Cover Image: Ignition


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Controversial Yet Mostly Solid - But Needs Better Documentation. I first became interested in fire management over a decade ago, when I read an article on on July 8, 2012, where it made the case that perhaps our modern American efforts to suppress wildfires... had actually led directly to fires becoming ever bigger and more destructive. Over the following 11 yrs, I would both watch the movie Only The Brave, about the Yarnell Hill fire that claimed so many firefighters' lives less than a year after that Wired article came out (which I just realized when researching for this review) and read the book Granite Mountain/ My Lost Brothers (it has used both titles) by Brendan McDonough that the movie was based on. I had also already seen numerous controlled/ prescribed burns as a native of the Southern US, and distinctly remember several over the years in the woods directly behind Lee County (GA) High School - where country singer Luke Bryan, American Idol Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, and San Francisco Giants great Buster Posey had all attended.

All of that to say that here, O'Connor spends a year actively working with wildland firefighter crews roaming the western US (well, west of the Mississippi - she starts and ends in Nebraska), learning their ways, their thoughts, their struggles. And creating a compelling voice for her effort in this book. She gets the same certifications they do, goes through the same training and meetings, and does everything she is qualified to do per those trainings, and in turn we as readers get a first hand account of what it is really like on said crews. (Which McDonough's book is also great at - just be prepared for some *very* dusty rooms near the end of that tale.)

Through this memoir portion of the book - interwoven with other interviews and research that I'll get to momentarily - she is particularly strong and vivid. Truly, read the book for these passages if for no other reason, as it really brings home what a difficult, demanding, and yes, frustrating job this can be.

Even the research, both interviews and historical, is truly remarkably well done. It is this section in particular (along with, perhaps, some of the commentary from the fire teams she is on) that will likely prove most controversial, as it really drives home the exact point that at least parts of that 2012 Wired article were making - the "suppression only" firefighting tactics we've used against wildfires primarily over only the last century or so really do seem to be causing more harm than they are doing good. And, as it turns out... pretty well everyone knew this before we started doing it. From millennia before Europeans came to the Americas, Native Americans had already been using fire to shape and control their environment in numerous ways, and had already developed tactics that worked *with* nature for the good of all beings. O'Connor's work here makes a particularly strong case that at minimum, these strategies need to be more actively considered. Indeed, much the same way that Gilbert Gaul's 2019 book The Geography Of Risk made such a strong case for re-examining coastal development strategies in the face of hurricane damage.

The one weakness here is a quibble, perhaps, but it is consistent with my other non-fiction reviews (and I did already mention it in the title of this review, above), and that is that at just 14% bibliography, it falls a bit short in my own experience - where 20-30% documentation seems to be more standard. Extraordinary claims - and yes, challenging the prevailing "wisdom" of the last century qualifies as such - require extraordinary evidence, and while O'Connor's case through her narrative is stellar, her documentation is sadly quite lacking.

Still, overall truly a fascinating read that deserves far more attention than it may ultimately wind up getting. Very much recommended.
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This was EXTREAMLY entertaining from the very start! The enthusiasm and passion that the author has for their subject is catching indeed. As an indigenous person, I appreciate the depth taken on the topic. 10/10 Absolutely will recommend.
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"Get close enough to a fire - maybe even close enough to smell it burning and feel its heat - and what you will discover is a far more complex and fascinating story. And one that is infinitely more hopeful" - M.R. O'Connor writes in the preface. I might add that it is definitely a story worth reading. 

It is such a wise, beautiful, insightful book! I've read a lot of reporting on wildfires, but this is the first to focus on prescribed burns - or 'good fire' as it's known among its advocates - and more broadly on fire ecology. The author, a journalist with many years of experience, takes us on a surprising tour of our Pyrocene world, during which she evolves from a little naive tree-hugger to a volunteer firefighter and... a chainsaw operator. 

