ASU Professor Emeritus Stephen Pyne is the national media's go-to guy when a new wildfire strikes
As summertime’s wildfires char swaths of the western United States' forests, Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University professor emeritus, prolific author and self-proclaimed “smokechaser at heart,” is the national media’s go-to guy to explain these natural disasters.
The author of 35 books, mostly on the topic of fire, has appeared on "The Today Show" and nearly every major television news network in the U.S., along with networks in Sweden, Germany, Canada and Australia. He’s never tallied how many interviews he’s done over the years, but says, “When big fires are news I’ll do seven to eight interviews a week, and at times as many as three to four a day. Then the fires pass and interest blows away with the smoke.”
Sparking an interest in fire
But Pyne’s own interest in wildfires has never extinguished since age 18. A few days after graduating as valedictorian of Brophy Prep, a Jesuit high school in Phoenix, he joined the North Rim Longshots fire crew at the Grand Canyon in 1967. He slept in a dilapidated wooden bunkhouse called the Sheep Shed at night and spent his days doing manual labor: opening fireroads, clearing brush and cutting down snags, or hazardous trees.
“I was out there for hours, stooped over with a shovel or rake,” he recalls.
That first season on the fire crew was “a moment of biographical windshear” for Pyne.
“We were isolated in ways that kids today probably can’t imagine,” he says. The crew lived at the end of a one-way highway to the North Rim, where there was a campground and lodge but no televisions, personal phones or even reliable radio. “Once a month, the Coconino County bookmobile would roll in, and that was the big cultural event. But we were never bored. We’d do a pickup softball or basketball game. There was always something. Eventually we organized a public evening program called ‘Pyroromanticism’ we put on once a week if we weren’t out on fires.”
During evening campfires and throughout the day, the fire crew “discussed fire endlessly; there was almost nothing else that mattered,” he says. “We described our fires’ quirks while hunched over ration coffee on late-night firelines, we compared our fires’ ease and misery when we returned to the fire cache, we sang and cursed our fires at the saloon. They all, each one, had a personality. There were charmed fires and ugly fires, glorious fires and fires that were existentially wretched, fires rich with loose dirt and mean fires that burned amid nothing but roots and rocks. There were fires that hurt, fires that hummed, fires that inspired, fires that infuriated. Our lives spun on an axis of fire.”
Pyne lived two distinctly separate lives, working summers on the North Rim for 15 seasons while earning an undergraduate degree in English at Stanford in 1971 and a doctorate in American civilization at the University of Texas at Austin in 1976. He had been rejected by every graduate school he applied to until his life took an unexpected twist.
Blazing a new career path
Pyne had stayed in touch with a professor he met during his freshman year at Stanford. The professor mailed him a postcard suggesting he contact William H. Goetzmann at the University of Texas at Austin and apply to the graduate program there.
“The postcard was misaddressed to Grand Canyon, Colorado, but the post office found me anyway,” Pyne says.
As Pyne wrote Goetzmann a letter, little did he know the professor was a famed historian whose book on the American West, “Exploration and Empire,” won both the 1967 Francis Parkman Prize and Pulitzer Prize for history.
“At that time, there was no such thing as the Internet, and the nearest reference library was 220 miles away in Flagstaff,” he says.
At the University of Texas at Austin, Pyne wrote American geologist Grove Karl (“G.K”) Gilbert’s biography as his dissertation while taking classes in geology, American West history, intellectual and cultural history, and the history of science. When he submitted the biography to his doctoral dissertation reading committee, Goetzmann recommended only minor changes, and Pyne’s first book, “Grove Karl Gilbert,” was published in 1980.
“I left the program thinking of myself as a historian of science and the American West,” he says. “But good history — any writing or insight, really — begins with a felt need. What I felt most was fire, and how it informed my life on the Rim, which is to say, my life overall.”
