Year of the Fires

I just finished Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910, by Stephen Pyne (1910 as a date always sticks out in my head because that’s the year our house was built and this part of Capitol Hill was a lot woodsier, shall we say). A professor at Arizona State University, Pyne is considered one of the preeminent scholars and authorities on the history and management of wildland fires. Pyne has experience on the frontlines and not just the ivory tower: For more than ten years he was a wildland firefighter based in Grand Canyon National Park.

The Great Fire of 1910 (some people also refer to it as the Big Burn or Big Blowup) was one of the largest wildfires in recorded U.S. history, with about three million acres affected across forests of Washington State, Idaho and Montana.  Pyne offers fascinating context for how wildfire was affecting the rest of the country (e.g., the midwest and eastern coastal areas of the United States) during this era. It was a smoky time. The Great Fire of 1910 had a truly profound influence on the administration and policies of the United States Forest Service going forward with regard to fire protection and management (i.e, preventing any fire at all cost).  And the events of 1910 played a huge, far-reaching role in shaping the public’s view of wildland fire.

I enjoyed Year of the Fires and have the utmost respect for Pyne as a scholar, but one thing I’ll admit was challenging for me at times was his chronology of events.  When I was in the thick of the book, I found myself struggling with what I found to be a dry and academic narrative. Because most of my reading time is late at night after the boys are in bed, I’d often have to rabbit punch myself in the arm or contort my face to get through certain sections. By the time I finally got used to Pyne’s style, I was finished with Year of the Fires. I went back and re-read parts of certain chapters to piece everything together better.

This week I backpacked into the Goat Rocks Wilderness, a spectacularly scenic section of the Cascade Mountains south of Mt. Rainier The irony: It’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest land down there- Pinchot is a prominent figure in the history of the Forest Service and the early conservation movement. Given the word of warning on the trailhead sign at Berry Patch about the dry conditions, I was surprised at the number of brightly-burning campfires above Snowgrass Flat: Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, most of the fires were in subalpine areas with a relatively sparse amount of fuels. But anyway, I only bring that up because the dramatic plight of Edward Pulaski and the men with him who huddled in a mine shaft to escape certain blistering inferno was on my mind as I noted the billowing smoke through the trees.

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