Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘wildfire’

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 »

In just two short paragraphs, the Edmonton newspaper account captured the destruction and relief felt that all were safe after a wildfire overwhelmed the town:

Swept away in the maelstrom of a raging forest fire which descended upon the place like a furnace blast on Monday afternoon, the little village … is today a mere smouldering mass of ruin and desolation, and its entire population is homeless and bereft of all personal effects, save scant articles of clothing which could be worn through the nerve-wracking struggle the people were forced to make to preserve their lives.

The absence of a death toll in the catastrophe is due to the heroic measures taken by the citizens, who rushed into the waters of the lake and defied suffocating heat and smoke by means of wet blankets. Only such measures saved many of the women and little children, the intensity of the fire being shown by the burning of the very reeds along the shore and surface of the lake.

That report may sound like the Fort McMurray fire that’s forced the evacuation of tens of thousands in Alberta. But it is not. It’s from the Edmonton Bulletin, dated May 21, 1919. The article was recounting the wildfire that burned over the village of Lac La Biche about 200 km (120 miles) northeast of Edmonton. In time, historians labeled it the Great Fire of 1919, and later still forget that it even happened. It’s rather remarkable that a fire that burned about 2 million hectares (5 million acres) and transformed a region’s landscape and culture could be forgotten, but it was. (If people can forget a forest, then forgetting a fire seems plausible.)

Fortunately, historians Peter J. Murphy, Cordy Tymstra, and Merle Massie document the Great Fire and its impact and legacy—and why it faded from memory—in “The Great Fire of 1919: People and A Shared Firestorm in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada,” available in the most recent issue of Forest History TodayThe Great Fire is not the largest on record. That honor belongs to The Chinchaga Firestorm, the largest wildfire ever documented in North America. But what sets it apart from others is the fire’s lasting impact on the landscape and soil, fire policy, and ownership of public lands—impacts the “The Great Fire of 1919” details.

The parallels between the Great Fire and Fort McMurray fire are striking: dry conditions “that desiccated the surrounding region and created a tinder-dry powder keg”; it was not one fire but a complex of many fires; the source of the fire is unknown; and that residents of one village—in 1919, it was Lac La Biche; today it’s Fort McMurray—managed to get out of harm’s way. But in 1919, not all were so lucky. In one instance, a group of 23 Cree were camping at Sekip Lake when the fire overran them in a matter of minutes. Eleven died, including a father who’s quick action saved his wife and children, though “the 12 survivors ‘bore the marks of their burns for life.'” Massie explained in a blog post written during last year’s fire season how the family might have been caught unaware of the approaching fire: “A boreal forest fire is deadly, a conflagration along the ground. Crowning, climbing up the trees to burn the tops like matches, a crowned forest fire is even more deadly. When whipped by vicious gale force winds, or across a boreal landscape dried to tinder, such a forest fire moves faster than either humans or animals.”

The boreal forest is a fire-based ecological regime, explains Massie in her book Forest Prairie Edge. “When a dry season hits, the boreal forest contains a magnitude of flammable timber and debris, peat and moss, shrubs and grasses…. In general, fire hazard is highest in jack pine stands, intermediate in spruce or fir stands, and low in hardwood (primarily trembling aspen) stands, except in a dry spring, when forest floor debris is particularly flammable.” According to Stephen Pyne in Awful Splendour, his history of fire in Canada, “The boreal region is home to Canada’s largest fires, its greatest fire problems, and its most distinctive fire regimes, the ones that define Canada as a fire nation…. Over 90 percent of the country’s big fires, which account for over 97 percent of its burned area, lie within the boreal belt.” Additionally, as Peter Murphy pointed out in an email today, the Fort McMurray fire reminds us “that the boreal forest complex can support the growth of large and high-intensity fires with its continuity of flammable fuels; and that spring can be a particularly hazardous time between ‘break-up and green-up’—that period after the snow is gone, ice breaks up, and before new leaves and needles are fully formed.” Perhaps looking at the calendar and realizing it’s only the first week of May, Cordy Tymstra, the Wildfire Science Coordinator with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in Edmonton and author of The Chinchaga Firestorm offered this via email: “There is a lot of fire season remaining and a lot of fire still on the landscape around Fort McMurray.”

