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The ecology and politics of fire are big topics, and Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy is a big book—its 350 softbound pages measure 13-1/4 by 11-3/4 inches, and it weighs more than five pounds. If you're strong enough to lug it to a table that can support it, it's worth taking a look at. Don't expect it to fit on a standard bookshelf, however, or in your pocket or backpack. This is a coffee-table book, but one with substantial content, not merely striking photographs of ecosystems aflame or flowering postfire meadows.


The book has a clear agenda, which occasionally gets in the way of its coherency. Sponsored by the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and edited and written by George Wuerthner, Wildfire has an evangelical tone that stems from the voices of former smoke jumpers and firefighters who have learned to appreciate the critical role of fire in forest ecosystems. Their message is a bit too strong in some places, but the book has some excellent chapters and covers many aspects of this broad topic.

The book starts off on an uneven and politicized track with a series of “myths” about fire, each followed by a brief explication of the “truth.” Among the myths are these: “Big fires are the result of too much fuel,” “logging mimics fire,” “big fires can be stopped,” “fire ‘sterilizes’ the land,” “livestock grazing can prevent fires,” “salvage logging after a fire is necessary to restore forests,” and “prescribed burning is an adequate substitute for wildfire.” Like most generalizations, these statements are false under some circumstances, but many are true under other conditions found in some parts of North America and in other parts of the world. The failure to address the variability of fire regimes systematically, and thus to emphasize the variation in appropriate management methods, is the primary weakness of the book.

The text is divided into six main sections, with a short conclusion called “Time to Retire Smokey Bear.” The first section, “Wildfire: Perspectives and Visions,” includes an introduction, by Stephen Pyne, and a chapter entitled “Fire and Native Peoples,” by Thomas Vale, that will perpetuate the controversy over the role of Native Americans in managing fire-maintained ecosystems in North America. Although the book's focus is wildfires in forests, most of the examples of landscapes “humanized” by fire are in grassland and savanna ecosystems. This discrepancy reveals another weakness found throughout the book: its failure to clarify the differences in fire regimes found across the rainfall and temperature gradients that influence the ecosystems of North America. Entertaining chapters by Conrad Smith and Les AuCoin address the “incendiary language” that shapes the news and political discussions about fire, and help to explain the disconnect between fire science and fire policy, which is the major theme of the book.

The second section, “Fire Ecology: Stories and Studies,” will be of most interest to scientists. Wuerthner provides a good summary of the 1988 Yellowstone fire, and Jan Wagtendonk and Dominick DellaSalla give overviews of fire ecology in the Sierra Nevada and Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregions, respectively. Jon Keeley and C. J. Fotheringham discuss the ecology and management of the most problematic interface between society and fire in North America, the chaparral of southern California. These authors provide a good overview of the fire regimes of North America and a thorough discussion of the ecological, climatic, and social processes that make the California shrublands such an interesting and dangerous ecosystem. Thomas Swetnam, Craig Allen, and Julio Betancourt's chapter, “Applied Historical Ecology: Using the Past to Manage for the future,” summarizes their extensive research on the effects of past climatic variations on the vegetation patterns and fire regimes of the American West. Other chapters in this section address fire in the Southwest and in the East, as well as the effects of fires and succession on forest bird populations.

The third section, “Fire and Its Paradoxes,” is a picture album of many western landscapes in various stages of fire-induced succession—lots of beautiful pictures. The final three sections address issues that have been front-page controversies over the past decade or longer. Part four, “(Un)healthy Forest Policy: Suppression, Salvage, and Scurrilous Solutions,” includes the following chapters: “Vested Interests Masquerading as Purveyors of Forest Health” (Wuerthner), “Ecological Differences and the Need to Preserve Large Fires” (Wuerthner), “Ecological Impacts of Salvage Logging” (James Strittholt), “Conventional Salvage Logging: The Loss of Ecological Reason and Economic Restraint” (Chris Maser), and “The Role of Livestock Grazing in Worsening Fire Severity” (Wuerthner). Together, these chapters make a strong case for the superiority of natural fires—when compared with logging, salvage logging, replanting, and other management techniques—for maintaining the biodiversity and critical functions of forest ecosystems.

The fifth section, “The New Gravy Train: The Emergence of the Fire-Military-Industrial Complex,” addresses the corrupting effect of money on the politics of fire management. Chapters in this section are “The Flawed Economics of Fire Suppression” (Wuerthner), “The Economics of Forest Fuel Reduction Strategies” (Thomas Power),“Money to Burn: Wildfire and the Budget” (Randall O'Toole), and “The War on Wildfire: Firefighting and the Militarization of Forest Fire Management” (Timothy Ingalsbee). These chapters provide a good overview of the history of firefighting as a business and present a disturbing analysis of the costs—in lives as well as money—versus the benefits of fighting wildfires.

The final section, “Eliminating the Smokescreen: Toward an Intelligent Fire Policy,” offers a few hopeful tidbits, but they don't seem to hold much promise for reversing the disturbing trends described in other chapters, or for reducing the political sway of the fire-military-industrial complex. Craig Allen and several coauthors present a broad plan for the ecological restoration of the southwestern ponderosa pine ecosystems, where a combination of intentional and unintentional fire suppression, along with suburban sprawl and rural developments, has produced a dangerous mixture of housing in a fire-prone ecosystem over much of the western United States. This problem is elaborated in the chapter “Sprawling into Disaster: The Growing Impact of Rural Residential Development on Wildland Fire Management in the Greater Yellowstone Area,” by Crystal Stanionis and Dennis Glick. John Krist discusses the perverse economic incentives that fuel rural development in “Burning Down the House: The Role of Disaster Aid in Subsidizing Catastrophe,” and Brian Nowicki and Todd Schulke present a rational plan for minimizing fire damage to homes in “The Community Protection Zone: Defending Homes and Communities from the Threat of Forest Fire.”

This kind of prose repels those whose opinions need to be changed if a more scientific and rational approach is to be taken to fire management. I don't see any point in putting this much money and effort into a book for the purpose of preaching to the choir.

Who is the target audience for this book? The oversized format and beautiful pictures make it well suited for the homes and offices of politicians and businessmen, and the sound science and well-written content of many of the chapters have the potential to actually change some minds and influence policy. Unfortunately, the new-age flavor of some of the text and graphics, particularly in the introduction and conclusion, is likely to alienate those who most need to be influenced. For example, the polarized worldview laid out in the introduction—complete with a collage of tree stumps, money, Smokey Bear, and the White House—is not helpful, nor is the concluding chapter, “The Ultimate Firefight: Changing Hearts and Minds” (by Andy Kerr), with subheadings such as “Empower Pyrophiles,” “Distinguish between Good and Bad Firefighters,” and “Starve the Beast.” This kind of prose repels those whose opinions need to be changed if a more scientific and rational approach is to be taken to fire management. I don't see any point in putting this much money and effort into a book for the purpose of preaching to the choir. While I appreciate Wildfire's beautiful pictures and interesting science, history, and commentary, I would like to see a book like this have an impact outside the environmental movement. Nonetheless, I can recommend the book's content for teaching about fire issues.

Published: 1 October 2007

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