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In the line of fires

TERRY TOMALIN
Published September 13, 2003

A Season of Fire: Four Months on the Firelines of America's Forests

By Douglas Gantenbein

On a warm August afternoon in 2001, Douglas Gantenbein stood on a dusty, wind-swept Montana hillside and watched a 150-year-old forest take minutes to die.

"I could easily see a column of smoke climbing like a giant mushroom from the mountains rising over Paradise Valley, 30 miles north of Yellowstone Park," Gantenbein writes in A Season of Fire. "The column rose with such fantastic energy that even from six or seven miles away the smoke could easily be seen boiling upward, pushing higher and higher in swelling folds of hot gas and ash."

Just one month earlier in northern Washington state, red-hot embers rained down on two civilians and 13 firefighters trapped in a steep, walled canyon. Witnesses heard the fire roar 30 miles away, and when flames and black smoke cleared, four firefighters were dead.

Gantenbein builds on this tragedy in a compelling narrative that begins with ominous warnings of dry weather in May of 2001 and ends in mid September when the last of the summer blazes is finally extinguished, leaving many unanswered questions about the nation's wildland fire policies.

Since 1910, when a series of wildfires destroyed 3-million acres of wilderness and killed 85 people in Montana and Idaho, government policy has been to eradicate forest fires at all cost.

America adopted a "get tough" attitude with wildfire and by 1968, the National Forest Service's mascot, Smokey Bear, became the most popular advertising symbol in the United States.

"Only YOU can prevent forest fires" became the rallying cry of millions of schoolchildren from Maine to California. But as Gantenbein deftly points out, fire (like everything else in our changing environment) is a complex issue. Fire is actually good for some forests.

Core samples from trees that were saplings when the first Europeans arrived on America's shores reveal that cyclical burning has occurred throughout history. Decades of cold, wet weather are always followed by decades of warm, dry weather. The seasonal firestorms help clean out the overgrowth and make for a healthier forest.

But this natural cycle is of no comfort to the homeowners who watch their life savings go up in smoke as a wildfire rages out of control.

Gantenbein, who has also written for the New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Atlantic Monthly, goes behind the scenes of this war on fire and follows the firefighters from state to state.

The author talks with everybody from fire meteorologists and fire behavior analysts to heli-attack firefighters and smoke jumpers. At one point, Gantenbein actually trained as a novice firefighter, ultimately ending up in the middle of the fray where pine trees exploded into 10,000-foot plumes.

Gantenbein hit all the hot spots in that dramatic summer of 2001 when half of the West - Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and California - nearly went up in flames.

This is hot, dangerous work which one fire manager likened to "above-ground coal mining."

Gantenbein recalls how the Arthur Fire in Yellowstone Park reminded nervous firefighters of Black Sunday, that fateful day in 1988 when a fire destroyed 160,000 acres of prime wilderness in the crown jewel of the National Park system, sending columns of smoke 30,000 feet into the air.

Authorities spent nearly $10-million and sent nearly 1,000 firefighters and a quarter of the country's wildland-retardant tanker aircraft to battle the Green Knoll Fire in Jackson, Wyo., simply because it threatened the million-dollar homes of Harrison Ford, Vice President Dick Cheney and others.

And the Thirtymile Fire in Washington started as an out-of-control campfire that was quickly put out by a crew of hightly trained "hotshots," but without warning roared back to life, leaving four of them dead.

By the time the Season of Fire was over, more than 3.5-million acres had burned. The fires left 16 people dead and cost $700-million to extinguish.

Experts estimate that more than 100-million acres of the Western forests are overgrown and ripe for fire. Gantenbein's book reinforces the notion that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

* * *

"A Season of Fire: Four Months on the Firelines of America's Forests," by Douglas Gantenbein, Putnam, $24.95, 288 pages.

More disasters

In Sunday's Perspective, look for reviews of books on two more disasters - the 1911 fire in New York's Triangle shirt factory and the Florida hurricane of 1928. Also, book editor Margo Hammond ponders why so many books on disasters have been, er, flooding the market lately.

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