John Maclean's forward for Stephen Pyne's book

John Maclean has written three books about wildland fire: “Fire on the Mountain”, “Fire and Ashes”, and “The Thirtymile Fire”. Recently he wrote a foreword to Stephen J. Pyne’s “Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910”, first published in 2001, which is being reissued in 2008 by Mountain Press in Missoula.

We have permission from John and Mountain Press to reprint the foreword here. In the excerpt below, John writes about the fires of 1910 and the cabin at Seely Lake, Montana that has been in his family for generations. The entire foreword is worth a read.

“This summer a palpable cloak of heat and expectation hung over the landscape as though the predictable and cherished past had been replaced by an unfamiliar monster. Make no mistake, northwestern Montana is fire country and has been for centuries. The marks of fire, discovered in tree rings when one of the giant larch trees finally thunders to the ground, show that for centuries fire occurred along the shores of Seeley Lake every quarter century or so – until our forebears stopped the cycle in the wake of the Great Fires of 1910, the subject of Stephen Pyne’s Year of the Fires. When I was growing up, the Forest Service, the agency responsible for the federal land around the cabin, did not allow us to cut a tree and even discouraged clearing brush. The offset was the promise that the Forest Service would contain any fire that threatened the area under the full suppression policy that was adopted in response to the 1910 calamity.

That full suppression policy now has been formally abandoned – along with the rule forbidding the cutting of trees around Seeley Lake. In recent years, the Forest Service itself undertook a forest thinning and light burning project in the area. The treated zones provoked complaints in the first year or two because they looked rough, but they have become a glorious sight since then. Densely packed stands of “dog hair” lodgepole pine have been opened up, disclosing centuries-old trees. The big trees, whose growth was stunted in recent decades because they were deprived of moisture and light, now can take their place as giants and future giants. Fuzzy new trees and low brush carpet the forest floor. Wildlife can move freely. Humans can hike or snowmobile through the stands without battling brush. The forest is not fire proof, but a low-intensity fire would likely burn through here without catastrophic damage. Regular clearing by fire is what allowed the giants to grow big in the first place.

During the summer, I mowed down the tall grass near the cabin, felled a couple of dead lodgepole pines, and cleared a year’s accumulation of duff from near the cabin. Then I left the place to its rendezvous with fire – which was not long in coming.”

Maclean’s and Pyne’s books can be found at the International Association of Wildland Fire Books page.

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