What a time for some provocative reporting on the politics of wildfire. Northwest forest officials and climate experts say our part of the world is set smack in front of a potential...

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What a time for some provocative reporting on the politics of wildfire. Northwest forest officials and climate experts say our part of the world is set smack in front of a potential catastrophe. Midsummer’s climate conditions have been akin to those prevailing when most of western Washington burned 300 years ago.

Douglas Gantenbein examines the mess we’re in and how we got there in “A Season of Fire, Four Months on the Firelines of America’s Forests.” He connects the problem to a U.S. Forest Service policy that governed wildland firefighting for many years; every fire was to be doused by 10 o’clock in the morning the day after it was discovered.

The result: Northwest forests are choked with spindly trees and brush that would have been periodically thinned by natural fires. Now the ferocity of wildfire can be graphed on a vertical line. As a 30-year veteran of firefighting told Gantenbein, “When I started out, a 100-acre fire was a big deal. Last year, on the Bitteroot fire, we’d call it a good day if only 10,000 acres burned.”

“A Season of Fire: Four Months
on the Firelines of America’s Forests”

by Douglas Gantenbein

Tarcher/Putnam, $24.95

In a summer like this one, with trees drier than kiln-dried lumber, massive fires become inevitable. Gantenbein examines the growing public debate as to what we should do about it. The prevailing policy, he says, is “put it out and damn the expense.” Even if that policy isn’t working. Even if it’s impossibly costly.

Some costs are beyond calculating. The book offers compelling portraits of the four young firefighters who died in the Thirty Mile fire north of Winthrop in 2001. It’s a story with elements of bravado, conflict and incompetent leadership. They needn’t have died.

For all their dedication, firefighters don’t put out big fires. They may prevent the fire from spreading, but only rain, snow and cool temperatures can stop it.

“One could argue,” Gantenbein says, “that for the $1 billion or so a year now spent to put fires out, taxpayers get nothing in return but the risk of worse fires later.”

Actually, some taxpayers get quite a bit. “A Season of Fire” explores the growing fire industry: private contractors who provide fire crews, helicopters, trucks, bulldozers, food and clothing for blank-check campaigns against fire. A number of small Western towns where logging has petered out have found a parallel economy in fire.

The author says fire may also have “saved” the U.S. Forest Service. Its traditional mission, growing and selling public timber, has markedly diminished, and fire-related costs now account for nearly half of its annual budget.

Reporting from fire camps, Gantenbein describes the peculiar existential joy of fighting a forest fire, shared by Forest Service and National Park officials. “Working a fire,” Gantenbein observes, “is as close to unsupervised fun as anyone in a government agency is apt to find.”

Fun or not, the danger and the outrageous costs are causing some within the forest and park agencies to question an ideology that sees fire as an evil to be stomped out.

The book explores proposals for radical change in fire strategy — a complex fix of thinning, fuel removal, preventive burns — that may offer hope for saving some Ponderosa pine forests at a cost of $100 or more per acre. In 2001, the cost of fighting fires in those forests — and losing the fight — averaged $1,164 per acre. At least one effort, a lavish campaign against the 300-acre Craggie Fire in southwest Oregon, cost $7,899 per acre.

Gantenbein, a Newcastle resident who teaches writing at the University of Washington, immerses himself in his material to produce a vivid picture of the scary fix we’re in. Unfortunately, he uses a literary device that confuses the sequence of events: He constantly mixes verb tenses, switching from past to present to past and back again within a single sentence.

For example (italics added) “… Pommee shook his head at the recollection when I visit him one afternoon … “

And “… Two more are killed in California when two firefighting planes collided … ”

Presumably it’s meant to lend immediacy. But it robs the story of some basic coherence, and that’s too bad. Public policy in the face of a growing threat needs all the clear exposition a good observer like Gantenbein can provide.