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Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire

Overview

In 2002, more than seven million acres were burned, at a firefighting cost of over a billion dollars. Are huge wilderness fires now an enduring feature of the American landscape? John N. Maclean, the author of the acclaimed Fire on the Mountain, offers a view from the front lines, combining action-packed storytelling with moving insights about firefighters and informed analysis of firefighting strategy past and present. Beginning with a riveting account of the worst case of arson in wildfire history -- the 1953 ...
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Overview

In 2002, more than seven million acres were burned, at a firefighting cost of over a billion dollars. Are huge wilderness fires now an enduring feature of the American landscape? John N. Maclean, the author of the acclaimed Fire on the Mountain, offers a view from the front lines, combining action-packed storytelling with moving insights about firefighters and informed analysis of firefighting strategy past and present. Beginning with a riveting account of the worst case of arson in wildfire history -- the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire in Mendocino National Forest, which claimed the lives of fifteen firefighters -- Maclean explains the mysterious dynamics of fire, and the courage and techniques required to combat it. One such mystery examined is the life-threatening 1999 Sadler Fire in Nevada, when a line of flames suddenly blew up and trapped six firefighters mistakenly placed in harm's way. And finally, Maclean returns to Mann Gulch, the site of his father's classic Young Men and Fire, to interview the last survivor of the worst disaster in the history of smoke jumping, illustrating how fatal fires continue to burn in the hearts and minds of firefighters for generations.

New settlements on the edges of wilderness have expanded the map of fire country and extended the season to twelve months of danger, stretching across the country from Florida to California. As the dangers increase so do the inevitable conflicts among property owners, environmentalists, and firefighters. While evenhandedly addressing all interests, Maclean shows what can be done to reduce unnecessary risks while also protecting the nation's grasslands and forests, which require fire for their renewal. Fire and Ashes presents a riveting and emotional story, one that in many ways John Maclean was destined to tell.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This collection of two long and two short essays on U.S. wildfire fighting displays the excellent reporting skills that made Maclean's first book, Fire on the Mountain, a dazzling and popular success. While his earlier book gained much of its storytelling strength from its focus on one incident, Colorado's South Canyon fire of 1994, Maclean's new work is less unified, held together not by a grand idea but primarily by the author's interest in aspects of fire; consequently, the book never becomes more than the sum of its parts. The longest section is a reconstruction of the 1953 rattlesnake fire in California's Mendocino National Forest, which killed 15 wildland firefighters. Maclean's dogged pursuit of reconstructing some key assumptions about the fire makes this a thriller in disguise. The highlight of the book is the second long piece on the 1999 Sadler fire in Nevada, which displays all the power of his earlier work through a highly charged and exciting account of a firefighting crew's disastrous encounter with an uncontrollable fire. Two smaller essays, however-one on the last survivor of the 1954 Mann Gulch fire, which Maclean's father, Norman, wrote about in Young Men and Fire; another a short history of wildland fires-seem to be afterthoughts. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Portraits of great wildfires from ex-Chicago Tribune reporter Maclean (Fire on the Mountain, 1999). The 1953 Rattlesnake fire in northern California was the result of arson, which gives the author a chance to explore the motives of the arsonist (in this case banal, more the province of an anger-management specialist than a smokejumper) as well as the physiography of the fire: how it raced downhill, trumping the wisdom of firefighting lore, the willful winds resulting in a terrible blowup, "a swift, thunderous event engulfing everything in its path in a tidal wave of white-hot fire." Maclean’s phrasing seems unnecessarily overwrought compared with the simple fact that 15 firefighters died as a consequence of the fire's erratic behavior; also uncomfortably mismatched are the bullying tactics of the arson investigators and the instability of the man accused of igniting the fire. The author depicts the emotional undertow of death, along with the inexorability of a fire gone wild: "When water hit the flames, puffs of white smoke shot upward. Then a new spot fire would sparkle into being a few yards away." The second blaze, which erupted in 1999 in northern Nevada, demonstrates the dangers of not immediately jumping on a fire when suppression is the tactic of choice, a topic that segues neatly into chapters on the evolution of firefighting policy in the Forest Service. In addition, Maclean notes the folly of hubris in the face of wildfire, the administrative snafus that can result in entrapment of firefighters, the pure miracle of escape ("The nugget of flame churned at the mouth of the gulch, then unexpectedly sped away"), even the value of a personal prayer. "Mommy, help me! I'm burning!" wasthe radio call of one fighter. She lived, happy to face down the jibes. Sharp descriptive analyses capture this atavistic force that charges across the human imagination in phenomenal and dreadful fashion. (21 b&w illustrations, not seen; 2 maps) Author tour. Film rights to LMNO and A&E, by Bill Contardi/William Morris on behalf of Jennifer Lyons/Writers House
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641606588
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/2/2003
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 238
  • Product dimensions: 6.62 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

John N. Maclean was a writer, reporter, and editor for the Chicago Tribune for thirty years. His first book, Fire on the Mountain, was the MPBA best nonfiction title of 1999. A longtime student of wildfire, he assisted in the posthumous publication of Young Men and Fire, which was written by his father, Norman Maclean. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., and

Montana.

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Read an Excerpt

From Fire and Ashes:

Horton, running flat out next to Naar, figured it had to be the weather that had betrayed him. He knew the afternoon winds would be strong; he knew the fire was building up. The burnout, though, had proceeded beautifully. He and his crew were at the head of a major fire conducting the day’s biggest operation, the crucial burnout. He had picked people who could handle the job. There would be more plum assignments to come.

Then out of nowhere a gigantic fire whirl had appeared followed by a wall of flame, and suddenly it was the worst moment of his career and even of his life. It had to be a dirty trick of the weather, not something he had done himself.

Things began to happen at speeds Horton had only heard about. Low grass transformed into tall flames. A wave of airless heat struck him a blow. He felt a stinging pain on his neck and dived headfirst into the grass, landing next to Naar. When he opened his eyes everything around him—the ground, his gloved hands, the exposed skin of his wrist and his yellow fire shirt—shimmered an incandescent white, except for one dark, round patch under his head, as though an atomic bomb had gone off and all that remained was a nuclear shadow.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 The Arsonist, the Watch, and the Rattlesnake Fire, 1953 9
2 The Ghost of Storm King 101
3 The Last Survivor 175
4 A Short of Wildland Fire 193
A Glossary of Formal and Informal Fire Terms 215
Acknowledgments 221
Index 227
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