To read more about about the 1919 fire or other major Canadian fires, see: https://www.facebook.com/HyloVeniceCentenary/posts/257744001047212 http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/what-can-we-learn-from-the-worst-fires-in-canadian-history/

Read Full Post »

Austin Cary, one of the great unsung heroes of American forestry, was born this date in 1865 in East Machias, Maine. A Yankee through and through, he found professional success in the South, eventually becoming known as the “Father of Southern Forestry.” In 1961, twenty-five years after Cary’s passing, his biographer Roy R. White wrote of him:

In contrast with his more renowned contemporaries, Austin Cary was an obscure logging engineer in the Forest Service. Yet the story of the life and work of this latter-day Johnny Appleseed has reached legendary proportions in the southern pine country. Cary, a New England Yankee, dedicated himself to the awesome task of bringing forestry and conservation to a region reluctant to accept, and ill-equipped to practice, these innovations. His success places him in the forefront of noted American foresters and his character warrants a position peculiarly his own.

What makes Cary an intriguing historical figure was his unorthodox, nonconformist approach to life and work. He hailed from an old, well-to-do family whose wealth made him financially independent. By the time he graduated at the head of his class from Bowdoin College, where he majored in science with emphasis on botany and entomology and received the A.B. degree in 1887 and the M.S. in 1890, he was already known as a “lone wolf” comfortable tramping alone in the woods. Despite his refined upbringing, he was called blunt and tactless, and that was by his friends. The “dour New Englander” struggled in several different jobs before finding his niche, in part because of his personality. He moved from industry forester in New England to college instructor (Yale Forest School, 1904-1905; Harvard, 1905-1909), and then in 1910, to logging engineer in the U.S. Forest Service.

Between 1898 and 1910, Cary kept asking for a job with the Forest Service. Chief Gifford Pinchot refused to hire him, though, perhaps because of his personality, more likely because of philosophical differences. Cary strongly believed that private forestry, and providing economic incentive to private land owners to hold land and reforest it, was the nation’s best hope for conserving America’s forests, whereas Pinchot had staked his agency’s position on the federal government dominating land management. Only after Pinchot’s dismissal in 1910 did Cary get hired by the Forest Service—by Pinchot’s replacement and Cary’s former boss at Yale, Henry Graves, who supported Cary’s position to some extent.

Carl Schenck wrote of Austin Cary, here photographed in Florida in 1932, “[He] was as good with the axe as if he were a Canadian lumberjack.” (FHS Photo Collection)

After graduation in 1890, Cary worked on a freelance basis as a land cruiser and surveyor in northern New England, publishing his research findings on tree growth, cutting methods, entomology, and the life cycles of northern Maine trees. His writings gave him some connections and influence in industry. After he traveled abroad several times, particularly to the Black Forest of Germany, to study forestry practices and returned in 1898, he found work with the Berlin Mills Company in New Hampshire as the first company forester in North America. Thus began a lifelong battle to persuade industrial forestland owners to embrace and undertake long-range planning of cutting, planting, and land use. Opposition to such ideas in the North did not deter him, nor did it in the Pacific Northwest, where the Forest Service sent him in 1910. The timber barons had millions of acres of virgin forests they could cut; they saw no incentive to log conservatively and reforest afterwards.

Cary didn’t fit in there and relations deteriorated. Given the choice of assignments in 1917, Cary choose the South, where the Forest Service had little presence and he could create his own program. “Significantly,” White tells us, “he planned an appeal to southern landowners and operators, large and small. It would be necessary, he knew, to influence a people generally hostile to strangers, notoriously averse to change, and shackled by a near-feudal economy.” The “lone wolf” found a home in the southern woods, which were (and still are) largely privately owned and at the time in need of intervention. Though his title was that of logging engineer, he operated as a roving extension forester.

