Book Review: Philip Connors' "Fire Season"

On June 23rd, a fire ignited in the foothills of Pikes Peak, west of Colorado Springs. Aided by arid conditions and strong winds, the Waldo Canyon fire spread to the northwestern edge of the sprawling city. By the time the fire was contained, on July 10th, it had burned more than 18,200 acres, forced the evacuation of 32,000 residents and destroyed almost 350 homes. It has proven to be the most expensive wildfire in the state's history, causing an estimated $350 million in insurance claims on top of the eight-figure cost of fighting the fire.

A wildfire that threatens people and homes requires complete suppression. The stakes are different, though, when you're perched in solitude at 10,000 feet surrounded by a wilderness nearly the size of Rhode Island, untouched by roads, houses, or anything motorized. Such is the privilege of Philip Connors, wilderness lookout in New Mexico's Gila National Forest for the past eight summers and author of Fire Season (Ecco, 2011).

Media coverage, particularly in the wake of Colorado's blazing summer, has tended to paint wildfires uniformly as an evil, but Connors reveals a more complex situation. He notes that fault for wildfires' unusual severity in the last century lies, perhaps unsurprisingly, with humans. Until the creation of the Forest Service, in the early 1900s, fires played an important role in forest ecosystems by clearing out detritus and allowing for new growth. But the Service began to suppress every wildfire it spotted, unwittingly blanketing forest floors with fuel until the 1970s, when "prescribed" fires—first tested in the Gila—gained favor as an effective method of preventing big blowups. Ironically, our overzealous drive to prevent all fires only made them bigger and hotter as the years passed.

What's remarkable about the devastating Waldo Canyon fire is that it's not an anomaly this summer. For most of June a fire consumed nearly 90,000 acres and 260 homes near Fort Collins, CO, while another burned 47,000 acres and destroyed 150 structures south of Provo, UT. According to NOAA, a total of 1.36 million acres burned in June—the second most on record for the month.  

Certain lightning-ignited fires can burn for months under close supervision by lookouts like Connors, and many "smokes" (in the lingo) burn themselves out without causing damage. But firefighters still suppress the vast majority of fires: Increasingly warm and arid conditions throughout the Southwest, coupled with humans' proximity to forests, leave little room for error.

Much of a lookout's job, according to Connors, involves patient watching and waiting, site maintenance, reading, hiking (it's five and a half miles to the nearest road for supplies), communing with nature and mastering the art of solitude. There are only a few hundred lookouts left in the country, mostly in rugged terrain that can't be otherwise monitored. But their reason for being is as important as ever, since even remote fires can get out of control. From mid-May to late July, for example, the massive Whitewater Baldy Complex—two fires that met and combined—scorched 300,000 acres of the forest Connors watches over.

Fire Season captures the enormity of our forests, these fires, human history and the stars with understated grace. It's a fascinating rumination on our place in nature and the extent to which we can control it.