A Fire History of Contemporary America


Stephen Pyne’s Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America was given to me by the people at Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program. I annoyed them with emails and Facebook messages about various things, visited their Facebook page on a daily basis, and in return, have formed a couple friendships via cyberspace. I’ve tried previously to read Stephen Pyne, stumbled, dropped it at page 50 or so and went fishing or something. It’s different when somebody gives you a book, or challenges you to read something. By god, you bet your ass I can read that book. I’ll read that book so good the book won’t know what to do. Sort of the mentality I get.

So I took it out and felt it’s heft and got scared. Remembering the last Pyne catastrophe, I was worried the fishing might be too good to make any headway on this new one. But I persisted. Soon enough it was clear that I was going to have to invest a week or two to get through this thing. It’s not a laugh out loud, action packed or burn through 40 pages in 25 minutes sort of book. This is not a Twilight vampire book. “A Fire History of Contemporary America” is composed of the ins and outs of developing policy, agencies, and inevitable confusion. For Instance: At the end of the book, just before the “notes to pages” index, there is 3 pages devoted to a list of all the abbreviations/acronyms used while disseminating the contemporary fire scene in america over the last 100 years or so; there are 116! Most of these abbreviations constitute either a policy or a group, a collective, a network, department, organization, council, commission, association….etc. In short there is enough bullshit in the history of policy and evolution of fire in contemporary America to make anyone willing to endure its’ comically demented narrative feel like they were whacked over the head with a 2×4. This blow to the head, this mass of complexity, is a product of a country who has struggled and continues to struggle with how, why, when and where to approach fire. Towards the end of Between Two Fires the author illustrates that we always have and will continue to address fire. That’s not something that will go away.

The lessons and information you can take away from reading this book are exponential, or, very limited depending on the approach. Before I made this fire scene my dedication, I was a drunkard english major, filling my mind with pabst blue ribbon and literature. From what I can remember, there is this concept of unpacking a writer, or unpacking a thinker. Basically the idea is by trying to understand all the bits and pieces of what they mention in any particular book, or the people and authors mentioned, you open up a limitless world of knowledge. I went down a lot of rabbit holes doing this. But Between Two Fires is, if approached soberly, a great candidate for fire practitioners to unpack. There is a very solid footing of references, administrators, politicians, FMO’s etc. to seek out a personal narrative or approach to this fire scene were in. It made me realize I’m not all that stupid or ignorant or misinformed when it comes to wildland fire but that the contemporary wild land fire scene is politically and organizationally a cluster$*#@. The best method for dealing with this is to put on some gloves.

What moves me towards action after finishing this book is Pyne’s call to the next generation, to the newcomers. Lacking a successional tradition for a culture of fire we are left with synthesizing and creativity. That’s the sort of thing that gets me inspired. It’s the same mindset as when you ask for the dirty assignments, the hard ones, because you’ll feel better about it at the end of day, knowing you stepped up and did what nobody else did, put yourself out there and went for it.

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  1. Justin V.

    I hear about it being a tough book to read… I typically am on the “speed-reader” side of the spectrum, but not with this book. Really good stuff in it though… well worth the time. Good post, thanks for sharing!

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