Nov 30, 2005

Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America
By Rocky Barker
277 pages, Hard Cover: $24.95 Island Press, 2005.

"Burn Baby Burn:" Yellowstone fires still ignite controversy

As Rocky Barker stood with his fellow journalist, Jim Carrier, near Old Faithful on September 7, 1988, he describes this scene: "Coals were pelting his back and I could see fist-sized firebrands by my head. We jumped a small stream and stumbled through the forest toward safety. The entire area turned black as night and the howling wind sounded like a jet engine … the forest we had just left ignited as if someone had lit a match to gasoline."

Barker, a contributor to High Country News, was covering the fires for the Idaho Falls Post-Register and other Western newspapers. Now, in his new book, Scorched Earth, Barker gives readers a first-hand account of the chaos and conflagration of the Yellowstone fires. Additionally, Barker draws on several months of his own archival research and puts those fires into the broad historical context of forest-fire policy in the United States.

Using the 1988 Yellowstone fires as a backdrop, Barker meticulously reveals how the National Park Service's fire policy--and indeed all forest-fire policy throughout all federal and state agencies--is rooted in the historical origins of Yellowstone National Park. It was in Yellowstone in the late 1800s and early 1900s that the federal government first got into the business of fighting fires and developed its militaristic approach to fire suppression. It was in Yellowstone that forest fire was first seen as a threat to the visitor experience and to our society's need to control disorderly nature.

Barker's historical account also weaves in many of the colorful characters in the environmental movement including Aldo Leopold and Gifford Pinchot. As Barker's story reaches the present, Yellowstone fire ecologist Don Despain and Yellowstone superintendent Bob Barbee play key roles by juxtaposing the complexities of ecology and public policy. Millions of Americans watched the fires on TV news, and as the fires heated up, so did the political pressure on the leadership of Yellowstone and the National Park Service.

Rocky Barker, now an environmental journalist for the Idaho Statesman and a recipient of the National Wildlife Federation's "National Conservation Achievement Award," wields a steady and unbiased pen as he discusses the long-standing debate about the necessity of fire in forest ecosystems. Scorched Earth will likely be recognized as seminal work in the West's fire history--it is a poignant historical analysis told with a true storyteller's flair.

--Gary Wockner