Resistence, Restoration, Resilience: A Survey of Fire’s American Century

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Stephen J. Pyne.

America’s modern fire era began with two parallel processes. One was industrialization, which sought to replace open fire with internal combustion but also rewired humanity’s power and redefined Americans’ relationship to their natural surroundings. This transitional phase is typically one of unsettled fire regimes and widespread, even abusive, burning. The other process was the surge of settlement that swept over post-Civil War America. A map of forest fires for the 1880 census shows the outcome. America in the 1880s was much like Brazil in the 1980s—an agricultural society, rapidly industrializing and remaking its national estate. Fires—both good and bad— were everywhere. America’s first professional forester, the Prussian-trained Bernhard Fernow, dismissed the scene as one “of bad habits and loose morals.”

The wreckage was widespread and visible. Occasionally, flames destroyed whole communities and left hundreds dead. John Muir voiced the sentiments of most progressive thinkers when he wrote, “[i]t is not generally known that, notwithstanding the immense quantities of timber cut every year for foreign and home markets and mines, from five to ten times as much is destroyed as is used, chiefly by running forest fires that only the federal government can stop.” In 1872 the U.S. created its first national park, Yellowstone, in large part to spare it “from fire and ax.” But the primary strategy involved state- sponsored forestry. This was a global project, characteristic of imperial Europe. Americans looked especially to Britain and British India for examples. In 1891 Congress authorized the President to establish forest reserves; these received an organic act in 1897 after a report by a Forest Commission under the National Academy of Sciences. Other reserved lands, such as wildfire refuges and national monuments, followed. Globally, foresters became the face of such reforms and the principal oracles on fire, which they hated and feared.

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