15 Dec 2007, 6:11pm
Fire History
by admin

Awful Splendour

Pyne, Stephen J. Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada. 2007. Univ. British Columbia Press.

Review by Mike Dubrasich

Steve Pyne has done it again. Awful Splendour is a tour de fire and history, another of his magnificent explorations of land and peoples told through the prism of fire. Prior Pyne fire histories include:

Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (1982)

Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (1991)

World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth (1995)

Vestal Fire: An Environmental History, Told Through Fire, of Europe and Europe’s Encounter with the World (1997)

The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica (1986)

The latter-most book, The Ice, is not about fire directly, but instead examines the only continent where there is no (exogenous) fire. And that illustrates the fact that Pyne’s fire histories are not histories of fire per se, but rather histories of land and people with fire as the central “informing conceit.”

Awful Splendour is also about more than fire in Canada; it is about the great boreal forests, temperate forests, and prairies of northern North America, the people and institutions who encountered those habitats and their fires, and who over the course of time made Canada what it is today.

Of course, the great fires of Canada are all mentioned: Miramichi (1825), Porcupine (1911), Kelowna (2003) and all the major others. But they are placed in the context of the people who set, fought, and responded in fashion to the forces of history, natural and cultural, that gave rise to Canadian fires.

Awful Splendour (the title is taken from the writings of Professor Henry Hind, the 19th century explorer, geographer, and scientist who first recorded megafires in Canada’s great outback) begins with the retreat of the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets, marking the onset of the Holocene. Boreal vegetation rushed in to carpet the newly bared and defrosted ground, and so began the fire saga of Canada. Fire requires biotic fuel, and biomass requires biology:

The ice could come and go without the slightest regard for anything living; it ebbed and flowed according to an inorganic logic: the wavering of solar radiation, the orbital mechanics of a wobbling earth, the arrangement of continents and oceans, mountains, and plateaus. But fire was more subtle, complex, and variable, a phenomenon of life. What it eats, what it breathes, even (though not exclusively) the spark that births it, all rely on the living world. The character of the life that colonized the ice-liberated lands was fire’s character as well.

Creeping northward from southern refugia, and eastward over Beringia from Eurasia, life returned to the Great White North some 12,500 years ago. And following on the heels of the waves of the first plants and animals came the First People, the first Canadian immigrants, human beings, the Torch Bearers. Those first indigenous residents encountered a complex landscape. Yes, they brought fire with them, but fire was also a product of the landscape as well.

[H]umans can kindle where nature, by itself, reliant on lightning, cannot, yet they cannot force combustion in circumstances that nature otherwise hardens against burning. The firestick is a lever; it can move only so much as the fulcrum of nature provides.

Human beings worked the levers they possessed, though. Indigenous peoples burned boreal forests, maritime woods, vast prairies, and whatever else they found in Canada, save for ice and rocks, in concert with the seasons, for diverse purposes including the enhancement of forage for game and the encirclement of said game for ease of human harvest and consumption. Roast bison (and elk, and caribou) have fed countless generations of Canadians.

And so the First People shaped the landscape, to the extent possible in a harsh and unforgiving climate, to wrest sustenance and survival. Then came the Europeans, and the new encounters with the land were also choreographed by fire.

The Canadian saga is one of colonists colonizing, and during the last four centuries colonialism has been the cultural model. A ribbon of imperial colonies was built and (re)populated stretching from Atlantic to Pacific, bounded to the south by the hulking giant of the USA, and to the north by the hulking giant of the icy Arctic.

This has become the fundamental dialectic of Canadian fire: the rhythms of the boreal environment against the dynamics of political Confederation… The institutions that sought to mediate between Canadians and Canadian fire would thus prove unstable, the grip of society over geography tentative if tenacious. The story of Canadian fire is the story of that dialectic, which is another variant of Canada’s ur-story, the quarrel between its history and its geography. While the history is there, it does not emerge organically so much as it is held together by the presence, or perceived threat, of outside pressures.

