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The Story That Tore Through the Trees

That impact was not lost on the USFS, which briefly used Bambi in its ad campaigns. Then Disney balked, and, in 1944, Smokey the Bear was born. Ever since, each new generation of children has learned that fires destroy forests, and that preventing or extinguishing them is responsible, patriotic, and, in extremis, heroic. That narrative found its literary apotheosis in Young Men and Fire—a book published just as experts had started unsubscribing in large numbers from the narrative itself.

From the beginning, the war on fire had critics. In the 1880s, John Wesley Powell, the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, contended that fires did not destroy forests but sustained them. An influential 1910 article in Sunset Magazine argued that without regular wildfires to clear out the underbrush, forests would be susceptible to disease, insect infestation, and, when they did burn, more destructive conflagrations. The Forest Service’s own experiments showed that burned land was subsequently more fertile than unburned land—but agency higher-ups, mistrusting the data and worried about its reception, suppressed the results. (Meanwhile, as Pyne notes, they hired a psychologist to explain why rural farmers were so committed to the old custom of burning their land.)

It was criticisms like these, and the mounting evidence in support of them, that finally led the Forest Service to rescind the 10 a.m. policy in 1978. But by then, we had suppressed wildfire for nearly a century, interrupting the life cycles of some species, stripping others of their natural defenses, and stockpiling huge quantities of fuel in our forests. In jumping out of an airplane, Maclean wrote, men “commit themselves to what once done cannot be recalled and at best can be only slightly modified.” Current USFS policy calls for extinguishing wildfires when necessary, letting them burn when possible, and deliberately starting them in areas that need it. But in practice, fire, once removed from the wilderness, is very difficult to reintroduce.

Part of the problem is all that fuel. A fire that starts in today’s unnaturally dense forests can level the landscape in a way that, historically, wildfires rarely did. According to Dave Thomas, Arizona’s 2002 ­Rodeo-Chediski fire killed 400- and 500-year-old trees. “These trees are ancient. They’ve survived 40 fires. They would’ve never died in a normal fire, and now they’re gone.” You can’t effectively reduce that risk by logging, although the idea is popular in certain circles. Pyne puts it succinctly: “Logging is a mechanical process that physically removes biomass; fire is a chemical process that changes biomass. Logging takes the big particles and leaves the small; fire burns the small and leaves the big.”

Meanwhile, the cultural and economic legacies of fire suppression are proving equally difficult to reverse. “There are whole industries now that depend on firefighting,” Pyne says. He means the so-called fire-industrial complex: “air tankers, helicopters, contractors—a whole private workforce of crews and engines and support services. These are the mercenaries, and they don’t want the firefight to end.” Whole communities now depend on firefighting, too. Across the nation, there are 46 million homes on what fire professionals call the Wildland-Urban Interface, and eight million more are expected to be built over the next ten years. Their presence considerably complicates any plan to let wildfires burn. So, ironically, do our efforts to protect the natural world. The Endangered Species Act places restrictions on what kinds of habitat can burn, and the Clean Air Act, by policing smoke levels, curtails the ability of the Forest Service to start prescribed fires or leave natural ones alone.

And yet, relatively speaking, these are the small problems. Here is the big one: The world is getting hotter. In the last ­century, average annual temperatures rose 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit across the continental United States. Average summer temperatures are expected to climb 3.6 to 9 degrees across western North America by the middle of this century. The National Research Council reports that for every 1.8 degree rise, the amount of western land that burns could quadruple. Already, the fire season in the U.S. has grown by two and a half months in the last 40 years.

This problem did not arise from a policy of fire suppression. It arose from that most basic change of all in our relationship to fire: Open flames gave way to internal combustion, and internal combustion gave us climate change. At the time, of course, the combustion engine seemed like a stunning advance, and in countless ways it was. But the history of advances often trails behind it a shadow history of unforeseen consequences, and, late in the day, the shadow sometimes grows longer than the original. The fire in the gulch, Maclean wrote, was “a colossal blowup but shaped by little screwups that fitted together tighter and tighter until all became one and the same thing.”