Jameson John Karns

HistoryUniversity of California / Berkeley

Award Information

2017 IDRF Program

HistoryUniversity of California / Berkeley

The Spark: The Transatlantic History of Fire Science 1850-1910

"Fire is the Greatest Enemy Alive," reads the introductory sentence inscribed by Gifford Pinchot in his Freiburg University notebook in 1890. Before becoming the founder of the United States Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot was the first American student of Feuerwissenschaft or Fire Science in Germany. During the late nineteenth century Pinchot and other foresters traveled to southern Germany to understand the role of fire in forests and its effect on the natural environment. The lessons learned in Germany transformed and created what we now know as wildland fire suppression or firefighting in America. Yet, how does a discipline emerge around the quantification and suppression of a phenomenon? With the support of this fellowship my scholarship will seek to answer: under what circumstance was the discipline of Fire Science created in nineteenth century Germany and how was it received and implemented by the founders of American Forestry? For over a century the southern Germanic states served as the leader in forestry and land management- educating the world on scientific approaches to understanding and conserving natural resources. Students of German Forestry were the first disciples of a radical new field of Forestry- one in which fire was a separate and distinct element. German foresters isolated fire as a variable that could be quantified, manipulated, and extinguished. Fire suppression and administration is the largest expenditure of American land management agencies. Last year the United States spent over $4 billion on the suppression of wildfires. Environmental scientists have indicated that this trend will continue, due to global warming we will witness a drastic increase in fire occurrences. This scholarship has the aptitude to profoundly influence this dialogue as an understanding on how the heritage of Fire Science shaped our institutions and politics and will allow us to better understand contemporary inquiry around fire management.