Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘forest fire’

The saga of how one of the most famous paintings of a forest fire was created and what happened to it resembles at times an international spy thriller. An article in Forest History Today (“Untamed Art,” Fall 2008) by historian Stephen J. Pyne tracked that mystery but had no ending because no one could say where the original painting then was. Nearly a decade later, he picked up the trail.

It’s the archetype globally for most prints, and probably most paintings, of a forest fire. But the reproductions come themselves from earlier reproductions. The original, Lesnoi pozhar, is a mammoth painting created by the Russian artist, A. K. Denisov-Uralsky, around 1900.

The story, briefly, is this. Alexei Kuz’mich Denisov-Uralsky was born in 1864 in Yekaterinburg, grew up in the family trade crafting displays of semi-precious stones, then moved into painting, particularly scenes from the Urals; for years he was the very epitome of a starving artist. He obsessed about painting fires on the landscape, from grass fires to crown fires. His breakthrough came in 1900 with an exhibit, “The Urals in Art,” in which he displayed his climactic effort, Lesnoi pozhar, or “The Forest Fire.” More triumphs followed. He agreed to contribute the massive painting  (198 by 270 cm; 78 by 106 in.) to the Russian exhibit headed to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

The Russian pavilion, however, was dismantled shortly before the fair opened out of pique over American support for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. Instead, the 600-piece exhibit was displayed on consignment to a Russian entrepreneur named Edward Grunwaldt.  Denisov-Uralsky’s masterpiece won a silver medal and was reproduced in color by several newspapers under the title The Untamed Element. The reproductions were themselves reproduced, copy after copy, for advertising, fire prevention posters, calendars, and simply as prints. Reproductions appeared in silk tapestry and on porcelain teacups. (Today you can find reproductions on eBay or printed on items for sale on Etsy.)

Through various frauds and incompetence, virtually every piece of Russian art entrusted to Grunwaldt disappeared. The artists got nothing and heard nothing. Somehow Lesnoi pozhar ended up in the hands of Adolphus Busch, the beer magnate, who in 1926 hung it in the foyer of a hotel, The Adolphus, he was refurbishing in Dallas. In 1950 it was relocated to the hospitality room of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in St. Louis. Then, in 1979, for reasons that are still murky, August Busch decided to donate the painting to the U.S. government, which, through the vehicle of the National Endowment for the Humanities, repatriated it to the Soviet Union. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin alluded to plans to send it to a museum in the Urals. In fact, it had again vanished.

The original during the repatriation ceremony in 1979. From left to right: James Symington, a former congressman from Missouri, who assisted in arranging the hand-over; Joseph Duffy, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who acted as an intermediary agent between the Busch family and the government of the USSR; and Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador. (Courtesy Robert Williams)

In 2014 the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts hosted a major exhibition on Alexei Kuz’mich Denisov-Uralsky, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth. It tracked down many of his fire paintings, but was unable to locate Lesnoi pozhar. The Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., refused to comment. No art or political authority in Russia knew where it had gone. Months after the exhibit had ended, however, word came that the fugitive painting may have been located in the basement of a museum in Tomsk. A photograph and measured dimensions suggest that it is in fact the elusive original. As yet no one has positively identified it nor restored it, but the curator of the Yekaterinburg exhibit, Ludmila Budrina, is confident this is the original.[1] It seems Lesnoi pozhar has passed yet another way station on its long odyssey homeward.

Stephen J. Pyne is the author of numerous books on the history of wildfire around the world. His most recent publications are Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America and its accompanying series “To The Last Smoke.” An excerpt from Between Two Fires is available in FHS’s magazine Spring 2017 edition of Forest History Today.

NOTES

[1] Ludmila Budrina wrote an update on Denisov-Uralsky’s fire paintings: “Wildfire in A. K. Denisov-Uralsky’s Canvases: Destinies of the Paintings,” Quaestio Rossica No. 2 (2015): 41-51.

