The Smokey Generation is a passion project founded by Bethany Hannah, owner of Wildland Fire Careers. The website was created as part of her thesis project for her Master of Arts degree in Environmental Studies (with a concentration in wildland fire management and communications). Her goal is to collect and share stories from wildland firefighters throughout the country so that we can preserve the history and culture of the wildland firefighting industry and stimulate discussion about wildland fire itself.
There are several parts to this project:
The premise behind The Smokey Generation: The story of wildland fire has been told in many different forums and formats. It is told through the history of our land management policy, beginning during the transition from indigenous fire use to colonial burning for land clearing. It’s told through the media, with seasonal coverage often shrouded in hype mixed with facts. It’s told through the rings of trees, marking cyclic fire regimes in circular regularity. It’s also told by those living in fire-prone ecosystems, in the creation of defensible space around their homes. The story has its own vernacular and is formed in the same way fire burns, with a beautiful complexity and frank purpose; it responds to its setting and creates change as it develops. Even the language of wildland fire itself is as unique as a flame dancing in the wind.
Fire is an element that has fascinated and sustained humanity throughout time. From the annual agricultural burning in Mexico, to the gathering around the samovar in Russia, fire is deeply embedded in human culture. In the U.S., the romance of a candlelit dinner has shaped our society as much as indigenous burning once shaped our landscape. We are drawn to flame. It is a mesmerizing and enigmatic force, and yet we intrinsically understand the basic principle that fire takes its character from its context (Pyne 2006); that adding a log to a fire makes the flames burn higher and hotter. Understanding this principle sets us apart from all other species; we are the only creatures who can tame and manipulate fire (Pyne 2006). Whether it be to create a backfire on the fireline, or to set the mood for an evening meal, fire is our tool.
Wildland fire plays an incredibly important role in the environment, but often we are compelled by the information and imagery we see in the mass media to view fire as bad, destructive, damaging, and devastating — compelled to believe that fire is our enemy. We need to move away from that mentality and, as Elizabeth Ann R. Bird states in her essay, The Social Construction of Nature: Theoretical Approaches to the History of Environmental Problems (1987), “We need [to] examine the social relations, structural conditions, cultural myths, metaphors and ethical presuppositions that constitute the social negotiations with nature…” In other words, we have reached the point where wildland fire cannot be examined just through the lenses of forestry or fire science, of politics or bureaucracy, or of good fire versus bad fire; we must look at fire with an understanding that our interactions with wildfire are social in nature. Put simply, we need to examine fire with a fresh set of humble and discerning eyes. I believe the stories and histories gathered on The Smokey Generation will enable us to do just that: illuminate our social negotiations with fire and, in turn, reveal how we should work to change the narrative.
Renowned author and one of the founders of environmental history, Donald Worster, considers nature to be more than a setting for his stories, but a character in its own right, deeply imbedded in the plot (Cronon 1992). If one is to consider fire as a character in its own story, firefighters are probably the most apt narrators. They have a daily intimate relationship with fire, an understanding of fire’s behavior, and an emotional connection that goes deeply into social relations, cultural myths, and ethical dilemmas. They are a generation raised under the “Only You” message and yet have a complex and paradoxical relationship to the premise. Through them, I believe, we will be able to consider what fire is “saying” in its ecological reaction to the changes and impacts we have made through our policies and suppression actions. That is to say, firefighters become the voice of fire while illuminating the human element of this ecological occurrence.
My hope is that the firefighter stories I gather will become avenues to identify and relate the relationship, consequences, and actions of people with fire. Environmental Historian William Cronon believes, “Narratives remain our chief moral compass in the world. Because we use them to motivate and explain our actions, the stories we tell change the way we act in the world” (Cronon 1992). Whether it be through creating a better understanding of the necessity of fire in the environment through the website, instigating a collaborative, unified message across agencies that encourages the use of fire as a tool, or simply stimulating conversations about how the words we choose to describe fire in the environment have wider-reaching affects than we realized, I hope to identify aspects of fire’s story that could have great impact on how we act in the ecological world. I believe that fire’s story, as told by fire practitioners, will help us to expand our interactions with fire into something truly beneficial.
Affiliation: Please note, The Smokey Generation is not affiliated with any federal or state agency. Any use of public domain or Creative Commons images throughout the site does not represent endorsement.
Audio/visual sources: Participants often contribute photographs from their personal collections. Many photos were sourced from www.flickr.com under Creative Commons with permission for commercial use (all photo credits are cited on the image itself).
Just for kicks. A fire inspired playlist…