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Burn It to Save It

A Century Ago, Blazes Caused by Man Regularly Purged Forests, Says Historian Stephen J. Pyne, Who Warns That Decades of Fire Suppression Have Put the West One Spark From Conflagration

October 20, 2002|Wade Graham | Wade Graham last wrote for the magazine about artist James Turrell's Roden Crater project.

Just beyond the sprawling outskirts of Phoenix, the heat is 111 degrees and the rush-hour traffic shimmers like a mirage. A billboard filled with verdant pine trees beckons: ''Come to the real Arizona.'' To the northeast, the landscape climbs from 1,500 feet in the Valley of the Sun to 7,000 feet along the forested Mogollon Rim, a magnet for vacation homes and retirement communities drawn by the promise of trout in cool streams and elk grazing beneath the ponderosa pines.

This day in early summer, the magnet is on fire. A stream of evacuees in pickups and RVs is heading the other way. Soon, flurries of ashes hiss against the windshield, air tankers lumber overhead toward the mountains and a thunderhead of smoke boils up from flames raging through the forest canopy 10 miles away. Arizona is suffering the largest fire in its history.

The blaze, known as the Rodeo-Chediski fire, tops the Mogollon Rim and is racing eastward. Most of the town of Overgaard and parts of Heber are quickly overrun. In the development of Pinecrest Lakes, 166 of 200 double-wide mobile homes are literally vaporized. In Bison Ranch, dozens of faux-log cabins are left twisted and smoking. Undeterred by an army of 4,500 firefighters and a squadron of air tankers, the fire surges outward along a 400-mile perimeter. To the north, it has jumped the highway in several places, making a fast run toward the high desert.

Up ahead, at 8,500 feet in the hamlet of Alpine, potentially in the path of the advancing flames, Arizona State University professor Stephen J. Pyne and his wife, Sonja, are packing up their cabin. The inferno is coming, just as he had long predicted. One of the world's leading authorities on fire, Pyne has for years advanced the paradoxical prophecy that the greatest threat to America's forests is not too much fire, but too little. In Pyne's paradox, without regular, low-intensity wildfires to clear out undergrowth, the landscape will one day explode in devastating firestorms like the one nearby, fires so intense that they obliterate the forests and the creatures within them.

The Pynes' cabin is a house with rounded wooden siding meant to look like logs, set in a sparse subdivision of similar houses carved into dense forest. Pyne greets me at the door. He is tall and lanky, with an open, bright face and a nearly constant smile. He's younger looking than his 53 years and more relaxed than might be expected in light of his prodigious scholarly output. So far he has written 14 books, 11 of which compose a panoramic history of the world as seen through the lens of fire--an extraordinary ouevre for which he was awarded a MacArthur ''genius'' fellowship in the late 1980s.

Inside, Sonja is carefully packing important items, leaving what they don't mind losing--which she cheerfully admits includes the house itself if forced to choose between it and the ancient ponderosa pines outside. Pyne is packing too, in between telephone calls from the media. The national press this year is reporting a growing consensus that the ''fire deluge,'' as Pyne and others have argued, is the unintended consequence of a century of government policy of putting out fires in the woods. What's more, Pyne says, our attitudes toward fire ignore the historical reality that man's role in nature has been to start fires, usually unintentionally, but almost always to healthy effect.

For nearly 100 years, Americans have been at war with wildfire, and we have been enormously successful, cutting U.S. acreage burned by 95%. But fire suppression has left the landscape loaded with fuel in the form of brush and trees. In effect, it has planted bombs in the forests. ''If you take the normal, historical rhythm of fire out, you get these kinds of horrific fires that scour out the landscape,'' Pyne says. ''These are of a scale and intensity and size that are just beyond the range of what this forest can adapt to.''

A landscape some distance from the cabin illustrates his point. Under a low, leaden ceiling, a forest of black poles stands in a rolling black landscape punctuated by still-smoking stumps. White flakes of ash as big as autumn snowflakes blow lazily through the air and across the charred crust the soil has become, building low dunes against stumps and filling holes where trees had been. There is a pleasant, sweet smell of burning pine and juniper, exactly like a campfire. Every living thing has been killed, transformed into charcoal. Hiroshima in the pines--luckily with no human victims, though nationally 21 firefighters have already died this season.

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