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Review

Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada

By Stephen J. Pyne

November 4, 2013

Review By Philip Van Huizen

For anyone familiar with environmental history, Stephen J. Pyne is as synonymous with the word “fire” as is Smokey the Bear. As a former firefighter in the Grand Canyon, a renowned historian at Arizona State University, and a member of the UN’s Wildfire Advisory Group, Pyne probably has more experience with the history of wildfires the world over than anyone alive. Indeed, his Cycle of Fire series – what Pyne has referred to as his “Leatherstocking Tales” – include fire histories of the United States (Fire in America, 1982), Antarctica (The Ice, 1986), Australia (Burning Bush, 1991), Europe (Vestal Fire, 1997), and the globe (World Fire, 1995). It is not surprising, then, that since the 1980s the Canadian Forest Service has urged Pyne to turn his prodigious talents to the history of fire in Canada. It is also not surprising that Pyne eventually agreed to such a project since Canada, as he explains, “is a big country with abundant fires and a literature to describe them” (xxv). 

Of course, Pyne is not the first to write about wildfire in Canada. At the provincial level, Peter J. Murphy (History of Forest and Prairie Fire Control Policy in Alberta, 1985) and Patrick Blanchet (Forest Fires: The Story of a War, 2003), for example, have studied wildfire suppression in Alberta and Quebec, respectively. In British Columbia, the major point of reference remains John Parminter’s 1978 UBC master’s thesis “An Historical Review of Forest Fire Management in British Columbia.” Richard Rajala’s recent study, Feds, Forests, and Fire: A Century of Canadian Forestry Innovation (2005), on the other hand, examines forest fire management at the federal level by focusing on the evolution of the Canadian Forest Service in the twentieth century and its various experts, theories, and technologies. Awful Splendour bravely goes beyond all of these studies, however, incorporating their separate insights into exhaustive original research to form a sweeping narrative that examines the roles of fire and humans as agents of historical and environmental change. 

To tackle the immensely complicated task of sorting through Canada’s overlapping bioregional, political, and institutional borders, Pyne organizes Awful Splendour chronologically into three successively larger sections: “Torch,” “Axe,” and “Engine.” Each tells the story of how a human technological revolution changed “fire regimes” in Canada. The first section, “Torch,” reflects on how the geophysical make-up of Canada and the effects of climate formed the Canadian landscape into a series of “fire rings” – tundra, boreal forest, prairie, mountain and hill, and coastal. Pyne also describes how Aboriginal groups used fire for agriculture and wildlife management, which affected the nature of these fire rings as well. In “Axe,” Pyne details how European settlement changed the relationship that humans had with fire and thus with the Canadian landscape. Colonial farming and settlement patterns, through massive amounts of clearing and cutting, increased the amount of combustible materials that could feed wildfires. This increased the size of fires and started Canadians down the path of fire suppression, which included controlling indigenous and pioneer uses of fire. The third – and by far the largest – section (302 pages), “Engine,” examines how industrialization fundamentally altered relationships with fire in Canada at both the federal and the provincial levels. Through the invention and use of such technologies as airplanes, chemical retardants, and computer simulations, fire suppression became an ever more technical and sophisticated endeavour as forestry experts and institutions participated in a global effort to fight wildfires. This caused fire suppression budgets to balloon, while alternative fire science and management experiments remained underfunded and understaffed. Meanwhile, the size and intensity of fires continued to grow. In the end, fire suppression became an institution unto itself, with a complicated network of experts and equipment spread among the provinces, the federal government, and into the United States. Such networks and firefighting practices are difficult to change due to the amount of resources invested in them, even though current ecological views now advocate the importance of wildfire. More recent Parks Canada experiments with controlled burnings in Banff that mirror earlier First Nations techniques, however, provide evidence that Canada’s fire history is perhaps changing again. 

The strength of Awful Splendour lies in the prodigious narrative talents of its author. Pyne is a master historian whose command of language is elegant and evocative, and he uses it to great effect in each section to describe recurring and intertwining themes – what he calls “nested narratives” – such as climate, fire as a historical agent, and humans and the institutions they have created to manage fire. Thus we learn of the constant battle between fire and ice to form Canada’s fire rings (to which global warming adds an interesting new twist); Canada’s most famous fires, such as the 1825 Mirimachi fire in New Brunswick or the 2003 fires near Kelowna; and of how a continuum of fire witnesses and “experts” – including naturalist Henry Hind (whose description of prairie fire as “an awful splendour” provides Pyne’s title), Canadian geological surveyor Robert Bell, and “tracer index” creators James Wright and Herbert Beall – described and tried to grapple with Canadian wildfire. These “nested narratives” are told in a poetic style that is all Pyne’s own and that lends a powerful sense of detail to his larger narrative. 

This attention to detail in Awful Splendour, however, also reflects a weakness – one that often afflicts such sweeping studies of Canadian history. Pyne’s decision to present the complicated nature of provincial-federal fire history region by region and province by province rather than through a case study approach renders the narrative at times redundant and makes the third section a chore to read (at least in places). Still, such a strategy supplies plenty of interest for the BC aficionado as its history of fire suppression is told in greater detail than it could have been had a case-study approach been utilized.

Overall, Awful Splendour is a formidable and impressive book that complements Pyne’s other Cycle of Fire works, and it is sure to be a must-read for Canadian environmental historians, historical geographers, and forestry and wildfire specialists.