They say that fighting a wildfire is the closest thing to being in combat. The trees explode, the wind whips down while the oxygen disappears and the fire “sheets” along the ground, streaking sideways like rushing waters.
Today’s California fires remind me of the largest fire in U.S. history, the Big Burn of 1910, which destroyed 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington. One of the towns the fire destroyed was Wallace. A lone train arrived to take people away from the North Idaho town, and panic ensued. As my New York Times colleague Timothy Egan describes in “The Big Burn,” his history of the fire, men yanked women out of their seats, taking their place.
The U.S. Forest Service had been created five years before by President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. The 10,000 men who were rounded up to fight the fire were led by a small group of young foresters, many of them from the Yale School of Forestry, which graduated its first class in 1904.
One of the foresters, though decidedly no Yalie, was Ed Pulaski. By the time the fire hit Wallace, Pulaski had been up in the mountains fighting fires for a month. He came down to get food for his men. “Wallace will surely burn,” he told his wife and 10-year-old daughter, before returning up the mountain to care for his fighters. “I may never see you again.”
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Pulaski and his men were soon surrounded by flame. Hand on his gun, he forced them to lay face down in the mud of an abandoned mine tunnel. He covered the small entrance with a wet cloth to try to prevent the air from being sucked out by the inferno.
Soon, his face caught fire and he collapsed. After five hours in what they assumed would be their coffin, the men stirred. Forty-one were still alive, with only five dead.
Pulaski never received a cent from the government for his heroism. But Pinchot used the fire to tell the story of the Forest Service, the small band of underfunded heroes who risked their lives to save others. The fire turned out to be the making of that new and embattled agency.
When you look back at that era, you are struck by how many civic institutions were founded to address the nation’s problems. Not only the Forest Service, but also the Food and Drug Administration, the municipal reform movement, the suffrage movement, the Federal Reserve System, the Boy Scouts, the 4-H clubs, the settlement house movement, the compulsory schooling movement, and on and on. Four amendments to the Constitution were passed in those years.
In fact, when you look back on most periods of U.S. history, you see a rash of new organizations being created. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin helped build the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Fire Department, The Pennsylvania Gazette, The American Philosophical Society, the Pennsylvania Hospital and much else.
In the 1930s, the alphabet soup of New Deal agencies were created. The late 1940s saw the creation of the big multinational institutions: the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the beginnings of the European market.
When you look around today, you see a lot of history-making new companies being created, but you don’t see too many big civic organizations. There are some great social entrepreneurs, like Bill Drayton, who started Ashoka, but the only vast national civic movements I can think of are the charter school movement and the tea party.
We’ve got just as many problems as previous generations faced — as many as in the progressive era, I’d say. Why has there been this decline in civic institution building?
Political polarization has got to be a big culprit. The federal government can’t build anything new, even something as obvious as a national service program. The churches have let us down, too. The Christian churches have been behind most of the big social movements in U.S. history, such as abolition, poverty programs and civil rights. But for the past generation, the church has been fighting a defensive war against the sexual revolution, not an offensive assault for opportunity and human dignity.
The affluent have also been less entrepreneurial. Many civic institutions in past decades were created by people like Roosevelt and Pinchot, who inherited family empires but devoted their lives to civic institution building.
But I wonder if there is also a malaise, a loss of faith in the future and a loss of expertise in institution building, a sense of general fragmentation and isolation. U.S. foreign policy, which used to be about building positive coalitions to make life better, now seems to be based on the idea that we should defensively withdraw from things. There has been a loss of civic imagination.
The good news is that one could have said the same thing in 1890, when politics was steeped in corruption and the economy wracked by crisis. But by 1910 the landscape was transformed. There were new organizations, new movements, a new mentality and a new burst of optimism.
Even the worst fires clear the way for new growth.
Brooks is a New York Times columnist.