Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The West is Burning, Then and Now

I've just driven the length of Idaho--south to north, north to south, some 600 miles in all--in the past Big_burnfew days.  The law school's two campuses are six hours apart--one in Moscow, one in Boise--and I was heading up for the annual Convocation.  Along the way, I listened to the audiobook version of New York Times' western correspondent Tim Egan's The Big Burn (2009).  The book tells the story of the 1910 Idaho wildfire that provided the defining narrative to solidify the US Forest Service's role in American life (hear Egan discusss it here).  Along the way, it also tells the story of how national forests came to be as both a political matter, but also in the personal stories of characters such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the US Forest Service and its original architect.  It is an epic story, and one of those rousing tellings that makes you remember why land use and environmental issues are so compelling.
 
My choice of the book to accompany me on the long drive was no coincidence, however.  The summer in Idaho has been unrelentingly hot and dry, and the state is in flames.  Smoke has hung over the city of Boise for much of the summer.  In my drives up and down the state, there is a smoky haze over all of it.  Just from the road, I saw two grass fires ablaze (picture of one to the right) and helicopters ferrying flame Photoretardant to distant parts of the forest.  The state's major north-south route, Highway 55, was closed earlier this month due to fire.  Some fires are expected to burn till October.  In eastern Washington, just over the border, some 60 homes were burned by wildfires this week.
 
This is my second summer in the inland Northwest, and my first summer when fire has so fully ensconced the landscape.  It brings the issues discussed in The Big Burn to life, for one of the reasons Roosevelt and Pinchot offered for a forest service was fire suppression, an elusive goal then and now.  With the Mountain West growing faster than any other region of the country, the question of fire in the region becomes prominent before us once again.  Now, the promise of fire suppression is no longer only a supplement to calls for conservation, as it was in the days of Pinchot, but a necessary promise to all those new dwellers in the Mountain West who come here seeking a new life.  How does a metropolitan Mountain West live with wildfire?  The story Egan tells in The Big Burn, and my drive along this beautiful, smoke-choked state, give me pause at believing too strongly that we can contain wildfire entirely.  Even in the new west, attention must be paid to the quixotic and devilish forces of nature, a fact you can smell in the air tonight, in Boise and across the west. 

Stephen R. Miller

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