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The History of Fire: An interview with Stephen Pyne

Stephen Pyne is an emeritus professor at Arizona State University. He has published 35 books, most of them dealing with fire, but others on Antarctica, the Grand Canyon, the Voyager mission. With his oldest daughter, he wrote an inquiry into the Pleistocene. His fire histories include surveys of America, Australia, Canada, Europe (including Russia), and the Earth. To learn more about his work, please feel free to visit his website

What made you want to be a historian?

I drifted into history. I enjoyed reading it, especially world history, as a kid, then the spark took when I realized that I understood things best through their history.  It was by reading Carl Boyer’s History of the Calculus, for example, that I finally appreciated what the numbers were all about.  The same has proven true for topics like fire, Antarctica, Grand Canyon, and the rest.  Then I realized that history could also be literature. That clinched it.

I saw that you used to be a wildland firefighter. Is this what made you want to study the history of fire?

A few days after graduating from high school, I was hired as a laborer at Grand Canyon National Park.  While I was signing my papers, an opening appeared on the North Rim fire crew, and I was asked if I wanted to join.  I’d never been to the North Rim, never worked around a flame bigger than a campfire, didn’t even know the names of the basic tools, and of course said, Sure. It was a moment of biographical wind shear.  I returned to the Longshots for 15 seasons, 12 as crew boss, then spent three summers writing fire plans for Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone National Parks.  Then I went to Antarctica for a season. The North Rim fire crew and campus were separate lives: neither had much to do with the other.  It took 10 years as a Longshot and after getting a Ph.D. that I finally brought the two worlds together.  I decided to apply to the scholarship I had been trained into the subject that most animated me. Fire in America was the result. It’s not a hard weld; the two lives have never fully fused.  I have one line of books that continues the topics I studied in grad school, and another that deals with fire, particularly big-screen fire histories for America, Australia, Canada, Europe (including Russia), and the Earth.  In some respects, I’ve been a demographic of one. But it’s also like being on the American River in 1848 California. There are riverbeds of nuggets just waiting to be picked up.    

How did personal experience influence your scholarship?

Obviously, as a topic.  I would never have thought of fire as a subject without those hopping seasons on the Rim.  They gave me woods credibility. More subtly, those years shaped how I think and speak about fire.  On a fire crew, you quickly appreciate how fires shape a season, and how fire seasons can shape a life.  It’s not a big step to wonder if the same might be true for humanity. After all, we are a uniquely fire creature on a uniquely fire planet.  Fire is what we do that no other species does. It makes a pretty good index of our environmental agency. You pick up a language, a familiarity, a sensibility toward fire – it’s a relationship, in some way.  Without anthropomorphizing fire, you learn to animate it – give it a presence. That’s what I can bring that someone else might not.  At the same time, I need to abstract the vernacular into more general concepts, which is what scholarship does. I’m constantly fluctuating between the two poles, a kind of alternating current. There are always trade-offs.  I begin with fire and construct a history.  I don’t begin with historiography – questions of interest to the history community – and use fire to illustrate them.  That makes my fire stuff different, and it means it can be hard to massage it into a more general history or a classroom.  I sometimes wonder if I invented a subject only to kill it.  

As I’m sure you are aware, wildfires recently ravaged the state of California, and bushfires continue to burn Australia. How does your understanding of the history of fire shape how you think about these wildfires? 

Ah, as long as California keeps burning it seems I’ll never be lonely.  I do a lot of interviews. Last year I finally wrote a fire primer for journalists and posted it on my website. California is built to burn and to burn explosively.  Against that, we have a society that is determined to live and work where and how it wants.  For a century California has buffered between hammer and anvil with a world-class firefighting apparatus.  But four fire busts in three years have – or should have – broken that strategy. It’s costly, it’s ineffective against the extreme events (which are the ones that matter), and it’s unfair to put crews at risk in this way.  Doing the same things at ever-higher intensities only worsens the conditions. Australia is California at a continental scale, only drier, and with winds that can turn the southeast into a veritable fire flume.  It has a long history of eruptive fires, but the 2009 Black Saturday fires and the Forever fires burning now feel different.  They are more savage, more frequent, and more disruptive.  Australia is also a firepower because it has a cultural connection to fire at a range and depth, from art to politics, that I haven’t found elsewhere.  Australia’s foresters were the first to adopt controlled burning as a strategy for protection – their experience makes a fascinating contrast to what happened in the U.S. Both places show the importance of framing the problem.  Fire is a creation of the living world, but we have defined it as a phenomenon for physics and chemistry, which leads us to seek physical solutions like dropping retardants and shoving hydrocarbons around.  We haven’t really thought about nuanced ecological engineering. We’ve mostly ignored the ideas and institutions that shape the social half of the equation. We’ve neglected how these scenes are historically constructed, how they carry a long evolution that doesn’t derive from first principles. For that matter, the intellectual history of fire is relevant because fire as an integral subject was a casualty of the Enlightenment.  We have no fire department at a university except the one that sends emergency vehicles when an alarm sounds. There is a lot here for historians to chew on.  But it isn’t enough to problematize. We have to show how our analysis can lead to problem-solving.