When he arrived, the South’s First Forest was nearly exhausted. “Into the void of southern forestry he intended to introduce forest practices which would assure a second timber growth on the barren, smoldering land,” wrote White, where fire was widely used. The Forest Service campaigned to eliminate it from southern forests; Cary defied them because he saw the ecological role fire played, and instead encouraged landowners to experiment with what are now called prescribed burns. Somehow this direct, straight-shooting Yankee won over Southern landowners. He was not allied with one large company and they didn’t really think of him as Forest Service; they were charmed by “his disrespect for propriety and authority” and his personality. Their conservatism matched his, and he became a staunch defender of their practices and land rights. This culminated in a bitter denunciation of the New Deal–era federal land acquisition in 1935, captured in an open letter to President Franklin Roosevelt that Forest Service officials initially tried to suppress. In the end, they decided it was less painful to suffer his opposition than to silence him, and allowed the letter to be published in the Journal of Forestry. Thumbing his nose at the ultimate authority was his last significant action before he retired in 1935.

“With a new forest turning the South green once again,” he decided to “‘bang around less…live more quietly'” and retired to Maine. He died on April 28, 1936. The well-managed private forestlands in both New England and the South are just a portion of his impressive legacy.

◊◊◊◊◊

You can read more about Austin Cary and his legacy in Roy White’s article “Austin Cary: The Father of Southern Forestry,” where all quotes in this article are from, and by exploring the many resources we have on him listed below:

The Austin Cary Photograph Collection contains images taken by Cary between 1918 and 1924 during his early years of working in the South for the Forest Service. The photographs document forestry and turpentining practices in the pine forests of the southeastern United States. We have a finding aid and online photo gallery.

Interviews with several foresters who discuss the positive influence of Cary reside in the “Development of Forestry in the Southern United States Oral History Interview 

A 1959 oral history interview with Charles A. Cary includes discussion of his family background and his uncle Austin Cary.

Some of Cary’s acidic nature is evident in his correspondence with Carl A. Schenck in this Journal of Forest History article.

We also have two folders’ worth of materials in our U.S. Forest Service History Collection.

His papers are housed at the University of Florida.

Read Full Post »

In this article-length guest blog post, retired U.S. Forest Service research forester Stephen F. Arno discusses why fire management is impeded today and says we need to look at the history of fire policy in tandem with the development of the science of disturbance ecology to gain a better understanding of the issue. 

Numerous books and commentaries have described the century-long evolution of forest fire policy in the United States. However, rarely have these accounts focused on one of the seminal factors that provoked a transformation in policy and fire-control practices—namely, expanding knowledge of fire ecology.

Soon after its inception in the early 1900s the U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy that can be described as “fire exclusion,” based on the view that forest fires were unnecessary and a menace.[1] In the late 1970s, however, the agency was compelled by facts on the ground to begin transitioning to managing fire as an inherent component of the forest.[2] This new direction, “fire management,” is based on realization that fire is inevitable and can be either destructive or beneficial depending largely on how fires and forest fuels are managed. Despite the obvious logic of fire management it continues to be very difficult to implement on a significant scale. To understand why fire management is impeded and perhaps gain insight for advancing its application, we need to look at the history of fire policy in tandem with the development of the science of disturbance ecology. It is also important to review changing forest conditions and values at risk to wildfire. Certain aspects of the situation today make it more difficult to live with fire in the forest than was the case a century ago.

Forest homes burned in the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, AZ. Such a scene is increasing in frequency. (Photo by Humphrey’s Type 1 USDA/USDI Southwest Region Incident Management Team)

Forest homes burned in the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, AZ. This is an increasingly common scene. (Photo by Humphrey’s Type 1 USDA/USDI Southwest Region Incident Management Team)

This story begins with the emergence of the profession of forestry in America at the turn of the twentieth century. The first professional foresters in the United States were educated in humid regions of Europe, where concepts of forestry developed primarily to establish tree plantations on land that had been denuded by agrarian people seeking firewood and building material and clearing forestland for grazing.[3] Native forests in these regions had largely disappeared long before, and fire in the forest was considered an undesirable, damaging agent. In retrospect, the European model of forestry didn’t apply very well to the vast areas of North American forest consisting of native species that had been maintained for millenniums by periodic fires. For instance, much of the Southeast and a great deal of the inland West supported forests of fire-resistant pines with open, grassy understories, perpetuated by frequent low-intensity fires.

