Ranger Bob Valen on George R. Stewart’s Ecological Novels Storm and Fire

A few years ago I published a post here about one of San Francisco’s fine old used bookstores,  Holmes Books .  Last week, Bob Valen sent me a copy of his latest weather column and it brought back many memories of the days he and I spent browsing Holmes Books.

Bob and I met at Thornton State Beach near San Francisco in the early 1970’s. He was majoring in Geography at San Francisco State and working the Striped Bass tag survey during summers.  I’d graduated from State, taught for a while, and then found myself working several months each year as a “SPRINT” – a State Park Ranger Permanent Intermittent.

Bob and I were later able to say that we’d worked in the then-planned Golden Gate National Recreation Area before it opened.  After the GGNRA opened and Bob graduated, he went to work for the National Park Service as a Ranger/Naturalist.  He married another Ranger when they both worked at Cabrillo National Monument; they had shared careers all over the west.  He retired a few years ago, his wife Janet just retired.

While Bob and I worked together, I made the startling discovery that George R. Stewart, who had pointed me down the trail toward Rangering years earlier, was (with his wife Theodosia and often his family) a regular Thornton visitor.  So we got to know the Stewarts well.

On days off, Bob and I would search used book stores for first editions of Storm and Fire, and Stewart’s other works – a leisure activity that led to (in my case at least) a large Stewart collection.

Eventually, Bob and I went on to our different life paths.  But we always kept those Thornton State Beach days – our George R. Stewart Days  – in warm spots of our hearts.  And when our paths crossed again, we’d often chew over the memories of that extraordinary place and those days. stewart.1-2021 STORM cover When you read the just-released New York Review of Books Press edition of Storm that Bob mentions in his column, note how beautifully Nathaniel Rich brings his Introduction to a close at Thornton State Beach.

Here’s Bob’s column.

Storm and Fire

 By Bob Valen

 Together we have experienced another meteorological threshold and we are now in autumn. Temperatures are falling and many of us are breathing a slight sigh of relief. Wildfire smoke as dissipated yet, we are still in drought. Nationally, our region is in the sixth percentile of Exceptional Drought, also known as “D4”. Areas to our south are still burning. The largest wildfire still active is the Dixie Fire in Northern California at well over 900,000 acres. Here in Washington state, the Schneider Springs Fire near Yakama is 106,000 acres.


The El Nino–Southern Oscillation (ENSO),  the varying temperature phenomena of the Tropical Pacific Ocean, the El Nino/La Nina system, is emerging into La Nina again. This system affects much of our global climate. Climatologists watch this system carefully. Up-to-date measurements are pointing at a La Nina event this fall-winter. For the Inland Northwest, our diminutive region of Planet, may see cooler temperatures and more precipitation. Precipitation in the form of winter snow storms – we shall see.  


Considering wildfires and storms, I’m reminded of two books written by the author George R. Stewart. Stewart was born in 1895. He was educated at some of nation’s finest universities. He became a professor of English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He was much more than professor – he was a historian, novelist, toponymist and a founding member of the American Name Society. It was in his later years that I met him and his wife through a good friend – twice in fact. By this time, the early ‘70’s, he had nearly completed his writing. His earliest book in 1930 and the final in 1979. I believe a total of [28] titles.


Storm was first published in 1941 – the year the United States entered World War 2 – a type of global storm created by madmen. Fire came out in 1948 – I was just an infant. Later, as an adult, I would spend 15 years of my career on seasonal duty with western wildfire Incident Command Teams. Storm was recently republished by New York Review Books (New York Review of Books Press) with a forward by Nathaniel Rich.


As you begin this book, consider this, the protagonist isn’t a person. The protagonist is a storm – a thing of immense air and water vapor affected and sculpted by atmospheric pressure, topography and the jet stream. The people in (the) book are like us. When we find ourselves in an event that is utterly and absolutely out of our control, we hunker down. We tolerate what occurs all around us; we cannot change it. Part of our lives is shaped in those hours. All the while we hope to pull through without harm to us or others.   


In Storm, a name appears, Maria. It is the storm’s name. Stewart and his novel Storm are credited as (providing) the motivation for naming storms. The United States officially started the practice in 1953.


Stewart’s Fire captures early fall conditions of a Sierra Nevada forest and the ultimate aftermath of a lightning storm. Our protagonist, once again, is a thing, a thing of heat, fuel and air. Yes, the fire has a name – Spitcat. The people in the story, rangers, smoke jumpers, fire lookouts – reflect the era this novel was written. It’s post World War 2. Stewart captures the essence of a California forest. Though the name of the forest is fictional, the nature of a living forest is real. The trees, the animals, living separately from each other yet, all are truly interconnected and are part of a larger, organic, functioning ecological system. In his research for Fire, Stewart actually spent time with the Forest Service fighting fire.


I encourage our local Friends of the Library to add the above titles that Stewart wrote as well. …….


After the Caldor Fire – Thoughts From A Volunteer Ranger

fire first cover

In Fire, George R. Stewart closes his pioneering and page-turning novel with optimism.  The last sentence in the book beautifully describes the serotinous pines – which only set seeds after a hot fire melts the resin holding the cones closed – and the gentle floating to the ground of the coated seeds thus released – seeds which sit in the nutritious ash from the fires until the heat of a future fire melts the coating so the seeds can germinate. 

Here’s another version of events post-fire. 

