That ring of fire |

That ring of fire

Wren Wertin
John Maclean's newest book explains why wildland fires have become a national problem. He looks at three historic fires, using them as guides for examining the wildfire policy of the past century. He'll be at Verbatim Booksellers Tuesday. Call 476-3032 for more information.

During the 2002 wildfire season, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed, 23 firefighters were killed, and more than 1.5 billion dollars were spent fighting the inferno. Whether people are interested or not, it’s a subject that’s become part of the national consciousness as the problem grows.

Wildfire expert, journalist and author John Maclean has been interested in the subject of wildfires for the better part of his life, and has studied them intensively for the past decade. He’s just released his second book on wildfires, “Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire,” and kicks off his book tour at Verbatim Booksellers in Lionshead. He’ll present a slide show and be available for discussion and questions Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

In “Fire and Ashes,” Maclean tells the stories of three historic fires, the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, the Rattlesnake Fire of 1953 and the Sadler Fire of 1999.

“I use them as a guide for examining wildfire policy over the past century,” he said. “If there is one thing that consistently draws me back to the subject of wildfire, it’s that many catastrophic fires, and almost all fire fatalities, are, on some level, preventable.”

Maclean is also the author of “Fire on the Mountain,” a comprehensive study of the South Canyon Fire in Glenwood Springs on Storm King Mountain.

He inherited his obsession with wildfires from his father, Norman, author of “River Runs Through It.” His father was interested in the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, which claimed the lives of 13 firefighters, 12 smokejumpers and a wilderness guard. Maclean assembled his father’s research in book form for a posthumous publication of “Young Men and Fire,” now a classic.

“The unstated theme of my father’s book is that a tragedy of this magnitude must never happen again,” he explained.

Yet it continues to happen, and becomes more tragic because it’s preventable. Mistakes add up, and cost lives.

“Where the fatalities are, is where there’s a string of unbroken mistakes,” he said. “They become greater than the sum of their parts.”

Firefighters are learning how to refuse assignments, which is imperative. But fires will always be unpredictable no matter now skilled people become at reading them. The best tool humans have is prevention.

“Fire seasons indeed have become more dramatic and destructive in recent years,” said Maclean. “And this trend will continue until we revise our fire prevention policies.”

Among those policies is the feeling that logging is a very dirty word. Maclean is more than familiar with it – as a reporter and editor for the Chicago Tribune, he was one of the folks who exposed the logging companies’ policy of clearcutting in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

But logging is one of the tools available to people for preventing wildfires.

“Logging companies have a bad reputation that they’ve earned,” said Maclean. “We’re in an experimental phase, but we shouldn’t leave out tools like logging. The logging industry is 20 percent of what it was. We’re not talking about going in and clearcutting, which in the late ’70s, I helped blow the whistle on, but now I think the pendulum is swinging the other way.”

By not logging at all – and not creating roads to make areas accessible to firefighting crews – forests have plenty of kindling that will ignite even in a mild year.

“Experience over the past few years shows that human intervention – mechanical thinning and light burning – promotes forest health, giving trees a chance to grow,” he explained. “Forests look more attractive, and the next time there’s a fire, it stays close to the ground.”

And with the nation alert and watching, if a logging company screws up, it won’t go undetected, he said.

“He’s so passionate about fire,” said Allesandra Mayer, owner of Verbatim Booksellers. “He’s a really interesting speaker, and he’ll be giving pertinent information about wildfires.”

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.

Support Local Journalism