Ultimately, the White Mountain Apache reservation, where the Rodeo-Chediski fire started, is the hardest hit. Of the acreage burned, two-thirds is reservation land. Timber is the among the top three sources of income on the reservation, which has 60% unemployment. The fire claimed 12 years of their harvest, worth perhaps $241 million and 400 jobs at the two mills. According to the Forest Service, the forest will take at least 100 years to return to what it was.
The news reports of this fire bring a parade of government officials repeating Pyne's scenario like a mantra: There is too much fuel in the woods. But beyond that, the discussion quickly dissolves into a cacophony of old arguments, with the same antagonists drawing the same battle lines that have frustrated Pyne for years--environmentalists versus loggers arguing about U.S. forest policy, neither of them seeing the bigger picture.
In this fire season, Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl blames ''radical environmentalists. They would rather the forests burn than to see sensible forest management,'' which to him means thinning out the forests by logging and burning the debris left behind.
Arizona Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull, who keeps a second home in Pinetop-Lakeside, rails: ''The policies that are coming from the East Coast, that are coming from the environmentalists, that say we don't need to log, we don't need to thin our forests, are absolutely ridiculous. Nobody on the East Coast knows how to manage these fires, and I for one have had it.''
On CNN's "Crossfire," conservative co-host Robert Novak taunts Kieran Suckling, director of the Arizona-based environmental group Center for Biological Diversity: ''You have created a holocaust, haven't you?''
Suckling's reply: ''What's wrong with these forests is they've been managed exclusively for timber industry profits for a hundred years. The old fire-resistant trees have been cut down and shipped to the timber mills and the fires have been suppressed because they were viewed to be dangerous to the timber industry . . . . I'll tell you what's happening right now in Arizona. The Forest Service is not focusing its thinning projects around the urban areas that are threatened. Instead, they're off cutting down old growth trees in the wilderness, 30, 40, 50 miles from the nearest home.''
Pyne has heard it all before. ''I see the same sort of distressing political polarization'' as in past seasons, he says. ''Nobody is willing to deal with the fire problem as a fire problem. They want to use it for something else.'' That ''something else'' is a series of agendas that beg a central question: How can we keep our forests and wildlife healthy?
For the logging lobby, fire is a disaster, eating up a valuable resource, ''standing board feet,'' as trees are called. The industry's approach is to ''go in and cut it out--which doesn't solve the problem at all,'' Pyne says, because it takes the largest trees and leaves behind smaller trees and other highly flammable material.
For the angry politicians, fire is the enemy, threatening the homeland--or at least its second homes. It's the same view that guided the era of vigorous fire suppression and it leads back to the same precipice, Pyne says.
Environmentalists concede the need for logging and controlled burning to protect communities, but bridle at allowing either in the backcountry. They also see fires set by humans as unnatural. The Sierra Club's policy is typical: in wilderness, ''fire should be managed primarily by the forces of nature.''
The flaw in that reasoning is a point that underlies much of Pyne's research. Pyne insists that fire is not, in any useful sense, simply natural. The most common natural source of fire is lightning, but many landscapes in North America see little of it. Instead, for more than 10,000 years, when human hunters first came into North America, many fires, perhaps most of them, were set by people. Even in places with abundant lightning, like Arizona, the forests are also unmistakably shaped by ''anthropogenic'' fire, which in Pyne's lexicon, means fire started by people.
''The issue is that we need to start thinking seriously about is how fire belongs here,'' he says. ''And we have to accept that we are the creature that has to make those decisions. It's our ecological task. Other animals knock over trees, dig holes in the ground, eat plants, but we're the fire creature, we're the one creature that does that. It's not enough to just turn it over to nature. If we can't get fire right, we might as well resign from the Great Chain of Being, as far as I'm concerned.''