Washington State Magazine

Flames in Our Forest: Disaster or Renewal?

by Stephen F. Arno '65 and Stephen Allison-Bunnell :: Island Press :: Reviewed by Dale Goble

Flames in Our Forest: Disaster or Renewal?

Forest fires have been much in the news. Beginning with the Yellowstone fires in 1988, the West has lived through a series of intense fire years. In 2000, the federal government spent nearly $1.6 billion fighting fires. But over the same period there has been a discordant message: fires, we are told, shaped the forests and the wildlife that inhabit them; fires are, in fact, necessary to the continued existence of many species of plants and animals. Smokey the Bear's message of fire's destructive nature, his plea on behalf of other woodland creatures that "fires destroy more than trees," has lost its venerable certainty.

Are forest fires good or bad—or some of each? Flames in Our Forest: Disaster or Renewal? is a primer to this debate. Stephen Arno ('65 Forestry), a forester who has been at the vanguard of rethinking the role of fire in forests, and Steven Allison-Bunnell, a science writer, have combined their talents to produce a book that skillfully and judiciously examines the issues. Beginning with a brief history of fire suppression in the 20th century, they discuss the physics and chemistry of fires, and how life has responded to fire and shaped the variety of forests that were present when Euro-Americans arrived in the West. They conclude with a review of how to adapt to and live in the fire-prone forests of the West.

The writing is clear and accessible to non-specialists. The text is enhanced with well-chosen photographs, line drawings, and helpful graphs. Although written for a general audience, the book includes more than 20 pages of references that an interested reader can use to examine the issues in more detail.

Western forests are the focus of divergent interests. Jobs, recreation, wildlife habitat, and—increasingly—human homesites are all at stake in deciding how to manage these lands. The changing understanding of the role of fire in this management system has been controversial because it challenges once-sacrosanct beliefs. Flames in Our Forest is a helpful place to begin sorting out the issues.

— Dale Goble, Margaret Wilson Schimke Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Idaho

Categories: Public affairs, Environmental studies | Tags: Forest fires