By Joseph Taylor III

Living in western North America in late summer can feel apocalyptic. Inevitably, it seems, the region is encircled by fire. The 2015 wildfire season consumed a record-setting ten million acres mostly in California, Washington, and Alaska. Last year California, Arizona, and New Mexico were besieged. This year fire enveloped California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Montana, and smoke smothered the rest of the continent. It was and likely will continue to be front-page news, so as journalists focus on the moment, let us historians think about just how much the past has shaped events, and what it all might mean.

Since the 1860s, Americans and Canadians have set aside vast areas for their sublime and ecological values. Some areas became parks and monuments, others became forests and ranges. The wildest were deemed wildernesses. As the 1964 Wilderness Act put it, they were “where the…

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