Forest Fires Aren’t Always What They Seem

With an increased fire danger in California, it’s important to take a moment to refresh our knowledge of forest fires and their behavior.  A book by Stephen Pyne, a firefighter that worked for years at the Grand Canyon, describes forest fire’s more intricate workings:

“Forest fires are commonly envisioned as acres of blazing trees lighting up the night and filling the air with smoke, ash, and burning debris. The men who fight the fires risk their lives and their safety in this battle with the elements – archetypal figures in a battle with men clearly on the side of good, battling the age-old destroyer, fire.

Or are they? Through an accumulation of anecdotes, Stephen Pyne’s book shows that the situation is far more complex. He describes a season of fire fighting at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, showing the men, equipment, place, bureaucracy, humor, and fires. Pyne has 15 summers, or seasons, of experience at the North Rim to draw on, making him the most veteran of veterans in this young man’s job. Now a professor at Arizona State University’s West Campus, he specializes in environmental history. The season he describes is a composite of many. Written for the layperson, the book comes to life with the fires – the slow and often confusing spring, the exciting summer fires, and finally the winding down of fall, when rookies graduate to veteran status and the reader feels vicariously knowledgeable.

The North Rim is administered by the Park Service, but it is surrounded by areas run by the Forest Service. The two government agencies have different goals. According to Pyne, more and more the Park Service’s purpose at the Grand Canyon is to please tourists; the Forest Service’s purpose is to take care of the forest, which includes a fire management policy. Being in the park’s fire crew is therefore to be out of line with park purpose, because you do not serve the tourists. In fact, Pyne writes, “Park Service policy and enlightened public opinion consider fire control … not only unnecessary but immoral; they argue that fire suppression is an alien culture intruding into an area it cannot understand and arresting processes it cannot hope to defeat; that fire fighting is not a gutsy job but a tragically misguided commitment” (p. 168). And yet the Park Service is compelled to suppress every ignition.

This confusion makes fire fighting difficult. Fire roads through the back-country are allowed to be only minimally repaired, if at all; trails are abandoned; equipment is broken, worthless, or unavailable. The status of the fire crew is reduced. In the past, it was a way to become a ranger; now it is a dead-end, seasonal job, in which one is bossed by rangers with little fire experience. The fire crew veterans name themselves the “Long-shots,” a self-deprecating play on “Hotshot.” They know why they are there – to fight fires. And despite the Park Service’s confusion, fire fighters are there because the fires are there.

And yet the fires are not what the public might expect. There are few infernos here, mostly just small fires creating a lot of backbreaking work. Lightening ignites a tree, the smoke is spotted by a plane, the fire crew is alerted. Their first problem is to find the fire. When told of this priority at fire school, a rookie thinks they mean the trick is to find the fire before it gets big. No, explain the veterans, the trick is to find the fire before it goes out. Pyne gives example upon example of the fire crew faithfully following directions and ending up hopelessly lost, even out of radio range.”

Russell, Rachel. “Fire on the Rim: A Firefighter’s Season at the Grand Canyon.” BioScience 39.10 (1989): 733+.