Read Full Post »

The following book review by FHS staff historian James G. Lewis appears in the Scientists’ Nightstand section of the July-August 2014 issue of American Scientist.

ARMING MOTHER NATURE: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. Jacob Darwin Hamblin. 320 pp. Oxford University Press, 2013. $29.95.arming mother nature cover

In May 1960 scientists and military officers at NATO headquarters came to a conclusion about the massive earthquake that had just stunned Chile: One nation’s natural disaster is another’s military opportunity. The earthquake, still the most powerful ever recorded, triggered mudslides, floods, tsunamis, even a volcanic eruption, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless. It sent 35-foot waves racing across the ocean at 450 miles per hour before smashing into Japan, Australia, and the Philippines. Nonetheless, says Jacob Darwin Hamblin in his book Arming Mother Nature, from their vantage point in Paris NATO leaders saw the seismic event “as a shining example of what Americans might soon implement against the Soviet Union.” If they could determine where to place a hydrogen bomb in the Earth’s crust, scientists thought they might be able to replicate what happened in the Pacific and cripple the Soviet state, all while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability.

NATO used the term environmental warfare for this new strategy—that is, harnessing nature’s physical forces and biological pathways to wage a global war. After opening his book with the unsettling Chile anecdote, Hamblin, who teaches the history of science and technology at Oregon State University, lays out a fascinating and often disturbing history of American efforts to enlist Mother Nature in the war against Communism. Under the guise of national security, he says, “military and civilian scientific work proceeded together.” Triggering earthquakes with subterranean explosions, controlling the weather with hydrogen bombs, introducing pathogens via air-dropped contaminated bird feathers—no scheme was too outlandish to contemplate. The government even conducted experiments on American civilian and military populations as well as on America’s enemies. In the context of war, anything could be morally justified.

The desire to control and manipulate nature on a massive scale—and the belief that doing so was viable—had emerged earlier, during World War II. American military leaders took note of how fires caused by incendiary bombs Allied forces had dropped on Japanese and German urban centers consumed city after city. Washington strategists contemplated using biochemical weapons on Japanese rice fields to deprive both civilians and soldiers of the primary staple of their diet. Ultimately they wanted to manipulate nature on the atomic level. Fearful that the Germans were developing an atomic bomb, the United States raced to develop one first. For the next half-century the desire to outpace the enemy in weapons development drove military doctrine and much scientific research. Says Hamblin, “Scientific growth after World War II owes its greatest debt to the U.S. armed services, which paid the lion’s share of the bill.”

Yet these atomic-era mushroom clouds came with a kind of silver lining for environmentalists. In time, the tireless search for vulnerabilities to exploit expanded and deepened our scientific understanding of nature. By the late 1950s, public questions arose about the human impact on the environment, leading eventually to predictions of environmental catastrophe. The data used by those in the international environmental movement came directly from military-funded research. Moreover, global climate change would not have been detected during the latter years of the 20th century without scientific projects funded by the U.S. Defense Department.

Arming Mother Nature is divided into three thematic sections that are loosely chronological. The first, “Pathways of Nature,” covers the brief period following World War II when the Americans were the only ones with nuclear arms but possessed so few that the military wanted other, less costly weapons of mass destruction (a phrase government officials tried to avoid using publicly then) to stem the rising tide of Communism. The military believed it required flexibility in how it might respond to the threat. Before the Soviets’ emergence as a nuclear power, a flexible response meant using biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. (As we’ll see, in the 1960s “flexible response” would take on a whole different meaning.) In addition to researching biological and radiological warfare, scientists strove to learn more about how disease becomes epidemic. Some initial experiments focused on crop destruction rather than on infecting crops with disease: Anti-livestock and anti-crop weapons seemed the most logical and cost-effective approach. Other researchers debated which pathogens to mass-produce and the best ways to spread them.

