The course of Stephen J. Pyne's unusual career mirrors that of
the wildfires he studies: a spontaneous start followed by a
spread determined partly by unpredictable turns of fortune.
"This isn't something I could've planned," says the 48-year-old
Arizona State history professor, who spent 15 summers fighting
fires at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. "At the Rim I had a
job I loved in a place I loved, and fire was at the core of it.
It grew from there. What I've tried to do since then is to make
fire as central for humanity as it has been for me."
Pyne is the world's foremost fire scholar. He has followed the
thread of an idea--the influence of fire on history--through
nine books, and his reputation has steadily grown. In 1988 he
was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
To citizens whose thoughts on wilderness blazes are defined by
the dark billows that fill TV screens every summer, Pyne's views
might seem extreme. He believes America's wilderness needs more
fire, not less. Aggressive fire suppression and the
unwillingness of land managers to use controlled burns to thin
forests have created a buildup of fuels that, according to Pyne,
promises more catastrophic blazes to come.
Pyne says the exclusion of fire from forests--mostly by the
Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the
Forest Service--is the environmental equivalent of the savings
and loan scandal. "Unless we have a huge effort at controlled
burning, we'll see more of these huge wildfires," he says.
"There'll always be fires on wildlands, but it's a matter of
what kind. We're seeing a lot of bad fires and very few good
September 7, 1997
In 1977, Pyne, who has a B.A. in English from Stanford and an
M.A. and a Ph.D. in American civilization from Texas, wrote his
first book, Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and
Rural Fire. "By 1981, my last as a firefighter, I realized that
if I was going to stay in fire, I'd have to write," he says.
Among his other books are Vestal Fire; Burning Bush: A Fire
History of Australia; and World Fire: The Culture of Fire on
"People I know are grateful that Steve talks about why fire
belongs in the forest," says Kathy Davis, a fire ecologist and
resource manager with the National Park Service in Arizona. "He
reaches a public we can't to explain why we need a better
balance between suppressing and lighting fires."
Indeed, Pyne's theory isn't controversial among experts. Every
agency charged with managing wildlands admits controlled burning
is needed. But it isn't happening, in part because of what Pyne
calls our addiction to massive fire fighting. The Yellowstone
blazes of 1988, for instance, cost about $150 million, involved
25,000 firefighters and became a national TV drama.
Congress allows unlimited spending on fire fighting but
allocates little for controlled burning. If the wind were to
shift during a controlled burn, taking out a few million-dollar
summer homes, the bad publicity and legal liability would be
tremendous. Advocates of endangered species and clean air are
also opposed to burns. And fights can erupt between loggers who
want to clear excess trees before the fires begin and
environmentalists who object to opening the land to any
commercial interest. The result, invariably, is a stalemate.
An Arizona experiment offers hope of breaking the impasse. The
Forestry School at Northern Arizona and the Bureau of Land
Management are attempting to restore a 3,700-acre wilderness to
its virgin condition. Workers using chain saws, rakes and fire
are thinning the ponderosa pine forest at Mount Trumbull,
northwest of Flagstaff, so that when the work ends in 20 or 30
years, the area will contain 15 to 75 trees per acre, just as it
did before 1870, when it was possible to ride a horse at full
gallop through the pines. The same wilderness today contains
from 500 to 850 trees per acre. "We think this could lead the
way to the restoration of ponderosa pine forests in the western
U.S.," says Wally Covington, Regents Professor of Forestry at
Pyne hopes the lessons of the project will spread beyond
Arizona. "The Parks Service knows it has to put troops on the
front line and fight fires in a highly visible way because the
public expects it," Pyne says. "It's part of the political
theater of fire. I'd love to see the public's ideas change."
Leo W. Banks, a resident of Tucson, is a frequent contributor to