to crisis and human interaction with the physical world. The story of the fires of 1910 has been told many times, but until now, no one has fully articulated its remarkable significance. This massive conflagration burned several million acres and lasted more than three months. Its impact on fire policy was enormous. As Pyne sees it, the "Big Blowup" set a pattern of fire suppression that has been followed ever since, in the United States and throughout the world.

Pyne has made this a story of people and their responses; narrated chronologically, it evolves through the eyes of the participants. The names are familiar, especially those of Edward Pulaski, for whom the essential fire-fighting tool is named, and Joe Halm, a younger veteran of the fires. For Pulaski, who became the symbol of heroic fire fighting, the great fires were painful proof of the failure of a way of thinking; for Halm and an entire generation of foresters, they were a moment of peculiar power, when the young men came of age and truly learned their trade. They were never the same afterward.

The fires of 1910 took place against the backdrop of administration chaos, caused by the dismissal earlier in 1910 of Gifford Pinchot, founder of the U.S. Forest Service and icon of its power and its shortcomings. Fired for "hounding" his rival Richard Ballinger, then the secretary of the interior, with charges of corruption, Pinchot left behind subordinates who were true to his policies but mostly lacked the imagination to adapt to different circumstances. The result was an ineffective response to a conflagration that was much greater than the conception of the people who faced it and the technology and systems they had for dealing with it.

Pyne's heroes are the individuals who battled the blaze. The stories he tells, of crisis and response, and of the century of fealty to the culture of fire suppression that followed, are powerful and even overwhelming. This is not just the most important book ever written about the fires of 1910; it also tells more about how federal agencies respond to fire today than policy makers would care to admit.—Hal K. Rothman, History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


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