Just now, the huge Dixie Fire is burning through the up-and-down country south and west of Lassen Volcanic National Park. The Bootleg Fire is creating its own weather in Southern Oregon. Lightening has sparked several new fires in California and Oregon. British Columbia is burning, and one town has disappeared from the Earth. Fire season still has months to go. It’s a good time to write about George R. Stewart’s classic novel about fire, humans, and fire ecology: FIRE.
Available in many editions. This is the dust jacket-wrapped first edition of 1949
The novel is a “biography” of an ecological character – a fire named “Spitcat.”
There are also other characters, human and non-human, who bring drama into the 11-day life of the fire. Judith Godoy is a young woman working a summer as a watcher in a mountain fire lookout tower. Dave Halliday is a meteorologist. (There is a secret about these two characters, which Stewart fans who’ve read his other novels will easily discover; so it’s good to see them meet here.) The Supervising Ranger – whose name is “Ranger” – is a new type of US Forest employee, college-educated and ecological in his thinking. Bart is the old-style Ranger educated in the way Thomas Jefferson described Meriwether Lewis:“…He is not regularly educated, but he possesses a great mass of accurate observation on all the subjects of nature which present themselves here…” Bart loves the forest, especially a retreat he’s named the Glen.
As always in a Stewart ecological novel a major character is the land itself: in this case the Forest.
Stewart generally preferred to use real places, sometimes lightly fictionalized, as the settings for his eco-works – US 40 and Donner Summit in STORM, the Berkeley Hills in EARTH ABIDES, for example. But here he creates a fictional forest, the Ponderosa, so brilliantly and thoroughly described that for years tourists drove north from the Tahoe National Forest looking for the Ponderosa National Forest.
One reason the Ponderosa is so realistic is that GRS used experts to help “design” it and visualize it. His son Jack, who was studying to be a geologist, helped with the lay of the land, using nearby landforms as models. Once the landscape was fully developed, GRS asked a Berkeley colleague, the distinguished painter David Park, to create a model of the landscape, and paint it. Then, as always, GRS added appropriate names to the landforms.
Stewart believed the most enduring human connection with the Earth’s geography was with its place-names. In both STORM and FIRE, Stewart inserted what might be called “landform litanies” to his work. STORM has several – litanies of “the cities of the plain,” of the Sierra Peaks, of the Points and headlands and their lighthouses. In FIRE, he includes a litany of the creeks and rivers. In this case they’re all fictional but several are named for people he wished to honor, like “Hart” or “Jack” or “Potter.”
Stewart also went into the event to fully research it and understand a wildfire and the relationship with the humans involved, either as fire fighters, residents, or victims. He went missing for a time which worried the Fire Bosses for a while, until he wandered in and reassured them that he’d been on the front lines observing the fire. In another incident, he slipped while trying to jump a muddy creek and so missed a burning widow-maker that dropped on the trail where he would have been if he’d not slipped.
As usual, Stewart was a brilliant prophet, and there are many similarities between the Spitcat Fire and current wildfires. For one thing, as happened on the recent Tamarack Fire, fire crews believed that this one had been extinguished. But it flared up like the Tamarack to demand massive increases in equipment and fire fighters. For another, the underfunding of the Forest Service meant that a critical bit of fire prevention infrastructure, a lookout tower and access road in an important part of the forest, was not built because funding was denied.
In STORM and FIRE GRS uses technique that might be called “STEAM writing.” That is, like a modern person wandering the Web in order to understand all dimensions of an event, he beautifully integrates , science, technology, art, engineering, and the mathematics of fire and fire-fighting in an extraordinary way. When a reader is finished with the novel he or she have a “Whole Earth” understanding of the ecological event and its human dimensions.
Stewart’s ecological perspective comes through most completely in two passages. The first is a conversation on horseback between the Supervising Ranger, a college-educated man, and the old, school-of-the-forest Ranger Bart. They have ridden a muddy trail seeking to discover where the fire began and what started it. Bart is mourning the loss of his beloved forest and the Super tries to encourage him:
“Don’t take it too hard, Bart. It’s just part of the way things are!”…
“Yes,” the Supervisor went on, “where there are pine trees, there’s also going to be fire, because if there’s no dry season, you’ll have a hardwood forest. You might say if there weren’t fires, there wouldn’t be pines.”
“I’m thinking of some of the places I used to like to go.”
“It’s hard to tell about it all, Bart. The way a rabbit thinks, a brush-field must be the Garden of Eden, compared to a pine forest. In nature–whatever that means–a raw gullied canyon-side may be just as good as a fine slope of trees. The difference is in our minds.
“That’s a big difference to me,” said Bart.
(That debate goes on even today, as armchair quarterbacks who mostly have NO experience with wildfire, criticize the wildland firefighting heroes – and probably oppose any more spending for the public lands agencies.)
The other ecological wisdom is in the last sentence in the book. You’ll need to read FIRE to learn what GRS writes there.
FIRE was a best-seller, Book-of-the-Month Club selection and was filmed twice. Once by Paramount, so changed that it has little to do with Stewart’s fine novel. The second time, in a low-budget manner for television by Walt Disney, with the ecological message intact. That second version was seen by millions, helping to educate them about fire and fire ecology.
This book is highly recommended – especially now, in our season of fire.