cover image Ignition: Lighting Fires in a Burning World

Ignition: Lighting Fires in a Burning World

M.R. O’Connor. Bold Type, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-1-64503-738-5

This persuasive report from journalist O’Connor (Wayfinding) explores the ecological benefits of controlled burns and details the work of wildland firefighters. Fires have been vital to western American ecosystems for millennia, O’Connor writes, explaining that on the prairie, “combustion speeds up the decomposition of organic matter” and produces “prairyerth,” a “fertile humus” that encourages the growth of more grass. The author traces the history of managed wildfires in the U.S., noting that Native Americans “imitated natural fire regimes,” clearing forests of underbrush so completely that “a horse could be ridden at full speed without risk of running into a tree.” Some European settlers imitated the Native Americans’ yearly burns, but others left flora to grow untended, and in the early 20th century, such figures as conservationist John Muir promoted fire suppression as the preferred strategy for managing federal lands despite fire’s long-standing ecological importance. Weaved into the history is O’Connor’s colorful recollection of training to become a wildland firefighter and combatting uncontrolled burns in Northern California: “The heat permeated the soles of our boots—eventually, we were dancing to relieve the discomfort,” she writes, explaining how her team dowsed soil with water to put out underground fires tearing through root systems. Filled with tantalizing natural history and immersive reporting, this nuanced take on fire’s danger and environmental necessity enlightens. (Oct.)