Steven Pyne outlined his new book project, due in October 2014, to a packed room Wednesday at the Large Wildland Fires Conference.
Pyne’s book, Between Two Fires: A Fire History of America, 1960-2012, aims to further the story since the classic Fire in America came out in the 1970s.
Pyne’s history contends that several pivotal events beginning in the 1970s — firefighting’s own cultural revolution — have led to our fire situation today. In the ’70s agencies began to change their approach to fire, with such wholesale reforms as fire becoming an aspect of land management. But several obstacles have prevented those reforms from sinking in, Pyne suggested.
“It was over 35 years ago. In a sense the institutional, intellectual apparatus was in place. The policy generally was one of fire by prescription,” Pyne said. “How did it get down to the ground, or in this case, did not get traction down to the ground? What happened to stop it?”
Pyne’s points to the ’80s as a “lost decade” for some of his explanation. Pyne suggests that wildland fire management and firefighting got caught up in the pattern of polarization affecting weather, politics, and civilian and military budgets at the time. Just as the approach to fire on the landscape had begun to change, politics in the 1980s forced any environment-related regulations to move backwards.
“I’m sorry to go political on you, but the story turns political,” Pyne said, in reference to the connections he makes in his book, between fire management, regulation, and funding.
In his talk Pyne hinted at other interesting points that his book makes, including his belief that 1994 was “the big change” — bigger in fact than the Yellowstone fires of 1988 — and that year made it painfully clear that something was wrong with the policy of fire suppression.
The most recent era of fire management Pyne said is characterized by megafires, megabucks, and metafires — which Pyne also called the “M.B.A. era of fire” — and continues to be influenced by national political patterns and priorities.
Pyne’s detailed history, and also the essay-based volume he is working on, is sure to provide many insights on the last half-century of fire and fire management in America.