This book is a companion piece to Storm, Stewart’s earlier novel about the struggle against nature’s disruptive forces. The overall story line is similar but not identical. The threat, the forest fire, is smaller in scope and can be attacked directly. The characters are not anonymous functionaries, as they were in Storm. Here they have names, back-stories and differing opinions. Stewart even adds some love interest, which takes the narrative on an ill-advised but thankfully brief side track.
Fire by George R. Stewart. Random House (1948), 336 pp.
A storm with plenty of lightening but little rain has been making its way north along the Sierra and has reached the Ponderosa National Forest. It’s fire season in California, so workers in the forest are on alert. At the Cerrro Gordo lookout station Judith Godoy, a pretty college student on her first assignment, scans the skies for smoke. Meanwhile, longtime district ranger John Bartley is less concerned about fires, which he’s been fighting for years, than about his new boss, Ranger Jones, who seems inexperienced and indecisive. Other key players are dispatcher Arnold Sorenson and weatherman Dave Halliday.
There’s little question about what’s going to happen in this story. The title announces there will be a fire; the map on the inside of the cover shows when and where the fire will spread; and the jacket blurb outlines the novel’s plot and states its main theme. Which puts a heavy burden on the author’s narrative skills. Stewart meets the challenge with vivid descriptions of the fire-fighters in action and canny explanations of fire-fighting strategies. The narrative moves back and forth among an array of characters, though its approach is even more expansive. At one point, for example, a paragraph about weather patterns over Alaska is followed by one depicting a panicky rabbit in the underbrush. Stewart’s message is ultimately ecological: Natural phenomena are inevitably linked. Some elements of current fire-fighting are missing, among them tanker planes, satellite data, and arguments about the wisdom of fire suppression. Even so, the book will probably still appeal to anyone interested in the topic.