Fire Expert Set to Speak at OSU

As part of the Spring Creek Project’s symposium “Words on Fire: Toward a New Language of Wildland Fire,” Dr. Stephen J. Pyne will be speaking at OSU’s Gilfillan Auditorium on Thursday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m.

Dr. Pyne is a professor at Arizona State University, as well as a prolific author and well-known environmental historian. He will be delivering the keynote address for the symposium, highlighting mankind’s use of language to understand and interact with the world around them. His focus has always been fire.

Fire is a paradox. It’s considered an ally, a tool, and a danger all at once, and it’s a fascinating example of how words have shaped the attitude of human beings toward a life essential. Since the mid-1940s, Smokey Bear has been telling us, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” In 2001, that slogan changed the term “forest fires” to “wildfires.” The idea was to prevent an unintentional forest fire at all costs. The message: forest fires are terrible, dangerous, a force to be avoided.

But this is misleading, as Native Americans intentionally started forest fires to improve berry production, to create paths for traveling and hunting, and even to collect insects. Through careful tending, acres of forest and riparian areas could be routinely cleared, thus improving existing habitats and actually preventing many sudden, natural forest fires. They did not have the same relationship with fire as Americans do today.

Consider the term “forest fire” as opposed to “wildland fire.” How different are they really, in terms of actual meaning? It’s the attitude that’s different, and that is important.

Since the publication of his second book Fire in America in 1982, Dr. Pyne has been considered worldwide to be an expert on the history and management of fire. He has since published nearly 20 works detailing the history of fire in North America. Such a background opens doors to new semantic connections and uses for words, and the complex relationships they can shape and change as many regions of the world experience warmer temperatures, drier weather, and, potentially, more fires.

By Lisa Tedder