The West Is Burning: On Michael Kodas’s “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame”

So after having owned a home in Custer County, Colorado (Go Wildcats!) for fifteen years and having been a frequent visitor to the Rockies since 1978—the year of my first trip to Yellowstone—I’m both fascinated by and have a fear of forest fires. In 1988, the infamous year when most of Yellowstone National Park was burning—the park was closed, a half-million acres burned, or about two-thirds of the park—I was backpacking in the Wind River mountains of Wyoming, south of Yellowstone: I remember once hiking to the top of a ridge to watch the alpenglow on nearby peaks, and seeing flaming trees on a ridge not too many miles distant. At the time I wasn’t very worried, considering the fire to be too far away; since the winds were light and not blowing in our direction, we thought the flames were actually rather pretty. How naive I was. That was then: Now my feeling is more like the tagline from the old Jeff Goldblum film The Fly: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Why the change of heart? I recently read Michael Kodas’s new book of nonfiction, Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame (2017), for one thing. But the thirty years that have elapsed since my afternoon on a mountainside in Wyoming have been the grand time of Climate Change, and things are considerably worse now than they were before: more heat, more fuel, more catastrophe. This winter, for instance, southern Colorado is in a serious snow drought, and if relief doesn’t come in the spring (which of course we all hope for) the conditions will be rife for another wicked fire season.

Simply put, Megafire is an excellent and at times frightening book. Kodas describes the causes and particulars of fires throughout the West, from Texas to California and Idaho, and features several Colorado fires in great detail, including the Four-Mile Canyon Fire and the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012 (which burned several hundred homes in Colorado Springs). Overall he presents the idea that our forest service policy of fire suppression has led to hotter, larger fires, and the popularity of homes in the mountains (like mine!) makes the public at more danger than ever before. The scariest passages describe how fast a fire can move and “blow up,” most often triggered by high winds, which sometimes shift unexpectedly. I’ll give the book this praise: It’s changed my thinking about forest fires. They are common in the West and I’ve been driving by them, and choking on their smoke and ash, for years, but after reading descriptions of people surrounded by fire with no escape route, I’ll be extra careful next time I encounter one. The Yarnell Hill Fire of Arizona (July of 2013) frames the book, as begins with a description of its aftermath, and then ends the book with a description of exactly how it happened, and how nineteen firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died. It’s a sobering story, and one that deserves to be told, and read. You feel for the firefighters, and for their families.

Unfortunately, politically things have also gotten worse: It’s an outrage and a travesty what the Trump administration has done to the EPA—in only one year!—and Trump’s ridiculous assertion that Climate Change is a “hoax” serves as a reminder to the triumph of stupidity in the 21st century, our so-called Information Age. That Trump seems not only to ignore but to be actively hostile to West, the part of the U.S. most vulnerable to the blistering effects of Climate Change, is an additional embarrassment and shame. I’m glad that Michael Kodas has written Megafire, a kind of wake-up call for protection of our western forests.

About williamjcobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of two novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He may be contacted at wjcobb@gmail.com.
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