“Forces of Nature,” the second section, covers the first decade of the thermonuclear era. Research and policy as well as military strategy shifted with the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949. The blast triggered more questions: Could the United States wage and win a nuclear war? If not, how could the West defeat the Soviets and their allies? Manipulating nature became a major focus of strategic thinking, and the military dollars followed. Opinions within the nuclear research community were divided over the most effective use of a bomb: dropping a nuclear device directly on a city or introducing floods and wildfires by targeting dams and forests. Meanwhile, research into developing bigger and more powerful nuclear weapons had led some scientists to study nuclear fallout and its effects. As researchers learned more, their thinking turned increasingly toward using geophysical forces, such as oceans and winds, militarily. It was within this context that American defensive planners perceived opportunity in the aftermath of the 1960 Chile earthquake.

The third section, “Gatekeepers of Nature,” picks up around the time President Kennedy issued the military doctrine of Flexible Response, calling for a diversified nuclear arsenal as well as the use of small, specialized combat units such as the Army’s Special Forces. Many Americans believed, as Kennedy did, that science and technology could help win wars abroad while also solving problems such as hunger and disease at home. “Scientists,” Hamblin says, “were not merely asked to do research or to develop technology but to plan global strategy. That encouraged civilian scientists to think of the whole Earth as the playing field.” They used computers and game theory to develop models predicting the outcome of countless scenarios. Hamblin observes, “Military planning and environmental prediction were rarely far removed from each other, as they asked the same questions, drew from the same data, and often involved the same scientists.”

It is not surprising, then, that Americans learned of the environmental damage caused by nuclear testing and chemical spraying from scientists such as Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, and Rachel Carson, who consulted military researchers’ data in their own work. At the time few realized that environmental scientists often drew on data and reports generated from projects funded by the Defense Department. In writings aimed at the general public, environmentalists discussed the planet’s future in catastrophic terms. That books like Carson’s Silent Spring and Erlich’s The Population Bomb became bestsellers reflected Americans’ growing concern over the environment in the 1960s.

The Vietnam War proved a turning point in the history of catastrophic environmentalism. In his chapter on the war, Hamblin examines how and why military and civilian scientists openly used Vietnam as a vast “playing field” for all manner of biochemical weapon research. Even the U.S. Forest Service got involved, loaning fire researchers to the Department of Defense, where they experimented with spraying defoliants and dropping incendiary bombs intended to consume swaths of jungle in massive forest fires. But soon the war abroad fueled widespread protest back home, and antiwar activism paved the way for environmental activism. By 1969 the environmental movement had grown powerful enough that American policy makers and diplomats needed to act if they were to maintain control of what was now a global issue. President Nixon pushed through robust environmental legislation and attempted to promote environmental issues through NATO, keeping the United States in a leadership position. Discussing ecological issues with the Soviets provided additional points of engagement besides nuclear disarmament and helped open a path for negotiating nonproliferation and arms-limitation treaties in the 1970s.

Although the relationship between scientists and military leaders transformed yet again in the face of new environmental challenges in the 1980s—the droughts in Africa, the global AIDS epidemic, and the scientific debate over climate change—and after the end of the Cold War, the connection that has existed between them since World War II remains today. Indeed, soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, American policy makers, scientists, and defense experts began discussing how terrorists might use forest fires as a weapon on American soil and ways to defend against it.

As a strategy, environmental warfare went global decades ago, and now the temptation to arm Mother Nature may always be with us. Arming Mother Nature reminds us that we do so at our peril.

Click here to read the original review on the American Scientist website.

Read Full Post »

The following post comes to us courtesy of Stephen J. Pyne, an environmental historian who has written extensively about the history of fire and fire policy and is the author of the FHS Issues Series book America’s Fires. This posting originally appeared on the website AZCentral.com on July 5. It was written after the Yarnell Fire incident that killed 19 hotshot firefighters on June 30, 2013.

“AFTER THE FIRE”

This time it feels personal.

All day I had noticed a film of smoke, and before dinner I watched to the north as the pall thickened and sky roughened into blue cloud, and wondered if there was a fire there, and if the clouds meant the winds would be squirrely, and if they might affect any burn under way. There was and they did.

