We need a new narrative for American fire. The old one doesn’t capture the astonishing changes of the past 40 years, and it makes the existing story into an inexorable consequence of a century’s efforts to exclude free-burning fire. In particular, a final reaction to the momentous events set into motion by the Great Fires of 1910. The narrative ends just as America’s great cultural revolution on fire picks up. It makes that reformation largely a matter of dismantling the old order rather than building a new one.
Narrative – all narrative – depends on where it begins and ends, and how it spans that historical space between. For modern fire history the years 1960 and 2010 work nicely as bookends: they are the 50th and 100th anniversary of the Great Fires that so shaped Forest Service attitudes and policy. In 1960 the U.S. Forest Service enjoyed a virtual hegemony in fire; by 2010, it was but one large player in a complex field of institutions, practices, and ideas that had changed how Americans relate to wildland fire. By restarting the narrative around 1960 the study allows us to examine the developments of recent decades without returning to the Big Blowup and dressing up tired arguments in a Smokey Bear costume. I’ll try to turn old flames into new narratives.
“Between two fires” is an old expression. Usually it refers to passing between flames, which is both a test and an act of purification. So which two fires has America passed between recently? Many. The fires set by nature and those set by people. Wild fires and prescribed fires. Feral fires and tame fires. The fires that burn surface biomass and those that burn fossil biomass. The fires of past and future. In truth we are always passing between two fires, and always will. This narrative will describe those that have characterized the American experience over the past 50 years.
The narrative is now being written with hopes that I’ll have a complete draft in hand by August, 2013, and a final, revised edition, supplemented by a last round of research travels, by summer 2014. The project is administered by Dr Lincoln Bramwell, chief historian of the Forest Service, and by the Center for Biology & Society at ASU.