From the outset, American foresters had to confront damaging wildfires, often caused by abandoned campfires, sparks from railroads, and people clearing land. Arguments for “light burning” to tend the forest were first made in print during the 1880s, before there were forest reserves or an agency to care for them.[4] Timber owners in northern California liked setting low-intensity fires under ideal conditions as a means of controlling accumulation of fuel. Stockmen liked to burn in order to stimulate growth of forage plants. Settlers used fire for land clearing and farming. Romanticists favored it for maintaining an age-old Indian way of caring for the land.

Fire historian Stephen Pyne concludes that there was no presumptive reason why American forestry should have rigorously fought against all forms of burning in the forest.[5] What the new government foresters like Gifford Pinchot and William Greeley refused to accept was that frontier laissez-faire burning practices could be allowed to coexist with systematic fire protection, which increasingly became the forester’s mission. But foresters saw light burning as a political threat, and they refused entreaties from advocates of burning to develop procedures for applying fire as a forestry practice.[6] Ironically, promoters of light burning were in a sense recognizing that it is important to account for natural processes in managing native forests, a concept termed “ecosystem management” when it was finally endorsed by the chief of the Forest Service in 1992.[7]

The “light burning” controversy ramped up considerably in 1910. President William Howard Taft, who succeeded Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, appointed Richard Ballinger as Secretary of the Interior. Soon Ballinger was accused of virtually giving away federal coal reserves to his industrialist friends by Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot, who publicly denounced Ballinger for corruption. Unable to control Pinchot, President Taft fired him in January of 1910, an action that sparked a national controversy since Pinchot was highly respected as a leader of the conservation movement. The fact that Pinchot’s nemesis, Ballinger, supported light burning—stating “we may find it necessary to revert to the old Indian method of burning over the forests annually at a seasonable period”—certainly didn’t help that cause gain favor with foresters. By unhappy coincidence, in August 1910, the same month that “the Big Burn” consumed 3 million forested acres in the Northern Rockies, Sunset magazine published an article by timberland owner George Hoxie calling for a government program to conduct light burning throughout California forests.[8] (The fact that the Big Burn occurred primarily in wetter forest types more susceptible to stand-replacing fire than most California forests was not generally recognized nor understood, in large part because there was little understanding of forest ecology at the time.) After the Big Burn, Forest Service leaders claimed they could’ve stopped the disaster if they’d had enough men and money. That mindset took hold of the agency and echoes down through to today in some corridors.

Pulaski tunnel

Pulaski tunnel, September 1910. The Big Burn made a folk hero of ranger Ed Pulaski when he forced his men to take refuge from the fire in an old mine shaft. The fire also convinced agency leaders that more men and money could’ve prevented the disaster.

In October 1910, Pinchot’s successor Henry Graves visited T. B. Walker’s extensive timberlands in northeastern California.[9] Graves viewed tracts of ponderosa pine-mixed conifer forest that Walker’s crew had methodically “underburned” (a low-intensity surface fire under the trees) after the first fall rains in order to reduce hazardous fuel and brush. Graves didn’t deny the effectiveness of the treatment, but felt it was bad to kill seedlings and saplings. More than that, he didn’t like the idea of condoning use of fire in the forest. It didn’t help that one of Walker’s light burns had escaped earlier in the year and raced across 33,000 acres before submitting to control. Then, like now, deliberate burning in the forest was not risk free; however, light burning was aimed at reducing the greater hazard of severe wildfires.

(more…)

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 »

Once again, the American voters have gotten it wrong. Once again, they failed to elect Smokey Bear to the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame in this year’s voting, which closed at the end of September. The iconic bear is just that—ICONIC. He defines the word. His picture could be in the dictionary beside the word to illustrate what an icon is.

