Diary: Stephen Pyne, A Personal History of Fire

The 2015 Aggie Creek fire outside Fairbanks, Alaska. Photo: Philip Spor, Alaska Department of Forestry

Today three fires are sweeping the Earth. One is nature’s; the other two are ours. Lightning kindles the first—like the fires flaring across the boreal forest. The human hand sets the second—like the agricultural fires in greater Amazonia. Human engineering houses the third in machines—the colossal combustion of fossil biomass that is turning our atmosphere into a crock pot and our oceans into acid vats. The first two burn living landscapes of conifers, shrubs, and grass. The third burns lithic landscapes, once living matter now fossilized into oil, gas, and coal.

We are a fire creature, the only one who can manipulate fire, on a fire planet, the only one we know. But it’s an unequal partnership. We can’t exist without fire, fire can flourish without us. At times like this summer the pact between humans and fire can seem like a bargain that may have been made in heaven but will be paid in hell. We seem determined to move toward a full-blown fire age of our own making, a Pyrocene, comparable to the ice ages of the Pleistocene.

It’s pretty easy to describe what’s wrong: our fire power has gone feral. We have created conditions for rogue fires to damage landscapes and overrun towns, while withholding the tithe of timely burning that many ecosystems require. The character of fire matters because species do not adapt to fire in the abstract, but to patterns of fire, just as they do to rainfall, and too often the fires that now enter historically fire-prone places are the wrong ones and run amok.

As with drugs, the harm or health of a fire depends on its dosage and setting. The hearth fire is the emblem of family; the candle, an invitation to intimacy; the lamp, the symbol of knowledge; the forge, the hub of work; the bonfire, an occasion for gathering and celebration. In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus has the bringer of fire declare that he made possible “all the arts of men.”

I’m a fire guy, a historian mostly. I’ve written over twenty books about fire. What do I see in the flames? I see a continuous narrative of fire that stretches back 420 million years. I see a saga of humanity expressing its unique ecological agency. I see breakouts of fire orgies and fire famines—too much of the wrong kind of fire, too little of the right, and thanks to fossil fuels far too much combustion overall. On Earth I see a natural process as inevitable as wind and rain; for humanity, I see a tool, the Archimedean lever by which we have moved a planet. Mostly, I see a companion, our best friend and worst enemy.

That’s a planetary perspective, viewed through the prism of an academic. I also have a more personal perspective, that of a pyromantic.

I didn’t decide to write about fire because I was inspired by reading a thrilling literature of fire histories, fire memoirs, and fire analyses; there were none. I didn’t come at it through schooling; I was never at a place that taught fire (few do). I was drawn to fire because a few days after graduating from high school I found myself, in freakish serendipity, among the North Rim Longshots, a forest fire crew at Grand Canyon National Park.

It was a moment of biographical windshear. I was in a place I didn’t know, working with tools I had never used, in a life organized around something I had never experienced beyond candles and campfires. Yet I was hooked. I returned for fifteen seasons, twelve as crew boss. Everything I’ve written goes back to those years on the Rim.

You quickly learn how fires can shape a season, and how fire seasons can shape a life. It was, as our crew motto put it, a time of flame and fortune. You learn to talk about fire with the vivid vernacular of those who work with it daily—smokechasing, hot spotting, hot lining, cold trailing, burning out, mopping up. When we returned from a fire bust, we’d gather around a firepit and tell our stories, animating (without anthropomorphizing) the flames. There were sweet fires and fun fires, confusing fires and wretched fires.

I couldn’t shut those voices and that vision off—didn’t want to—when I turned to writing formal history. Ultimately, for me fire was a coming-of-age story. The Longshots lived along a geographic rim but also a personal one, the brink between adolescence and adulthood. That has been true for our species as well: humans are truly touched by fire.

For ten years my two lives, one as a student at Stanford and the University of Texas-Austin, the other on the North Rim, had nothing to do with each other. On the Rim there were plenty of tourists and visitor services, but no TV, no radio (unless the ionosphere was just right and we could get KOMA, a trucker station in Oklahoma City), no newspapers except those a couple of days past their use-by date, and no personal phones. The Internet was decades in the future. I learned of Apollo 11 when I read about it in Time magazine.

Our sole cultural contact was the Coconino County bookmobile, which rolled in once a month. We knocked off work early and pulled books off the shelves. The selections were heavily weighted to local-interest literature, but that is where I encountered Wallace Stegner and realized that it was possible to write nonfiction in a vivid way that might capture some of what I had learned on the Rim. Eventually I reasoned that fire could organize humanity’s history as it organized the lives of the Longshots, and that a fire history could also be literature. I began to write about fire with the scholarship I had learned in graduate school, the attention to language I saw in Stegner, and the experience of a Longshot.

I turned in my pulaski for a pencil, and then a PC. I went from smokechasing to pursuing fire across countries, continents, and the Earth itself. I saw Siberian taiga burned in sweeping crescents like the shell of a nautilus, tiger preserves in India where flames gnawed at grass like voles, the spring-cleaning of quemadas in Brazil, school children in Ghana igniting yellowed tufts on their playground, hillsides in Portugal incinerated as fires roared across abandoned countryside, cities in California burned to their concrete roots. But I saw those fires as I did that vestal flame on the Rim. I saw how good fire made us and bad fire may unmake us.

Today’s fire bust spans the rims of the globe, from Borneo to the Canary Islands to Alaska and Amazonia. Its blazes spring from lightning, renew many natural landscapes, clear land for farming and herding, power factories and cars. But they belong to a single narrative, one that pivots on us. Fire is our ecological signature, for good or ill; and charcoal, our most enduring record.

When the time comes to tell the tale of today’s fires, I suspect we’ll do it around a flame.

Steve Pyne is the author of many books, most recently a new edition of his Fire: A Brief History; Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America; and To the Last Smoke, a nine-book series that surveys America’s fire regions.

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