Global warming and apathy combine to make large wildfires more frequent, contends former Mountain News managing editor Porter.
The author, who lost his own house in the 2003 Southern California firestorms, mixes discussions of people affected by wildfires with explanations of global warming’s impact on forests. When he describes how bark beetles thrive in a warmer climate and destroy millions of trees, or how large fires caused by global warming contribute to that warming by releasing massive amounts of carbon trapped in plants, he provides information and reasoning that add to our understanding of a complex problem. He’s far less compelling when writing about an anonymous phone call from a self-proclaimed arsonist, a firefighter killed when he couldn’t outrun the flames, or then-Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman’s visit to view the damage wrought by California’s 2003 fires. Briefly sketched in broad, often stereotypical strokes, these people never seem quite real. Was the anonymous caller really an arsonist, or just someone with a twisted sense of humor? Did the deceased firefighter contribute to his death by tripping while running? Did Veneman really understand what causes wildfires and how to best fight them? Porter never makes any of this clear. He’s much more informative and convincing when explaining how the total number of fires in the United States can decline while the total acreage burned increases, or why pre-conquest Native Americans were able to set controlled burns that actually helped forests flourish. Unfortunately, three-quarters of the book consists of incomplete character sketches, including at one particularly rote point a list of the names, ages and occupations of 15 fire victims that provides no sense of their individual personalities or histories.
Weak on human interest, strong on scientific connections.