The colonies became Provinces, loosely bound by federal Dominion. Fires were everywhere, often on a scale to match the great expanses of the boreal north. That enormous scale, the harshness of climate, and Canada’s political history gave rise to a unique form of corporatist socialism. The residents clustered in the most habitable spots, and the great interiors were leased to mega-companies bent on extracting the vast larder of natural resources: timber, pulp, coal, oil, and natural gas principal among them.

Fire management (suppression and control) has never been all that successful in Canada. The reach far exceeded the grasp, and indeed the inability to gain mastery over fire remains the substantial condition in Canada today.

In Awful Splendour Stephen Pyne relates the successes and failures of controlling fire in Canada. Failures dominate, not so much by choice of the author but due to the unvarnished facts of history. Yet the few successes are also monumental, as is so much of the Canadian story, and Pyne weaves the tale of a fire community tempered by both.

The successes cluster, similarly to the populace. The center of Canadian fire advancements is today Parks Canada, and in the main the Rocky Mountain parks of Banff, Kootenay, Jasper, and the smaller others. Canadian fire science has always been concentrated, though, in contrast her vast estate. Under-funded, undermanned, and basically on their own, a handful of fire researchers and practitioners developed a fundamental fire science that has informed the world. Canadian techniques and understandings of fire behavior, prediction, ecology, and history have enlightened fire science as far away as Australia. The use of airplanes in every phase of fire management, from detection to control to planned ignition is another arena in which Canada leads the world.

The advancements of Canadian fire science are personified by Charlie Van Wagner, heir to a tiny lab developed by Jim Wright and Herb Beall at Petawawa, Ontario. Despite the paucity of funding, they developed what became the Canadian Forest Fire Weather Index, an empirical system for predicting fires that far surpasses US theoretical modeling approaches to this day. (In typical Canadian fashion, the Petawawa National Forestry Institute was dissolved and the personnel dispersed to various Provinces in 1995. No success goes unpunished, I suppose.)

Canadian fire science did not die completely in 1995 though. It was resurrected at Banff, where again a tiny cadre of dedicated souls have continued to make breakthroughs. Captained by Cliff White, the Banff crew developed empirical, on-the-ground systems for reinserting fire into the landscape. The Banff fire program has led to prescribed fire actions remarkably similar to the traditional practices of the First Peoples, in effect a closing of the circle of Canadian fire history.

Yet [the fire history of] Canada was more than the transcendent dialectic between the tidal tugs of freezing and firing. Such primordial struggles did not define Canada: Canadians did. It was their capacity — too rarely admitted — to choose that shaped the outcome. It was asking too much of Canadians that they embrace fire in the bush, but they could engage it, and they would have to, whether they wished to or not. That engagement would not take the form of a grand national strategy — Canadian geography and history and politics argued against such a solution. Rather they would meet it with pragmatic means that satisfied their instrumental vision of fire and its landscapes. They would invent and adapt and tinker with tools and institutions that would shelter them from the vagarities and occasional terror of boreal flame and perhaps, here and there, allow them to exploit it.

Speaking of closing circles, it is interesting to note that the key document guiding the modern Parks Canada fire program, written by Cliff White in 1989, is entitled Keepers of the Flame. That phrase is borrowed from Pyne, S.J., Vestal fires and virgin lands: a historical perspective on fire and wilderness, 1985. (Life imitates art imitates life imitates art… and so on incestuously.)

Awful Splendour is scholarly and not a light read. The casual or recreational reader might not enjoy it as much as Brittlebush Valley (Pyne, 2005) [here] for instance. But to Canadians who live in the path of their fire history, and to anyone engaged in solving the dialectical riddle of fire and forests, Awful Splendour is a must read. (The hardback is a trifle spendy, but UBC is releasing a reasonably priced paper back edition soon.)

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