Scorched Earth Review
But, I must confess that this book is not what I thought it would be when I picked it up. I have enjoyed reading disaster type non-fiction in the past. Books like "The Perfect Storm" and "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" are a couple I've enjoyed. I thought I'd be reading a similar story with a book titled "Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America". I really expected this book to have me in the middle of the fires at Yellowstone in 1988. In fact, the book's prologue puts the reader outside of Old Faithful Inn as the flames approach. But, as chapter 1 begins, we are immediately transported back over 100 years to the conclusion of the Civil War and to General Phil Sheridan.
The next 13 chapters introduce us one by one and chronologically to different folks who have had some influence on the way the United States manages fire and forest resources. In the early chapters, I felt the book bogged down a bit telling the war stories of some early land managers. The book really spoke to me when it focused on wild fires, and the lessons learned from two especially large fires in the early 1900s. By the time the author Rocky Barker describes more recent influences, people like Aldo Leopold and the character of Smokey Bear, the story begins to pick up pace.
It is not really until the last 50 pages of the book that we are transported back to the world of Yellowstone National Park in 1988. By then, the book has demonstrated a difference between the way fire is managed in the Forest Service and how it is managed in Yellowstone and some other National Parks. Yellowstone had adopted a hands-off approach, a policy to let fires started by lightning burn on their own. But, the summer of '88 was particularly dry, and when the fires started, they did not stop until rains returned in the fall. Barker takes us through that summer in Yellowstone step-by-step, examaning decisions made at the highest level of the Park that had impact on how and where the fires would burn. There comes a point in mid-August where the fires are so powerful, nothing can be done to control them. Barker was there as a reporter for an Idaho Newspaper during the time, and his memories of the event are exciting to read.
This is about where the story ends, which disappointed me. The subtitle of the book is "How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America", but the book does very little to explain this change. It is all wrapped up in a single chapter. Barker actually introduced some topics in his epilogue which I feel could have been the larger focus of his book. For instance, I was introduced to the idea that big fires are less influenced by dead woody forest debris, but instead are driven first by weather, climate and wind conditions. He leaves us with the idea that we may see more and larger fires in some Western states as the effects of Global Warming take hold. This is an explosive idea, and deserves more than just a passing reference in the last pages of his book.
Overall, I did enjoy reading this book. I imagine that this book would appeal to others that enjoy reading about wildland management. I do not think it would have the same appeal to a general audience though. It didn't have the same readability as "The Perfect Storm" for instance. Did anyone else get a chance to read this book? What are your thoughts?
In 1988, forest fires raged in Yellowstone National Park, destroying more than a million acres. As the nation watched the land around Old Faithful burn, a longstanding conflict over fire management reached a fever pitch. Should the U.S. Park and Forest Services suppress fires immediately or allow some to run their natural course? When should firefighters be sent to battle the flames and at what cost?
In Scorched Earth, Barker, an environmental reporter who was on the ground and in the smoke during the 1988 fires, shows us that many of today's arguments over fire and the nature of public land began to take shape soon after the Civil War. As Barker explains, how the government responded to early fires in Yellowstone and to private investors in the region led ultimately to the protection of 600 million acres of public lands in the United States. Barker uses his considerable narrative talents to bring to life a fascinating, but often neglected, piece of American history. Scorched Earth lays a new foundation for examining current fire and environmental policies in America and the world.
Our story begins when the West was yet to be won, with a colorful cast of characters: a civil war general and his soldiers, America's first investment banker, railroad men, naturalists, and fire-fighters-all of whom left their mark on Yellowstone. As the truth behind the creation of America's first national park is revealed, we discover the remarkable role the U.S. Army played in protecting Yellowstone and shaping public lands in the West. And we see the developing efforts of conservation's great figures as they struggled to preserve our heritage. With vivid descriptions of the famous fires that have raged in Yellowstone, the heroes who have tried to protect it, and the strategies that evolved as a result, Barker draws us into the very heart of a debate over our attempts to control nature and people.
This entertaining and timely book challenges the traditional views both of those who arrogantly seek full control of nature and those who naively believe we can leave it unaltered. And it demonstrates how much of our broader environmental history was shaped in the lands of Yellowstone.