Is climate change alone enough to explain wildfires or do we need to understand more about history to understand why they are such a problem? 

There are many ways to get big fires.  Presently, climate change is serving as a performance enhancer.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, megafires an order of magnitude greater than those of today were powered by logging and land clearing slash.  Climate integrates many factors, so does fire, and when you stir those two sloppy variables together, it’s tricky to attribute particular causes to the stew of effects. If you make fire an informing principle, a narrative axis, you find that the shift to burning fossil fuels, what I think of as the pyric transition, unhinged Earth’s fire regimes even without climate change.  The conversion has rolled over habitat after habitat. Land use and humanity’s fire practices, for example, are hugely important in interacting with climate to shape fires. But most of those changes also trace back to fossil fuels. Basically, we’re burning our combustion candle at both ends. How lithic landscapes and living landscapes interact has not been something fire ecology or physics has considered.  They dread dealing with humans because people muck up the models. You have to come at those notions sideways, you have to view the scene from outside the disciplinary prisms that we’re trained in.  Paradoxically perhaps, the humanities may be better positioned to make conceptual contributions than the natural sciences.

How do you think the field of environmental history will change as the climate crisis becomes a more and more pressing issue?

The crisis is spooky.  But I reject the notion that we are heading into a no-narrative, no-analog future.  With fire, I can offer a pretty substantial narrative – it’s one of the oldest humanity has.  In truth, I now regard climate history as a sub-narrative of fire history. And I’ve come to imagine our evolving fire age as something comparable to the ice ages of the Pleistocene.  That’s a crisp analog. Changing sea levels, mass extinction, wholesale upheavals of biotas, regions reconstructed with the fire-equivalent of ice sheets and pluvial lakes – it’s all there.  For me, the Anthropocene extends across the whole of the Holocene, and from a fire perspective, the Anthropocene could be usefully renamed the Pyrocene. There are other helpful analogs out there.  The problem of powerline-kindled wildfires is very similar to that of railroad fires in the past.  The problem of fringe communities burning (the fatuously named wildland-urban interface) replays the chronicle of settlement fires in the 19th century.  Then it was agricultural colonization; now, an urban reclamation of rural lands. We have pretty good examples of how we might cope. The WUI problem got defined by the wildland fire community which saw houses complicating their management of land, but it makes more sense to pick up the other end of the stick and define these places as urban settings with peculiar landscaping.  The aptest analogy is not to wildland fire but to urban fire. Do that, and it’s obvious what we need to do to reduce the havoc. History also holds lessons beyond data and techniques.  How do we live in a contingent world about which we have incomplete knowledge?  That’s a topic for stories and characters, not algorithms. Mostly, though, the sciences and fire folk don’t credit history with much analytical power.  Historians deal with anecdotes. Historians are good for yearbooks and court poetry. The critics are wrong, but it can be a tough slog, like mopping up in mixed conifer duff. Still, when I began, fire was a fringe topic.  Now it’s a global concern.  People want context, and that’s what history provides, which has created a context for what I do.  It’s been an interesting ride.     

I also saw that you specialized in the history of exploration. Have you been able to intertwine that interest with your knowledge of fire?

I went to grad school to study geology, western history, exploration – stuff relevant to my life on the Rim.  All my applications were rejected. Then, serendipitously, it was suggested I apply to William Goetzmann in the American Civ program at UT-Austin.  He accepted me and mostly left me alone. At the time he was playing with the idea of a second great age of discovery. I quickly added a third and have used it as an organizing principle – a kind of conceptual rebar - for a series of books, including The Ice, How the Canyon Became Grand, and Voyager.  I’ve finally systematized the grand schema into The Great Ages of Discovery, now headed for publication. I see exploration as a cultural movement and for the West a kind of quest narrative. My exploration books do better critically and commercially than my fire books.  Exploration has a literary tradition, fire other than disaster and battlefield doesn’t.  It’s been helpful to have two themes – puts me back into the two-cycle rhythms I knew in my rim-campus days, keeps me from getting too stale in either one.  If I were starting over, I’d write the two series under different names.

In 2012, you wrote a book with your daughter, The Last Lost World. What was it like working with her, and what kind of expertise did she bring to the book?

My oldest daughter, Lydia, was attracted to archaeology and paleoanthropology and went to graduate school to study them.  Then she decided that the history of the field was more appealing. For years we joked about writing a book together sometime.  She graduated in 2009, a horrible moment for a new Ph.D., so I thought that the time had come. I had a sabbatical semester, and we took her topic and wrote The Last Lost World.  I knew about a few of the subjects, and Lydia the others, and she directed our research.  I credit her with keeping us (me) on message. I have good memories of the project, particularly the weeks we spent at our mountain cabin revising. (She’s gone on to a successful career as a writer; her latest, Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff, is just out.)  And, yes, we’re still speaking to each other.

Is there any other information you want people to know about you or the work that you do?

Because I ended up in a school of life sciences, I didn’t do much with graduate students.  Historians didn’t want someone from biology on their committee, and biologists didn’t want a historian.  Eventually, I decided to offer a course on nonfiction writing, and then wrote a couple of books about writing books.  Call it my postmodern phase.