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  • The Southwest: A Fire Survey by Stephen J. Pyne
  • Jeannette Vaught
The Southwest: A Fire Survey. By Stephen J. Pyne. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016. Pp. 208. Photographs, notes, index.)

This slim volume of essays forms one part of a collection of books that examine the twentieth-century history of large-scale firefighting in various regions of the United States. Stephen Pyne, a well-known historian of American wildland fire cultures, has here presented an accessible entry point into the kaleidoscopic set of shifting interests that characterize the [End Page 120] relationships of fire to the Southwest. Pyne confines this regional examination to the fire histories of Arizona and New Mexico.

The book cuts a strange shape both in relation to its content and to the larger whole of which it is part: as a collection of stand-alone essays and also as a stand-alone book in a regionally organized series, it is a prickly text for a novice to enter. The book and series are aimed at “fire folks,” who, either as practitioners or enthusiasts, have a ready grasp of topographical, geological, and meteorological characteristics of the region and of fire management terms and techniques (x). But the volume rewards a reader who stays the course. Its thematic connections resonate through various essays; Pyne’s singular perspective emerges as the histories he tells accumulate; and by the end of the volume, a reader familiar with western American history will feel as if his or her own perspective on the region has shifted to accommodate the questions raised by fire.

The essays are grouped into three sections, loosely defined by topographies. Each essay within these sections is concerned with a specific mountain range, peak, canyon, or rim. Then, Pyne adds fire. From this starting point of place plus pyrography, Pyne explores a range of intersecting themes until a coherent picture of the region’s fire history and its myriad current challenges emerges.

Pyne’s signal concerns are the interlocking obstacles faced by fire professionals in restoring southwestern public lands to a sustainable pattern of burning. Over several essays, he explains how the region’s current susceptibility to wildly destructive fires is rooted as much in the lasting consequences of wrongheaded early twentieth-century attitudes towards fire management as it is in climate change or nineteenth-century overgrazing and timbering. Essays develop this underlying theme by placing it in the context of predator eradication, public land management, and suburban development. Fires—and people, and plant and animal species—that cut through borders bring thorny jurisdiction contests between federal, state, private, and indigenous land claims into sharp relief. Pyne layers fire culture into energy cultures, examining it in relation to the nuclear landscapes of Los Alamos and highlighting the double damage done to southwestern ecologies by the fires constantly burning in our combustion engines combined with the fifty-year suppression of wildland fires. He grapples especially convincingly with the conflicts arising between scientists and environmentalists, both of whom have, at times, acted to the great detriment of the overall ecological health of a fire region.

What surfaces through Pyne’s essays is a sense of how many stakeholders—from invasive species to retirees to bureaucrats—have a direct impact on the fire culture of the southwest, and how difficult it has been for fire professionals to implement sound fire policy within that matrix. What he calls the fire revolution of the 1960s and 1970s has not had a chance, given all of these intersecting interests and histories, to truly restore a [End Page 121] safe fire culture of constant, productive burning that regenerates complex biomes and mitigates big blowups. For Texans who remember the Bastrop Complex Fire of 2011, this book offers valuable perspective and fair warning. Fire, as Pyne’s volume attests, illuminates not just past problems, but those that loom in the region’s future. [End Page 122]

Jeannette Vaught
University of Texas at Austin


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