Burning remains an art, not a science--one with innumerable variables that must line up for success, and a steep price for failure. Of those prescribed burns that are attempted, many end in failure--fizzling out, going the wrong way when the wind shifts or just not burning hot enough, singeing trees enough to kill them but not fell them, leaving standing deadwood that is more flammable than live trees. The burning also creates smoke, which few people associate with a wholesome weekend in the mountains.
''Urban people,'' Pyne says, ''the only fire they see is a disaster--the car is burning, there was an accident, the house is burning, they see it on TV, it's a crisis.'' In their cabins in the pines, they can't see the ''large fuels,'' in firefighter parlance, for the trees. It's tough to get them to cut down the trees that brush against their wood-shake roofs; it's even harder to persuade them to welcome prescribed fire into the nearby woods.
Burning programs nationwide are routinely stifled by complaints about drifting smoke. The White Mountain Apache tribe, historically among the most aggressive controlled burners in the country, has seen its program severely curtailed when smoke sinks down into smog-choked Phoenix, pushing it into violation of clean-air statutes. In 1996, a fire closed Phoenix's Sky Harbor airport for three days to all but instrument landings.
Against that backdrop, advocates of prescribed burning have had to give ground to those who see a greater role for chainsaws in bringing the forests back into balance.
The nation unquestionably needs to find a way to put fire back into the landscape, on a huge scale. But how? It's a riddle Pyne has struggled with for most of his career.
Back at the Pynes' cabin, I ask if burning alone can restore the tangled ponderosa forest in which the house sits. ''No," he replies. ''And I say that reluctantly. Twenty years ago, I would have said, 'Yeah we took fire out, now what we need to do is just put it back in.' But I think we've learned to our pain that it is not a reversible process. You can't put fire back in the same way you took it out. It turns out to be very complicated. It's like introducing a lost species: you can't take wolves and dump them into Arrowhead Mall and expect that they're going to behave as they would have 200 years ago. You can't dump fire into some of these landscapes and expect that fire is going to dissolve all the ills out there."
There is consensus that forest ''treatment'' must involve a combination of cutting and burning. Smaller trees would be cut down and, along with other debris from the forest floor, either ground up or burned after the snow falls. In a given forest, the process might have to be repeated, and it might take several years.
Pyne cautions against any universal prescription. ''Right now it's all slashing and burning, it's all shoving biomass around, it's all an engineering problem: we take out so much fuel, we kindle so many fires, or we suppress so many.''
Instead, the recipe must be tailored to the habitat. What works in a ponderosa pine forest won't apply to a coastal Douglas fir forest, a lodgepole pine forest, a pinyon-juniper forest or chaparral. It will differ on north-facing slopes and south-facing slopes. And, to top Pyne's paradox with another, he points out that, in some high-altitude forests, periodic ''stand-replacing'' fires that strip away every living thing are ecologically normal and necessary. Thinning would only deprive them of the fuel they require.
''We're talking about boutique burning,'' Pyne says. ''Site specific, knowledge-intensive, time-intensive, and hugely expensive."
The greatest barrier to free-burning fire is the growing phalanx of homes being built in fire-prone environments. Houses in the woods form the most bitterly contended front in the fire wars: the ''wildland/urban interface.'' Now resources have to be committed to saving structures, at great cost and risk to firefighters trained and equipped to fight for territory, not lives or property. ''Suddenly the firefighter is even more compromised. Do you save the houses or the trees?'' Pyne asks.
Perhaps fires like those this season will spur a keener awareness of the risks of building in fire-prone regions, and changes in attitudes and legal and financial incentives will follow. As Babbitt says, ''Living in the forest is dangerous, and ironically, in most of these areas there are no building codes at all. The governor and all the politicians are busy blaming everybody, but they seem to be unable to turn to the communities themselves and say, 'You have a responsibility, and it's about time to enact some building codes and to take some simple precautions.' We still haven't learned that lesson.''