John Lucia, GRS follower, has finished his Volunteer Ranger work on the Caldor Fire at Kyburz in the Sierra Nevada Mountains west of Echo Summit,. .  Here is his final report to date, which includes lessons from the experience. 

Sunday, September 9, 2021 – The Volunteer Ranger’s Final Report on the Caldor Fire

A welcome rain, early this morning.  The air is clean and for the most part, the fire has burned around and not through Kyburz.  Three weeks ago, a small burn near Caldor (from the abbreviation, California Door) has now become almost 200,000 acres.  Six times the area of the county of San Francisco.  It will continue to expand, I am told, for at least another month.   Resin-loaded stumps will burn for weeks.   What was green and pleasing to the eye, will appear as sepia in an old photo.  The forest is exactly the same size and shape, but now only brown, dead, brittle and lifeless.  During the three months of winter, most will lose all their needles.  The beautiful gown that once was, will transform from exquisite to skeletal.  Heads will turn wanting to ignore and put out of their brain, what was imprinted for so long, as a way it always would be.  Like something beautiful slowly aging and dying, this is but instantaneous and more lasting.  Restoration of a forest, with good luck, takes 40 years or more. 

Children, family, friends less than a month before came into this cathedral of nature taking it all for granted.  Enjoying the cooling of the shade, the ultra-green hues close and distant, the fragrance of life to be enjoyed with every breath. Now the forest will try to heal itself.   This fire fortunately was mostly slow and was not too hot around Kyburz. Soon, the north facing slopes will show the first indication of life.  Countless evergreen and deciduous trees, millions of seed laden plants and flowers sprouting in the warmth of next spring.  Fighting to survive all competing for the one required resource, water. 

If God is kind, the winter will be hard, the snows heavy, the road closed more than usual, the spring late, dogwoods flowering into June.  Maybe even remnant snowbanks over the summit on the three days associated with labor.  Nature fighting to keep us all out as long, as possible.  Allowing us back only when the days are long.  Telling us it needs to be alone.  It needs to heal.  Wounding nature was easy.  It was always vulnerable, it was always there for you, just as you assumed it would be.  We say how much we enjoy our wooded surroundings, but we became complacent, lazy, and failed to protect.  As in any relationship, words are fine, but they alone cannot prove fidelity.  It matters not what you think or feel, actions always speak loudest. You cannot possibly love this land if you don’t at least notice it fighting to survive.

If our forests could speak, it might say, “your abusive, selfish desires may seal my fate”. Thousands of Keep Tahoe Blue stickers, on countless Tundra’s, Sequoia’s, Yukon’s and Tahoe’s do little to maintain the Azul.  What are we really willing to give up to save our relationship with our only home?  We constantly utter words of admiration, but rarely support them with proper actions.  Do we really love to be in nature?  When did camping become a 24-foot-long house dragged along by an F250 diesel?  How can one honestly justify dish tv on their time of being one with nature?  The guaranteed fact is those days and nights in that carbon heavy assault will be quickly forgotten.  The hot shower, the comfortable bed, 140 channels, the climate/bug control, the aluminum ceiling blocking the stars, the frozen food and ice cream, the real half and half for the Starbuck’s coffee and all that makes us believe we are happy.  There was a time, a few short years ago, when tents were only used in time of rain.  Most campers said, it just wasn’t camping inside a tent, and now those in tent’s are “roughing it”. 

This is just one of several wildfires burning in the Sierra right now.  The Caldor, with 3000 firefighters, at least 1000 direct support members, I guess 700-800 law enforcement officers make up the human component.  I estimate a ton of line lunches and five tons of bottled water every day.  Over 1500 trucks of all shapes and sizes, a few dozen attack planes and helicopters, around 50 earth movers and with all that, the one thing that can never be supplied, is luck.  If all goes well, the winds are normal we could still be wrestling this burn into October.   Today’s fires start in the spring and continue through Halloween.  Success or failure is measured on structure loss.  I will be forever grateful all our neighbor’s homes were saved.  Over 500 families have lost their home, and many will never rebuild.  A house can be replaced in a few months, but how many will have the desire or ability to wait thirty years to experience the same views from their porch and windows? Most forests on the Pacific slope just never fully recover.  I have witnessed four major fires on the 50 Corridor.  Some leave a small scar, but most expose a sterile landscape, even after 50 years.  People are impatient.  We will bring a house to a forest but are not willing or able to wait for the forest to surround the house. 

I don’t know the answer or solution to this problem that affects us all.  I now believe slow moving, control burns done in late fall or early winter may be one of the only ways to bring our forest closer to a natural cycle.  Are we, as a society, capable of budgeting more dollars to action than reaction?

We live in the new age.  The age of the super fire.  Like it or not, we are forced to deal with it.



A Major George R. Stewart Anniversary is Soon Upon Us

EA Morleys

In early October, 1949, Random House published the First Edition, First Printing of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. Since that day, October 7, 1949, Stewart’s novel has never been out of print, and the impact of the work on society and culture has been substantial. See this article for a summary of the book, its themes, and its influence.


Recently republished by Mariner Books, with a fine new Introduction by Kim Stanley Robinson, the novel continues to inspire its readers with page-turning prose and provocative ideas. If you’ve never read it, this would be a good time – as the nights lengthen and the weather encourages evenings sitting by the fire with a good book at hand – to read the new edition. If you’re a fan of the novel, this would be a good time to read it again, seated in the easy chair by the fireplace.

Ish's Hammer(1)