Stephen Pyne, a history professor at Arizona State University, has written extensively about the 1910 Fire. His books include “Fire in America” and “Year of the Fires,” which describe how the nation’s largest wildfire shaped the Forest Service’s perception of fires for decades to come.
Wildfire, Pyne says, “became a hostile force to be fought to death.” That view prevailed for more than 30 years, until the Forest Service’s founding generation retired.
Pyne’s interest in wildfires and fire policy grew out of the 15 summers he spent as a firefighter on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
We caught up with him at a Society of American Foresters Meeting in Wallace. Here is an edited version of the interview.
Q: Today we take a nuanced view toward wildfires. They’re seen as a natural, though sometimes destructive part of the landscape. Why did so many early figures, including Gifford Pinchot, want to eradicate wildfires?
A: Wildfires were deliberately set on the frontier to clear land. It was like the burning of the rainforests in the Amazon or Indonesia – that was what the U.S. was like at the time. In the North Woods area around the Lake states, they ran a train in and logged it and burned it.
Now, we have almost a fire famine in some places, but other areas we have a feral fire that used to be tame and now has gone wild.
A: How did the 1910 Fire influence the Forest Service’s fire policy?
Q: They weren’t able to spend 10 years working through their decision because of the suddenness and shock of the Big Burn. It was sort of a 9/11 for the Forest Service. They’re throwing firefighters into the cauldron. They’re dying and the agency is traumatized.
Q: Your books talk about the role that Gus Silcox (chief of the Forest Service from 1933 to 1939) played. How he helped solidify the agency’s firefighting mission.
A: For Gus Silcox, the memory of the fires was very acute. He had written an article, published in November, 1910, that the lesson of the fires was that they were wholly preventable. Now, he’s chief. For several years, they have a series of enormous, record-setting fires in the back country. They haven’t been able to do very much because they didn’t have the money to build road and trails and staff them. So you have this fire occurring sort of in the domain of the 1910 fires that looks like a replay on a smaller, less lethal scale. He decided to refight the fires.
Q: That decision didn’t come without debate.
A: No, Silcox actually convenes a conference with some of the best fire minds in the Forest Service. They meet in Missoula. Elers Koch of the Lolo National Forest, a veteran of 1910, got up and said, “You know, the land is worse off than when we took it over. We’re not going to stop these fires and we’re doing a lot of damage by trying to do it. We’re building roads and lookouts in places where we shouldn’t. We’re just destroying the character of the place in the name of fire control.”
Q: But the “put all fires out” view prevails.
A: Silcox opts for what becomes known as the 10 a.m. policy: Control by 10 o’clock the next morning following the report of the fire. If you failed to do that, then you would plan for 10 a.m. the next day and the next day until you got it.
It was a simple mission; it was clear; it was easy to understand. It was administratively convenient. It said, ‘This is how you will be judged.’
It was the same year we adopted Social Security. There was one, universal standard.
(The Forest Service ended the 10 a.m. rule in 1978.)
Q: In hindsight, what kind of fire policy should they have adopted?
A: What we needed was a mix of things. We needed to be able to control fires. We needed to be able to light them at the right times and places. We probably needed to be able to back off and let fires have some room.
I think that’s what would have happened in the absence of something like the Big Burn, because they would never had the money or the political will at a high enough level to commit to firefighting.