The news passes, the mourning goes on. So will the contentious interpretation of what happened, and why, and what we might do about it. It does no dishonor to the fallen to note that we’ve seen this too often before and that little new is likely to emerge beyond the sickening particulars. Still, it’s worth rehearsing the basics.

Over the past 140 years we have created, by missteps and unintended consequences, a firescape that threatens both our natural habitat and our built landscape. The problem is systemic, the result of how we live on the land. In many respects it resembles our health care system. Horrors like the Yarnell Hill fire are part of the usually hidden costs.

We know a lot about the issues. We know we need to replace feral fire with tame fire. We know how to keep houses from burning. We know that we face an ecological insurgency that we can’t carpet bomb out of existence or beat down with summer surges of engines and crews, that we have to control the countryside. We know the scene is spiraling out faster than we can scale up our responses: we would need the equivalent of a new Civilian Conservation Corps program to catch up. Every contributing cause points in the same worsening direction.

The political landscape seems an equal shambles. The fundamental issues are not policies, but politics, and not just inadequate funding but an inability to reach consensus about what we want and how to do it. Disaster fires get hijacked to advance other agendas, too many of which are stalemated.

We’ve lost our middle ground, literally—the middle landscape between the extremes, the wild and the urban, that have defined the American West for the past 50 years. The landscape is polarizing as much as society, splitting between green fire and red. We can’t slow sprawl except by recessions. We can’t reconcile wild and working landscapes.  Instead we ask fire crews to plug the gaps. There is little reason to believe that fire casualties in Arizona will jolt the system to self-correct any more than mass killings in Colorado and Connecticut led to gun reform.

Two trends are worth watching. A National Cohesive Strategy for wildland fire that seeks to reconcile resources with risks is in its final development phase. If it succeeds it will serve as a fire constitution, a messy mechanism by which the hundreds of competing interests might work through the necessary compromises with some political legitimacy. We could move fire management beyond emergency response.

The second is that the agencies may adjust internally. They have learned to declare fire-vulnerable houses indefensible and to refuse to commit crews to some high-risk firescapes with limited values. They are often adopting a big-box model in which they pull back to some defensible barrier and burn out. They may expand the notion of defensibility to include whole communities and landscapes when conditions are extreme—exactly the time the bad fires are likely to rage. At such moments communities would have to rely on their own preparations.

We would move toward a hurricane model of protection. You’re warned. You board up the windows and either leave or stay. The fire blows through. The crews move back and hit hot spots. The community returns.  In the case of natural landscapes, the mountain burns over.  We try to rebuild more resilient fire regimes out of the aftermath. A troubling prospect, but we’ve lost the chance to get ahead of the burn rate, and the gears of the Cohesive Strategy could easily freeze up when the time comes for real money and decisions.

Once the flame of grief passes, the shouting will begin again. But maybe this time we can make the political personal. We can fix what is within our hands. We can look inside and ask if we are ready to have others pay the price for how we live on the land. We can at least pause and in a moment of silence listen to the still small voice that comes after the fire.

Steve Pyne

School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

Read Full Post »

As the Lewis and Clark expedition made its way through the beautiful, rugged area he would name “the gates of the rocky mountains,” Meriwether Lewis recorded in his journal on July 19, 1805: “this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet.” The rain storm, complete with hail and lightning, that had struck earlier at 1 pm could explain his description of the area: “every object here wears a dark and gloomy aspect.” While it’s easy to read foreshadowing into that quote, the “dark and gloomy aspect” we today associate with the Gates of the Mountains was also caused by lightning.

