Have a Wildfire? Call a Historian
In her article, “Fire Alarm: Historians, and Thorstein Veblen, to the Rescue,” Patricia Limerick asked why is it that, when a wildfire breaks out, no one calls a historian? After all, she writes, “what is needed are the ‘skills, talents, and approaches’ of historians and the long perspective that history offers.” Here at PBB HQ, we’re not waiting for the phone to ring. Instead, we’re responding to the news of a new fire having started Sunday in near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and threatening the nuclear lab there with some historical perspective. Sure, we could have responded a few weeks ago when we learned that Arizona is going “up in flames.” But since we’re going to Albuquerque in August to give a presentation on the American Tree Farm System, the Los Alamos fire kind of caught our attention.
So we thought it might be helpful to point others interested in the history of fire in the Southwest to our online resources and thus bring historical context to the fires there. (For the latest on any fire currently burning, visit the U.S. Forest Service’s “Active Fire Map” website and click on a link to learn the status of an active fire.)
- “Fire!” is the aptly named chapter in Men Who Matched the Mountains: The Forest Service in the Southwest, the 1972 history of the region by the USDA Forest Service.
- Brief descriptions of individual national forests in Arizona and New Mexico may be found in the same book.
- The history of the region was examined again in 1988’s Timeless Heritage: A History of the Forest Service in the Southwest. This time, the authors were a little more subtle with the chapter title: “The Forests and Fire.” This history was also published by the USDA Forest Service.
- “Fire Warriors: American Indian Firefighters in the Southwest,” by David H. DeJong, appeared in the 2004 issue of Forest History Today.
- For a look at what firefighters and policymakers are dealing with in a broader context, read “The Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Problem: A Consequence of the Fire Exclusion Paradigm,” by Jack Cohen, in Forest History Today.
- “Spark and Sprawl: A World Tour,” by Stephen J. Pyne, from the same issue of Forest History Today does the same on a global scale.
- Oh, heck, just read the whole issue on fire and impress your friends with your knowledge of fire in the wildland-urban interface!
- If want to understand the history of fire policy in America and you prefer reading the old-fashioned way, i.e., on paper, you may want to order America’s Fires: A Historical Context for Policy and Practice, also by Stephen J. Pyne.
- Like me, do you sometimes find yourself asking, WDGT (What Does Gifford Think)? If so, read Mr. Pinchot’s take on forest fires from 1899 in “The Relationship of Forests and Forest Fires.”
- Sometimes it’s helpful to go to the original sources to better understand how and why land managers are facing such large fires today. In 1920, then Forest Service chief William Greeley put forward the agency’s argument against allowing light burning, something that today is widely recognized as one of many tools needed for land restoration, in “‘Piute Forestry’ or the Fallacy of Light Burning.”
- If you really want to get into the early history of the region, The Early Days: A Sourcebook of Southwestern Region History, a 3-volume collection of oral histories of old Forest Service employees of the Southwest, is a great resource.