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Reviewed by:
  • Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada
  • Mark Kuhlberg
Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada. Stephen J. Pyne. Vancouver: Ubc Press, 2007. Pp. 584, $34.95

In response to a recent question about the impact fire has on the forest, a student in environmental history answered that it permanently destroys the woodland it burns. If this reply reflects a collective lacuna in our ecological understanding, Stephen Pyne’s Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada will not only fill this gaping void but do much more. His book presents a wonderful account of its subject and a thoroughly convincing case in practically flawless fashion, and it delivers a much-needed message to Canadians about the shortcomings of their traditional attitude toward flames in their fields and forests.

As arguably the world’s foremost authority on the history of fire, Pyne has turned his attention to our country and its interminable interaction with wildfires; he shrewdly observes that, although our land is usually associated with snow and ice and our flag is adorned with a red maple leaf, fire has had such a ubiquitous presence in our past that ‘a crimson crown fire swelling through its boreal conifers would be a more apt symbol of what makes Canada biotically majestic.’ Pyne’s is an audacious undertaking, tackling both natural and anthropogenic blazes and how humans dealt with them. The product is a book that covers an extraordinarily long timeframe (from the last ice age to global warming) and runs across remarkably complex political jurisdictions (colonies, provinces, nations, and territories) and physical environments (from the Arctic’s frigid plains to the drenched and steep Pacific rainforests). The reader begins this journey in a section devoted to the history of fire’s behaviour in pre-contact Canada’s numerous biotic and geophysical regions. The next stop is a sketch of wildfire from contact to Confederation, a section he fittingly names ‘Axe’ to reflect the central role this tool played in shaping fire’s behaviour during this period. The reader then confronts ‘Engine,’ a thorough account of industrialization’s fundamental impact on fire, particularly in terms of Canadians’ obsessions with waging war on it using ever more sophisticated technology. Pyne chose the contemporary era as the terminus for this voyage. In ‘Green Canada,’ he traces developments since the 1980s. [End Page 371]

In the process of telling this story, Pyne convincingly argues that the history of fire in Canada reflects as much about us and our values as it does the physical milieu in which the combustion occurred. On the one hand, he demonstrates how our initiative and innovativeness in battling wildfires made us the envy of the world in terms of developing new equipment and carrying out research. On the other hand, however, he perceptively points out that the British North America Act’s cursed division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces and the plethora of geographical features that makes fire and fire management so different across the country have fettered our ability to become an international leader in dealing with wildfire. Because we were unable to nationalize our approach to fire management, it did not gain the pre-eminent cultural import it did in other countries such as the United States and Australia.

The persuasiveness of Pyne’s case is one of the book’s many attributes. The story benefits immensely from his ‘insider’s’ perspective. His fifteen years of first-hand experience battling blazes in the United States imbues his writing with a heightened sensitivity to the nuances of the events he is describing. He knows of what he speaks. In addition, his research is thorough. Finally, Pyne’s prose is Creightonian: masterful in its ability to convey both the argument and art of history. ‘Fire and prairie were joined like surf and sea,’ Pyne declares in reference to how the woods advanced on the plains when fires retreated; ‘those carefully tended flames were biotic dikes that kept the ponded woods from overflowing the land.’

As for weaknesses, they are few and far between, and the only one worth noting is the framework Pyne employs. While admittedly the subject matter does not lend itself to telling the...


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pp. 371-373
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