Friday, November 16, 2007

Under a Flaming Sky, by Daniel James Brown

In 1894, several wildfires in Minnesota merged into a massive conflagration that killed hundreds, obliterated several towns, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Hot, dry weather conditions were ideal for fires, and the detritus of logging—acres of clear-cut, slash, stumps, and brush—made it all but inevitable that a large fire would burn out of control. Brown focuses on the town of Hinckley and its residents to dramatize a natural disaster that is all but unknown today.

Brown’s account is harrowing, jaw-dropping, and impossible to put down. He describes a recent forest-fire in Idaho to illustrate how a fire grows into a massive conflagration that can explode hillsides of timber, create self-sustaining weather patterns of high winds and huge convection updrafts, build walls of flame hundreds of feet high, send clouds of explosive gas in advance of the flames, and produce an energy output equivalent to Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs exploding every fifteen minutes. In comparison to the Idaho fire, the Hinckley fire was size times larger, faster, and more destructive.

Brown approaches the science on a basic level, just enough to weave the facts into the human drama as the fire engulfs thousands of acres and burns through Hinckley and other towns in a matter of hours. The fire approaches so rapidly that the town is caught unawares; the size of the fire is unknown and people attempt to fight it, to save their possessions, or wait too long to flee. Families are separated, trains race through flames and over burning bridges, individuals meet horrifying deaths in cellars, wells, swamps, and fields, and lumber yards, buildings, and rail ties explode and burn to ash and molten steel. Brown researched eye-witness accounts to leave no doubt about the horror survivors experienced, from towering walls of flame and acrid smoke advancing faster than a man can run to the terror of standing in a lake, surrounded by fire, isolated from loved ones and suffering from burns and exhaustion. There are scenes in this book that make fictionalized horror seem tame. This was real: people watched as their loved ones literally collapsed and burst into flame, or listened as people roasted alive, their screams altering pitch as superheated air burned their vocal chords.

How Brown kept the pace through the first two-thirds is a mystery to me. I read it too fast. Unfortunately, the pacing slows as the fire dies down and recovery operations begin. The horror isn’t over: hundreds are dead, many bodies are nothing but ash and completely unidentifiable, families are devastated, entire towns destroyed, livelihoods and possessions lost forever. The state and nation offer assistance, but in the long run, the status quo prevails. The timber industry wasn’t regulated, medicine couldn’t offer effective burn treatment, and there was no such thing as post-traumatic counseling. People simply started over, a quiet heroism that doesn’t carry as much emotional weight as the passages describing the fire itself.
That doesn’t matter, in the end. Brown avoids direct conclusions in his effort to explore the fire and its legacy (his own grandfather survived the fire). Nevertheless, history repeats itself, and quiet heroism will always be the hallmark of natural disaster, no matter how technologically advanced we become. As I write this, thousands are evacuating the burning hills around San Diego; many will lose their homes. Every summer it is the same. Presaged by the Peshtigo and Chicago fires, the Hinckley fire was itself only one of many devastating fires that summer and over the following years. Despite advances in fire science, conservation, logging practices, medicine, and counseling, we still hold ourselves superior to nature, and so nature will continue to test our pride, our arrogance, and our will—and it will always win.

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