- Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada
Most Canadians experience forest fire as a spectacular threat through media coverage of events in Canada, California, Australia, and Europe. Canada is what Stephen Pyne describes as a ‘fire power’ and Awful Splendour is his 549-page history of forest fire in Canada. His primary objectives are to describe ‘why (and how) [forest] fire exists in Canada’ and to narrate ‘the story of Canada as viewed by fire.’
The book includes a prologue that starts with the last ice age, three major sections he describes as Books, and an epilogue focused on fire management policy. Book 1, ‘Torch,’ describes Canada’s forest vegetation, climate, topography, and both natural and anthropogenic sources of fire. Book 2, ‘Axe,’ describes how early European settlers experienced fire and how their use of it to clear land and the slash that resulted from their [End Page 198] logging practices contributed to many disasters, such as the 1825 Miramichi fire. Book 3, ‘Engine,’ describes how federal and provincial governments developed Canada’s fire-management organizations.
Pyne has impeccable credentials for the task at hand. He spent fifteen summers on a fire crew on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and he is an award-winning author of several books dealing with, for example, fire management in the United States and Australia. Both his extensive knowledge of fire and fire management in other countries and his sound understanding of fire, its behaviour, management, and ecological impact are clearly evident throughout the book. However, given the spatial, temporal, and political scope of his topic, it’s understandable that his writing reveals both strengths and weaknesses.
He presents many fresh new perspectives and a wealth of facts that will be new to most readers, of which his characterization of Canada’s fire environment in terms of concentric rings around Hudson Bay is a good example. I was not aware that the federal government played a significant role in the early days of fire management, particularly in the west, nor did I know that smoke jumpers fought fire in Manitoba. He summarizes interesting historical accounts of some early explorers who described fire and its impact on our forest landscapes, and he documents the development of the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System that is used by fire managers across Canada and several other countries.
Pyne narrates the story of Canada as viewed by fire but, were Canadian forest fires able to articulate what they see, I expect most would describe the provincial fire lookout tower observers, detection aircrafts, helicopters, air-tankers, and of course, firefighters that conspire to exclude them from their natural forest habitat. However, he devotes only roughly 135 pages to the twelve provincial and territorial forest fire organizations that (along with Parks Canada) actually manage fire, and much of the book reads like a chronicle of administrative changes in the Canadian Forest Service and its many federal predecessors. In Pyne’s defence, this book is an institutional history and, as he points out, ‘The text had to be shortened, and the provinces bore that burden . . . A compromise that will satisfy no group fully.’
His desire to paint a comprehensive picture of fire exposes some lack of knowledge of Canada. He notes that, with the exception of some Group of Seven paintings of burned landscapes, Canada does not have a visual art of forest fires, but I expect Margaret Atwood – who spent many of her formative years in the forests of northern Ontario and Quebec with her father (a forest entomologist) and other members of her family – might be amused by Pyne’s suggestion that she ‘and those who followed her line of cultural inquiry . . . would have done well to look beyond their literary texts and toward the world of woods, waters, and rocks that Canadians inhabited and from which they extracted their economy.’ [End Page 199]
My greatest disappointment, however, was with Pyne’s failure to describe how technology has shaped forest fire management in Canada in recent years. During a recent visit to Alberta...