She discovers that, as one scientist writes, "the very idea that 'we shouldn't manage anything because the forest takes care of itself' is a completely racist and very, you know, colonial viewpoint that ignores thousands of years of extensive indigenous landscape management in California and the West' ". And in another paragraph: "It seemed to me that the fight over forest management had become an emotional lightning rod exactly because it struck at the heart of a cherished American ideal: untouched wilderness. Challenging this myth by pointing to the historical and ecological evidence of human management, or suggesting that 'wilderness' was a culturally specific idea born in an era of violent Indigenous erasure, elicited intense resentment." 

The wildfire is a starting point for a more general discussion about human attitudes - and obligations - towards nature, and a clash between proponents of active and passive conservation. I agree with her that leaving nature to 'take care of itself' can be a lazy and unimaginative approach, that we have already influenced the world around us too much and should now take responsibility for it and act. And we ought to look to the Indigenous people for guidance on how to do this, as many other thinkers have pointed out, such as the late Barry Lopez in his great 'Horizon'.

Sharing her fascination with fire, I felt somehow reassured that it was not so weird - after all, "a firefighter is a pyromaniac with his emotions under control". She writes so beautifully about her chosen element: "I could never get over how odd it was to be just steps away from flames that could kill you, to see the border between life and death physically manifest in front of my eyes. Standing at the edge of a fire was like standing on the edge of a waterfall: you couldn't help but contemplate what it would be like to jump”.

This book is a superb combination of emotional, boots-on-the-ground reporting (you will almost feel the smoke in your throat and the heat on your face), nature and popular science writing, and testimonials from people who have been touched by the fire. Even if you are not an armchair pyromaniac, I think you will fall in love with this masterfully written story.

Many thanks to the publisher, Public Affairs, and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.
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An engaging and well-written exploration into all things wildfire with a view to commending the practice of consistent controlled burning.

The author fully immerses herself in the world of wildfires: she remains a writer but very much becomes a wildland firefighter and trained in both fire suppression and controlled fires.  Much of the book is her recounting her experiences in both controlled burns and wildfires.  She interviews many people who have been very engaged in terms of wildland fire.  

She also recounts the history of how the Indigenous people of at least North America consistently burned the land.  This is attested both by Indigenous lore and the accounts of early white settlers.  She also explores how we have come to our current fire suppression consensus: the "enlightened" belief that we should leave nature alone, the mythic allure of the untouched, undeveloped land, and a lot of bigotry, prejudice, and hostility toward fire and burning.  It escaped their minds to imagine how fire might cleanse a land, and how the land we all now live in was not untouched wilderness but had been significantly managed by humans for millennia.  

Through her conversations and experiences one can perceive the insanity of our current fire suppression regime, and how often attempts at fire suppression can lead to even greater amounts of territory burned.  She explains the developments we've gained in fire science and the dangerous prospect of megafires doing mega-damage.  We have created the unholy combination of a warmer planet while allowing excessive amount of flammable material to spread throughout the forests of America.  It will eventually end in it all being burned; the only question is whether it will be burned with "good fire" that cleanses and renews or "bad fire" which scorches.  

The time is long past to again appreciate Indigenous knowledge and to restore controlled burning throughout the country on a consistent basis, and above all, to recognize fire is "normal," and the complete absence of fire in the land is the artificial and unnatural situation which we have created and which we will not be able to sustain.

Worth reading.
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Ignition: Lighting Fires in a Burning World by M.R. O'Connor is a powerful and timely book that explores the urgent and complex issue of climate change. With a combination of scientific analysis, personal narratives, and a call to action, O'Connor delivers a thought-provoking examination of our relationship with the environment and presents a compelling case for immediate action.

One of the book's greatest strengths is its ability to translate scientific concepts into accessible language without oversimplifying the complexity of the subject matter. O'Connor presents a wealth of scientific research and data in a way that is both informative and engaging, making it accessible to readers regardless of their background knowledge. By weaving personal stories throughout the book, the author brings a human element to the narrative, demonstrating the real-world impacts of climate change on individuals and communities.
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