The call came in on the morning of August 5, 1949, from a fire lookout 30 miles away. A lightning storm the day before had rolled through and started a fire. The lookout reported smoke coming from the Gates of the Mountains wilderness area. At 12:30, a spotter plane flew over Mann Gulch and confirmed the fire. With most of the local firefighters tied up with two other fires, smokejumpers from Missoula were dispatched. By 3:10, 16 men (15 smokejumpers and 1 fire watch guard who had hiked in to help) were on the ground gathering up equipment and preparing to fight the fire in what they expected to be a routine job. Less than 3 hours later, 11 men were dead and two were dying from severe burns. In many ways, the suffering was just beginning.

Had it been a routine job, I wouldn’t be writing about the Mann Gulch fire today: those 13 men killed wouldn’t have passed into Forest Service and smokejumper lore; few if any would have heard of writer Norman Maclean, whose meditation on the deaths of the young men trapped by the fire still moves people from around the world to visit Mann Gulch and see where “the four horsemen” and the others fell that day. The friends and families of the dead would not still be mourning.

More than 60 years after the fire, LG Walker, a retired doctor from Charlotte, North Carolina, was on the boat tour of the Gates of the Mountains. Where the tour boat docks in Meriwether Canyon now stands two memorials to the men of Mann Gulch. Here Walker learned that Silas Raymond Thompson Jr.—a Charlotte native—was among those killed. He had never met Thompson. After sharing this bit of news with his friend Dan Morrill back home, the two started investigating how a young man from Charlotte had met his death in Montana. They were intrigued by how all these years later, Raymond’s friends and family (nobody who knew him called him “Silas”) were still haunted by his death. His death devastated his parents and still affects his sister’s life. Walker and Morrill soon realized that a tragedy fire has many dimensions, and set about making a documentary film in order to better understand the impact and legacy of the life of Silas Raymond Thompson. While other documentary films on Mann Gulch focus on the event and its impact on the Forest Service, Death at Mann Gulch attempts to capture how it affected one man’s community.

Raymond Thompson markers in Mann Gulch, taken in 2010 (courtesy of the author)

Of course, Charlotte was not the only community affected by what happened in Mann Gulch. In a small town in central Pennsylvania, the family of smokejumper Leonard Piper has also done its part to preserve that young man’s memory. His personal papers were recently donated to the local historical society (photocopies of them are now here at FHS). Though Leonard was buried in nearby Stahlstown, descendents of the Piper family gather every year in Pine Ridge Park outside of Blairsville, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, “for a family reunion and to remember a fallen hero, Leonard Piper.” The impact of his death is such that his story and a mention of the family reunion has a 3-page spread in The Insider’s Guide to Indiana County Parks & Trails, where that quote comes from. Mind you, there’s no memorial marker in the park. But Leonard Piper’s death still resonates enough in this town to warrant such a gesture. And these are the two families I know about.

Leonard Piper’s marker. This photo also appears in the Indiana County parks and trails guide.

What is it about Mann Gulch that continues to hold or capture the attention of so many? Our “This Day in History” blog post on what happened in Mann Gulch is one of our most viewed posts; my initial post from three years ago sharing my impressions after visiting Mann Gulch ranks up there and is one of our most commented upon posts. Certainly Maclean’s Young Men and Fire is a major contributor to the continued interest. Tragedy has its own attractiveness; witness the continuing fascination with sinking of the Titanic 100 years later. Yet few tragedies hold our attention like that of Mann Gulch. It is understandable why it might for the families of those who died. But I suspect that after those who knew the men killed are gone, the Mann Gulch Fire will continue to cast a spell. For me, the pull is personal: I’ve visited the site twice; I participated in the making of the film Death at Mann Gulch and contributed the photo of Piper’s marker above to the county’s guide; and I interviewed William “Bud” Moore, who was with crew chief Wag Dodge when he died and was consulted by Maclean when he was writing his beautiful elegiacal work. I could speculate about why it holds the attention of others, but I want to hear your thoughts on this. Why are you interested in Mann Gulch? Do you know of other families that continue to honor their loved ones like Leonard Piper’s does? If so, how do they do it?

