National Geographic reports this summer, eye-watering smoke hung over much of the western United States, and flames threatened homes, towns, and even the giant sequoias of Kings Canyon National Park. By mid-November, wildfires had burned 9.8 million acres across the country, and 2015 was on track to become the biggest fire year in at least a decade. Rising temperatures, drought, and dense forests created by decades of fire suppression are contributing to larger, faster-moving wildfires. And as more people move into the woods, fires of all sizes are becoming more dangerous and destructive. (Check out an interactive map of this year’s fires.)
Historian Stephen Pyne has watched this crisis develop for almost half a century. In 1967, just a few days after graduating from high school, he joined the forest fire crew on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and spent the next fifteen summers fighting fires in northern Arizona. Now a professor at Arizona State University, he has spent his career studying the history of wildfire and wildland firefighting in the U.S. and around the world.
In his new book Between Two Fires, Pyne examines the roots of the U.S. wildfire crisis. He finds that while the Forest Service and other agencies have long recognized that frequent, relatively small fires can reduce the risk of large, catastrophic burns, they have been unable to restore a natural cycle of fire to the forest.
Speaking from his home office in Arizona, Pyne reflected on this impasse. “If we keep fighting a war with fire, three things are going to happen,” he says. “We’re going to spend a lot of money, we’re going to take a lot of casualties, and we’re going to lose.”
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