Sept. 22 dinner speaker reviewed lessons of wildfires

John N. Maclean, FN ’02,  spoke on “A Season of Fire” at the ECWG’s September 22, 2012 dinner at the Cosmos Club.

His talk reviewed lessons learned from the ongoing explosive fire season including the reality of bigger, hotter fires and sometimes overwhelmed and inadequate firefighting resources”

John Maclean at Great Falls National Park, Va.

MacLean gave a detailed account of the Esperanza Fire of 2006, which killed a five-man Forest Service engine crew sent to defend homes in lightly inhabited desert highlands in southern California. Why did the crew set up where they did, in an exposed position guarding an uninhabited house? And why did they remain there when it was clear they would be hit by a major fire front? Never before has an entire engine crew been wiped out by a wildland fire.

Less than a week after the fire, Raymond Oyler was arrested for starting the fire, one of many he set that year. Within three years he was tried and found guilty of five counts of murder and sentenced to death. Never before has anyone been convicted of murder for setting a wildland fire, let alone sentenced to death.

The Oyler case marks a trend toward much stiffer punishments for anyone responsible for starting a fire in wild lands, either deliberately or negligently. In part, the trend is fueled by hotter, bigger, and more destructive fires: but the key element is the expansion of the wildland-urban interface, bringing more people into contact with previously wild lands—and almost inevitably with fire.

Maclean was a reporter, writer, and editor for The Chicago Tribune for 30 years, most of that time as a Washington correspondent, before he resigned from the newspaper in 1995 to write books.

As a Washington correspondent, he covered the State Department and was one of the “Kissinger 14” who accompanied Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the era of shuttle diplomacy.

Maclean was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University for the 1974-75 academic year.

Maclean’s first book, Fire on the Mountain, was a best-selling account of the South Canyon Fire of 1994 that took 14 firefighter lives in central Colorado. The book received the Mountains and Plains Booksellers award as the best non-fiction of 1999.

A two-hour documentary by the History Channel based on the book was an Emmy Award finalist and won the Cine Master’s Award for Excellence as the best documentary of 2003.

Maclean subsequently wrote Fire and Ashes and The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal. His latest book, The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, is available for pre-ordering from Amazon.com and will be published in February by Counterpoint Press.

He is a frequent speaker at fire academies and other gatherings. Maclean, an avid fly fisherman, and his wife Frances, a member of the Society of Women Geographers, divide their time between a family cabin on Seeley Lake, Montana, and their long-time home in Washington, D.C.’s Cleveland Park.  He is the son of Montana writer Norman Maclean, who wrote the well-known novella A River Runs Through It.

Dinners are $50 each. Reservations must be made before noon, Monday, Sept. 17 with Bill Runyon, 1812 19th St. NW, Washington DC 20009, (202) 234-7490

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