The idea for his next book, “Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire,” was born. At first, Pyne won the support of the U.S. Forest Service to help sponsor his research surveying the nation’s experience with fire. Then at the last minute, the federal agency reneged, offering a cooperative agreement with a travel stipend and no salary or benefits.
"Good history — any writing or insight, really — begins with a felt need. What I felt most was fire."
Undaunted, Pyne continued his work as a firefighter during the summer while researching the history of fire from early September to March, traveling the country with his wife Sonja in a 17-foot travel trailer pulled by a GMC Harvester pickup with a hollow camper shell he remodeled into an office. That rhythm continued across four years.
“Through a resolve I can hardly explain, I decided to write an epic on American fire, published at a time when wildland fire held little public and no intellectual interest, and then rode the crest of fire’s swelling significance,” he says.
Fanning the flames of public interest
At the end of 1980 he finished writing the book, which was published in 1982 and received a positive review by the the New York Times, but bookstore sales lagged.
“At that time, fire was not a big deal,” he says. It was seen as a freak accident, like a grizzly bear attack, until 1988, when wildfires ravaged Yellowstone National Park and the national media took notice. “I started doing media interviews then, and I’ve been doing them ever since,” he says.
Before the Yellowstone fire, he began applying his mastery of words to writing fire plans, first at Rocky National Park (1983–84) and then Yellowstone (1985), before authoring his next books, “The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica” and “Fire on the Rim: A Firefighter’s Season at the Grand Canyon.”
After receiving a visiting appointment at ASU as a history professor, he was hired by the university in 1986 as part of the charter faculty at the ASU West campus. Eventually he transferred to the Tempe campus and the School of Life Sciences, where he taught a course titled, simply, Fire. While at ASU he delved deeper into his expertise by writing a series of books he calls his Cycle of Fire suite: big-screen fire histories for Australia, Canada and Europe, including Russia.
As the media’s go-to guy on the subject of fire, he’s witnessed a change in how the media and public view the topic. “Fire season is now part of the media’s annual almanac of disasters, along with hurricanes, tornadoes and floods,” he says.
“Fire gets co-opted for lots of agendas, however, not least the climate emergency. I have to explain that climate change isn’t the sole cause, because land use and fire practices are also major influences. But all are underwritten by a fossil fuel civilization. That doesn’t have a lot of traction among the media, who think I am downplaying climate change, when actually, I’m making a deeper argument against fossil fuels. In fact, I consider that the sum of our combustion practices is creating the fire equivalent of an ice age, what I call the Pyrocene.”
As Arizona firefighters battled multiple blazes across Arizona in June, including the Bush Fire, one of the largest in the state’s history, Pyne watched developments with keen interest.
“I’ve watched the smoke plumes of this year’s Bush Fire and last year’s Woodbury Fire out of my study window and noted their interesting illustration of modern fire management as a hybrid of classic suppression and extensive burnouts done as prescribed fires executed under urgent but not emergency conditions — with COVID-19 hovering over fire camps this year. Fire is also a contagion phenomenon. The fire teams have nicely demonstrated how to contain it.”
Among all the media questions he’s fielded, the ones that are the most meaningful to him reflect knowledge of his body of work.
“Like many writers, I believe my writing is more interesting than I am,” he says. “I tell interviewers, ‘Read my stuff.’ I accept they don’t have time, so I’ve written a primer on fire for journalists. I like questions from interviewers who have some notion of the subject and maybe what I’ve written, that force me to push beyond my stock replies.”
After retiring from teaching in 2018, Pyne now spends time with family on his urban farm. “I have sheep to wrangle, chickens to harass, citrus to water and wood to split,” he says. And he’ll never quit writing.
“It’s been said that you can hide the fire, but not the smoke. When I began, fire was hidden from academic history. But as a young smokechaser I could sense, if not see, those smokes. I did what experience and temperament trained me to do.”
Pyne chased the smoke — and created history out of fighting fire.
Top photo by Andy Delisle/ASU