NHC Home TeacherServe Nature Transformed The Use of the Land Essay:
History with Fire in Its Eye: An Introduction to Fire in America
Stephen J. Pyne, Arizona State University
©National Humanities Center

"The North Rim is our world, and its concerns—and its concerns only—are ours.
Anything else is, in a profound sense, metaphysics."


Stephen J. Pyne, Fire on the Rim: A Firefighter's Season at the Grand Canyon
Orion/Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989, pp. 155-157.

North Rim Longshots, 1981
North Rim Longshots, 1981 (Steve Pyne at far left)
For three or four months we will live, work, and talk together and fraternize with almost no one else. We are infatuated with our comradery, and it is exclusive to the North Rim. We know one another only as members of the fire crew. We acquire nontransferable nicknames. The North Rim is our world, and its concerns—and its concerns only—are ours. Anything else is, in a profound sense, metaphysics. The life cycle of a seasonal firefighter is so brief that there is little room for much else. Dana promised to rout the pattern in wood: "Your first year you learn. Your second year you gripe. Your third year you have fun." There is no fourth year.

National Park Service
Fire on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, 2001
Fire on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, 2001

Firefighters on the North Rim, 2001
Firefighters on the North Rim, 2001

Within limits, our identity is ours to make. We dispatch ourselves. We outfit ourselves. We train ourselves. We name ourselves. From the Park there is little leadership. What really defines us is fire. Fires solve all problems: fires make everything possible. Without fires our bravura seems ridiculous, the fire cache a ghetto,1 and outposts like The Dragon a kind of hallucinatory Ultima Thule of the North Rim. Yet our relationship to fire is far from simple or unmediated.

Nature can claim some of the responsibility. Our lives are regulated by the capriciousness of lightning. You can't program or manage lightning fire as you can reconstruct a road. For careerists fire is a dead end—or worse, a random potlatch of feast and famine. In desperation, one slow pre-monsoon day, Stiegelmeyer makes a lightning button out of a discarded sheet of plywood and a knob from a junked chest of drawers and places it in the Fire Pit. Becker adds a cord and plug. "Press for fire."

Grand Canyon, Arizona; North Rim outlined (north of Colorado River), 1985
Grand Canyon, Arizona; North Rim outlined (north of Colorado River), 1985

NASA image

The Park Service, too, intervenes. It can assert values more important than our relationship to fire, and it can reform its fire policy. Both happen. At Grand Canyon we are caught between the move to make parks into "pleasant places for people" and the rush to restore natural fire. We are unable to relate to the visitor and unable to control our relationship to fire. We live in isolation, in a state of personal prerogative and political helplessness. What meaning we gain from our lives as Longshots we give ourselves.2

As we amble along the Rim, Tim, a rookie, hums a few bars from "The Ballad of Joe Alston."3 It is one of the classic Fence songs, a broadside of a Kristofferson song, "Billy Dee," about a drug addict who overdoses.

Joe Alston was just a kid when he turned FCA,
Fooling with some foolish things he could have turned away.
But he had to try to satisfy some debts he couldn't name,
Driven into fires by his need for hazard pay.

S. Pyne
Longshot Steve Pyne, Grand Canyon, early 1970s
Longshot Steve Pyne, Grand Canyon, early 1970s

It is a lively song, with a fun, hustling tune. Alston hovers around the cache, "getting by on getting high by working overtime." His is a life of flame and fortune. Ask any firefighter what he likes about the job and he will say, "The money"—that and the action. Fires are rated by the overtime they ring up, and no one on the crew would publicly declare otherwise.

Yet "The Ballad of Joe Alston" is a cautionary tale, too. Alston's greed was "bigger than a body's ought to be," and the fire he got was "bigger than the one he hoped to find." Alston ODs on OT.

Yesterday they found him underneath a fallen pine,
Reaching for the shovel, Lord, he'd used to build his line.
Some folks called it careless, Lord; others blamed the tree.
We just shook our heads and gave poor Joe his HDP.

Forest fire, 1997
Forest fire, 1997

The truth, unsaid, is that no one would do this for the money alone. An unskilled maintenance laborer makes a far greater hourly wage. Fern feelers rack up overtime without spitting their lungs out in smoke.4 Nor does the action translate into career advancement. A ranger, even a fee collector, has a brighter future in the National Park Service than anyone on the fire crew. The experience has to be valued for other reasons. Its real flame is the unique, the initiatory fire, and for a true Longshot it is burned into memory. Its fortune is the turn of fate that brought us here and prompted us, individually and as a crew, to see it through. In most lives, in most places, that flame is hidden. On The Dragon there is nowhere to hide.

Tim ends the song with a cheerful flourish, while I point south. There is no more time to gawk or chatter. Storm clouds are building rapidly. Tim and I double back and half-jog to the helispot as lightning and rain meet on the Rim.

1Fire cache: forest-fire term for the firehouse or station.
2Longshot: term adopted by the North Rim fire crew to describe themselves; self deprecating variant of "Hotshot."
3 Abbreviations in the poem. (1) FCA: Fire Control Aid, a seasonal employee whose principal duty is firefighting. (2) HDP: Hazardous Duty Pay, a form of premium pay equal to 25 percent of base pay awarded for fireline work.
4 Fern feeler: a ranger who serves as a naturalist or interpreter.

Permission pending.
Footnotes from the glossary of Fire on the Rim.
Images added by TeacherServe.

» Return to essay, History with Fire in Its Eye: An Introduction to Fire in America (part 3 of 3)

TeacherServe Home Page
National Humanities Center
7 Alexander Drive, P.O. Box 12256
Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709
Phone: (919) 549-0661   Fax: (919) 990-8535
Revised: June 2002