Unquenchable Flames

When people think about fighting forest fires, they often envision heroic firefighters on the front lines. But most people don’t know who is standing behind them deciding which fires need to be contained, which are most important and who and what will be sent to combat them.

This is the story that English professor W. Scott Olsen wants to tell. He is spending this week traveling west to witness the fires, listen to those involved and capture stories in words, photos and videos.

“I’ve always been interested in the dramatic aspects of the natural world,” he says. “Fire is the most immediate, the most threatening, the most unpredictable of all of them.”

He is working in partnership with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, a contact he made while working on his last book about flight. At the center, quick thinking is a necessity in the face of flames that don’t wait. The decisions made in the heat of any given moment, could have long-term consequences – both good and bad – for communities and the environment.

“They are mission control for the entire effort,” he says.

His adventure is only the start of the process. When he returns, he will start addressing his unanswered questions and painting what he hopes will become a book containing a more complete portrait of wildfire management.

He will also share his stories in his fall classes. Fire is a theme in his adventure and risk inquiry seminar for first-year students.

In the spirit of adventure, he doesn’t have a precise itinerary for his journey. Each stop will be determined by what is burning on any given day.

“Tomorrow I may look at the fire map, and it might look entirely different than it does today,” he says.

Olsen is documenting his daily observations of the fire-fighting process in an AreaVoices blog.