Missoula is one of America’s great fire towns. Over the past few decades, particularly after the timber industry crashed and a service economy tried to replace it, the city has gentrified and suburbanized. Houses lap up the slopes of its converging valleys, and boutiques have replaced brothels, and university classrooms have risen while tepee burners have been torn down, and a firefighting force has shifted from hard laborers pulled from railway or mining gangs to college-schooled technicians. But its taproots in the Forest Service and the surrounding wilds run deep and for over a century that story has been written in big burns.
For the Northern Rockies the era of exploitation passed quickly, save for a few places like Butte where mining left suppurating scars and swathes of the Bitterroots (and other production forests) where logging slashed through woods and bulldozed hillsides into terraces. Mostly the imagined treasures washed away rapidly, like placers; traffic blew through rather than planted; and the marring left by ax and pick melted away like the deep drifts left by a blizzard. What remained was a hard matrix of mountains and, beginning in 1891, an inland empire of forest reserves. The landscape was mostly roadless, and by 1964 much of it was destined for formal gazetting as wilderness or other forms of nature preserved. Unlike the Colorado Rockies, the wild mattered, not just as outdoor recreation. Unlike the Utah Rockies, or the Wasatch Range which more than rivals the Bitterroots in scale, the wild as wild resonated with public sentiment. The Northern Rockies kept their grizzlies – and they kept their fires.
Fire protection dominated early Forest Service administration: the Great Fires branded several generations. More than anything else, the perceived need for fire control “settled” the region. It put in the trails, scratched primitive access roads, strung telephone wire, erected lookouts and guard stations. Firefighting was a primary way of engaging with the backcountry. Missoula began amassing an institutional apparatus to match its burns. It had a major fire cache. The Remount Depot arose at Nine Mile Ranger Station. In 1953, building on regional experiments in aircraft, the Forest Service created the Aerial Equipment Development Center at Fort Missoula, later expanded in 1959 to one of two Forest Service-wide development sites. In 1954 the Service dedicated an Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumping Center. In 1960 it opened a fire lab, one of three nationally, which subsequently interacted with the University of Montana forestry school. When wilderness became an informing theme, the interagency Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute was founded in 1993 in facilities of the Rocky Mountain Research Station located on the UM campus. An exceptional number of chiefs and fire directors have served in Missoula – and then retired there. When enthusiasts sought to charter a national museum to commemorate the history of the Forest Service, there was really only one site to consider: Missoula.
§ Yet buildings and bureaucracies do not a fire culture make. The hardware can only do what its software tells it, and what makes Missoula a hearth is not the stonework but the tended flames within.
Living fire cultures require a distinctive fire (displayed in abundance), an institutional infrastructure to engage it, and a supporting culture to endow it with meaning. Firescapes are, in truth, cultural creations. It’s not enough to have a physical setting with lots of fires or big fires; Nevada has both, and few people care because there is no narrative to engage it, no means for residents or visitors to see in those flames something that speaks to their identity, that moves fire from chemical reaction to evocation. The Northern Rockies matter because there is a poetry to match the mountains. In the same way that old-guard Floridians see prescribed fire not only as a tool but as a cultural legacy, so Montanans can see their big burns as a valued part of their heritage. For the early fire community they were a defining feature of a vast backcountry; more recently, they are manifestations of a valued wild.
Missoula has its writers, and the mountains have a literature. The archetypal narrative, since Lewis and Clark invented it, is the encounter with a gigantic nature, either big in its mass or in its transcendence. A Montana school has repeated that story with new characters and new means of encountering, swapping beaver traps for, say, fishing rods, or the pack train for a Ford Trimotor, but the encounter as a means of coming of age endures from A.B. Guthrie and Norman Maclean to D’Arcy McNickle, Ivan Doig and Willard Wyman. This is not a story inherent in the rocks, to be plucked out like veins of ore. It’s made by mind working on mountain, as a comparison with encounters in other western landscapes shows. The Colorado Rockies invite amenities and outdoor recreation; it’s an engagement by piton, bike, backpack, and ski. The California Sierras make encounter into a solitary quest; a finding of the self by a solo hike, a climb up a rockface, or the search for a personal epiphany. The California experience is about reinvention, about the rupture wrought by relocation and renewal. The Montana encounter, however, is generational; it involves a physical test, often unsought, imposed by a big countryside, but one that occurs under the tutelage of a senior, an old trapper, packer, or ranger, who seeks to pass along an understanding of the wild to another generation. It’s an earthier story, one enlarging without becoming misty with diffused lights and one that moves beyond awareness of any one person.
It’s a literature that requires the big wild as a setting; and for that reason it must accept fires as it does bears. The modern literature of wildland fire, to the extent that it exists either as event or theme, has centered in the literature of the Northern Rockies. There is a popular acceptance, or at least acquiescence, that fire belongs, however begrudged when the long-smoldering backcountry can smoke in the Bitterroot or Flathead valleys for weeks. It was possible here to transition from fighting big burns in the mountains to tolerating them, and even celebrating them, that is open to few locales, and none with so vast an estate in which to let them roam. That could not have happened without a public culture to support it, and without poets to inspire that public.
Today, the wild dominates the political geography of the Northern Rockies. Three massive clusters of legally wild land frame the region: one along the Selway-Bitterroot south into the Sawtooths; one in the Lewis and Swan ranges; and one in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Add in, for USFS Region One, six National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and abundant roadless areas and state parks and wildlife preserves. The classic assumption about wilderness is that it is an island amid development. In the Northern Rockies the wild is a lattice around which the rest entwines.
The number of “natural fires” and of acres burned by them is small compared to the full population, but still significant, and the experiment has demonstrated convincingly what can be learned about fire behavior and management by observing fire in its natural state. The acres in wilderness will almost certainly rise. Even more, the experience with natural fire is allowing fire officers in areas outside wilderness to permit wildfires to burn more widely beyond the foundational wild. It’s a second-order wilderness burning; to critics, a stealth imposition of the wild by means of fire, but to enthusiasts, a surrogate naturalness less cynical than the logging-as-emulation-of-nature argument.
In the U.S. there are three fire culture regions, which together make a national fire triangle. Each region has a core, where understanding, institutions, and opportunities find a strong-nuclear bond. That core absorbs the dominant character of its surroundings, transforms and invests sense in it, and then suffuses that hinterland with meaning that informs how to behave, which is to say, it proclaims an ethic about how to properly tend fire. If you want to learn how to do prescribed burning right, go to Tallahassee. If you want to see how wildland fires along an urban fringe work, go to Southern California. If you want to understand natural fire, or at least fire in wilderness, go to Missoula.
Missoula, Montana; 11 July 2012