This advertising legend set the standard for all who have followed. There are few other such characters with Smokey’s longevity, and fewer still that combine his longevity with his level of international fame and recognition, and none who have benefited society more. As I saw last week at the North Carolina State Fair, children (of all ages) still get excited about seeing him and proudly and happily wear stickers with his message. He is not pushing a product we don’t need, like some other bears now on the Walk; he’s promoting an idea that saves lives. Created in 1944 to promote the message that forest fires are destructive and that humans need to be vigilant about preventing them, by 1964 he had become so famous that the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own zip code to help handle his volume of fan mail. His famous phrase “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” became so widely recognized that he only had to say the first two words and people knew what he was talking about. In one poster, he simply prompted readers to “Think” and they knew what to think.

Advertising Week executive director Matt Scheckner unwittingly told us the fundamental flaw with this so-called Walk of Fame: “Going back to 2004 when we first started, what we have tried to do is mix classic and contemporary; and by design, we work to freshen it up every year.” I suspect Mr. Scheckner realizes his walk isn’t what it really should be. I wonder if Advertising Week is ashamed of the venture. I couldn’t find a website dedicated to the walk, and it doesn’t even have a listing in Wikipedia. Rather surprising for an organization dedicated to the art of promotion. Moreover, every other walk or hall of fame is for those who have earned a spot because of their contributions to the field over a long period of time. It should not be a popularity contest or what strikes the public’s fancy now. Even the Hollywood Walk of Fame has standards! For theirs, you have to have a minimum of five years’ experience in your field and, unlike Kim Kardashian, you need to actually do something worth commemorating in stone.

Now contrast what’s just happened on Madison Avenue with how they handle things a few hours’ north at Cooperstown. In 1936, when they voted in the first class for the Baseball Hall of Fame, voters elected the five guys who to this day remain the gold standard of baseball: Ruth, Wagner, Cobb, Johnson, and Mathewson. Journalists and knowledgeable fans still measure every player that’s followed against those guys and what they did on the field. They won’t vote in Mike Trout or Bryce Harper next year because they’ve caught our fancy. They measure those rookies against the greatest, like Ruth or DiMaggio, and tell them, “Okay, you had one outstanding year. If you want to be enshrined, do it again for 9 more.” (Players considered for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame have to be retired for 5 years and had to have played for 10 years.) The Advertising Walk of Fame should have standards, too, such as the character has to have a career that’s lasted for a minimum number of years (I suggest 5, half of the requirement for Cooperstown, but enough to prove a character’s contributions and durability while also eliminating flash-in-the-pans) and first appeared a minimum number of years before (I suggest 8) to prevent a character in its fifth year of usage from being elected (Cooperstown requires that a player be retired for 5 calendar years; here, the three additional years provide extra time to assess merit and durability). Smokey is more than eligible on these standards. And given his long association with baseball, and baseball’s with him, perhaps he should be considered by Cooperstown for his contribution to the game.

But back to the flaws in the election process. Some characters in the Advertising Walk of Fame, like the AOL Running Man, weren’t well remembered at the time of their election and don’t resonate at all today. Some are so new, like Mayhem from Allstate Insurance (which first appeared in 2010), that it makes a mockery of the very idea of a walk of fame. And why was a character like Progressive Insurance’s Flo, created in 2008, under consideration last year and then elected this year? Bob Garfield of Advertising Age summed it up nicely after they announced last year’s nominees: “[H]ow do we all know Flo?” Garfield asked. “It’s because she’s on TV every three seconds, and we can’t get out the DVR fast enough to fast-forward past her.” With Smokey, less is more. You don’t have to hear his message every 5 minutes to know what it is. That’s how you know he’s the marketing gold standard.

Smokey changed more than just marketing world—he changed the real world. He shouldn’t have to stoop to campaigning for votes against insurance peddlers and sugar pushers. He should’ve been in the founding class of the Advertising Walk of Fame. In fact, Smokey, you’re in a class by yourself and don’t need to be there. I say, Smokey, just walk away from the Walk of Fame.

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 »

Older Posts »