Read Full Post »

On this date in 1871, the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and several smaller surrounding communities were obliterated by fire. The “booming town of 1700 people was wiped out of existence in the greatest fire disaster in American history,” according to the memorial marker that still stands in Peshtigo as silent sentinel watching over the graves of more than 1,100 of the fire’s victims. The fire, which destroyed more than $5 million in property and 2,400 square miles, was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred the same day and annihilated that city’s core. News of the Peshtigo fire didn’t even reach the state capital for two days. And when it did, Wisconsin’s governor was in Chicago with other state leaders trying to aid that stricken city and had to hurry home to help his own constituents.

Though still little known by the general public today, Peshtigo looms large in forest history and fire history circles. For example, several articles in the Fall 2008 issue of Forest History Today reference Peshtigo as an example of fire in the wildland-urban interface, and one looks at it in the context of wildfire and civil defense.

To mark the 140th anniversary, we have just finished processing a related archival collection, the Peshtigo Fire Centennial Collection, 1970-1990. In 1970, the town held a commemoration event marking the centennial of the fire. The new collection features event programs, commemorative items, publications, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other materials. A few things that caught our eyes were the commemorative stickers and the postage cancellation mark, which you can see on the finding aid page, and a bumper sticker and wooden coins. All materials were kindly donated by Karl W. Baumann.

Peshtigo Centennial bumper sticker

Peshtigo Centennial bumper sticker (click to enlarge)

Peshtigo Fire commemorative wooden coins

Peshtigo Fire commemorative wooden coins

Artist's rendering of Peshtigo Fire.

Artist's rendering of Peshtigo Fire approaching a Wisconsin farm (FHS2525).

Read Full Post »

This weekend marks the 101st anniversary of the “Big Blowup,” when 3 million acres of forestland went up in flames during the 1910 fires. In July of this year, I finally made the hike to Pulaski Tunnel outside of Wallace, Idaho, something I’d wanted to do for some time. The tunnel is where Ed Pulaski forced his fire crew at gunpoint and ordered them into the small tunnel as the inferno raged around them (you can read his firsthand account in this article). Because Wallace is not easy to get to, I thought I’d offer a virtual hike.

The trail was built by the Pulaski Project. The project was a substantial undertaking; researchers and archeologists had to first determine where the tunnel was; then came construction of the trail and installation of the signs in rugged country. Many thanks go to all of those who worked on the Pulaski Project.

The trailhead is just south of Wallace and the trail is a two-mile, mostly uphill, hike. Along the way you’ll find interpretive signs describing the Big Blowup and its aftermath, and about “Big Ed” and his life. (All photos are copyright James G. Lewis.)

The first few hundred yards are paved but then it’s compacted dirt the rest of the way. It’s a beautiful if slightly challenging hike because of the elevation change.

This the first sign along the trail. The trailhead is marked by posts with Pulaski tools on them.

To read the text on any of the signs, please click on the photo.

The trail runs along and above Placer Creek.

You’ve only started. There’s lots more to see after the jump.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

In her article, “Fire Alarm: Historians, and Thorstein Veblen, to the Rescue,” Patricia Limerick asked why is it that, when a wildfire breaks out, no one calls a historian? After all, she writes, “what is needed are the ‘skills, talents, and approaches’ of historians and the long perspective that history offers.” Here at PBB HQ, we’re not waiting for the phone to ring. Instead, we’re responding to the news of a new fire having started Sunday in near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and threatening the nuclear lab there with some historical perspective. Sure, we could have responded a few weeks ago when we learned that Arizona is going “up in flames.” But since we’re going to Albuquerque in August to give a presentation on the American Tree Farm System, the Los Alamos fire kind of caught our attention.

The FHS research staff is standing by to answer your fire history questions. (R9_418647)

So we thought it might be helpful to point others interested in the history of fire in the Southwest to our online resources and thus bring historical context to the fires there. (For the latest on any fire currently burning, visit the U.S. Forest Service’s “Active Fire Map” website and click on a link to learn the status of an active fire.)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »