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‘Inferno’ helps reader learn from the past

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By The Staff

If ignored, history will turn to dust. Its lessons will fade and smudge. While it is easy to shrug off the past and merely allow it to turn to ash, but that could be a mistake. Looking to the past can reveal answers to current and future questions.  

For instance, Tom Ribe, author of “Inferno by Committee,” took an in depth look at the Cerro Grande Fire and discovered a lot of lessons within the fire’s ashes.

Ribe doesn’t just look back 10 years ago to the first week of May 2000, he scans all the way back to about 8,000 years ago to the area’s first residents. Furthermore, he examines how, over time, humans significantly change the landscape – whether it was through grazing or logging or politics. He discusses at length about the differences between the National Forest Service’s philosophy of maintaining the land and the National Park Service’s beliefs.

After heavily sifting through the ashes of time, Ribe presents an argument that is applicable now, tomorrow and forever after. He stresses the importance of environmental stewardship but also the need to exercise stewardship amongst humans. A lot of problems can be resolved by good teamwork, unity and taking the time and effort to make the right decisions for everyone.

Ribe argues the consequences of hurting the environment from the very beginning.

“Today, it is nearly impossible to imagine the rich southern Rocky Mountain world before large human populations came into it. Nobody alive today witnessed that landscape and few stories remain from it. Moreover the diverse, long evolved wilderness deteriorated into the simple, heavily damaged landscape of today gradually, over generations and few people understand or even notice the changes we brought into this once beautiful landscape,” he wrote.

While Ribe attributes  environmental factors helped make a prescribed burn become out of control, he also studies the workings of two government agencies – the National Forest Service and the National Park Service.

“Just as the radically deteriorated environmental condition … led directly to the possibility of the Cerro Grande fire storm, how these two agencies responded to and managed the damaged landscape they inherited had everything to do with how the Cerro Grande fire burned and where.”

In the proceeding chapters, Ribe gives a detailed blow-by-blow of the fire. In short, Ribe tells the reader everything they wanted to know about the dynamics of Cerro Grande fire and the methods to fight it but were afraid to ask.

For those who are like Ribe, who has studied and worked in public lands, this would be right up their alley. And even those who are not astute in fire fighting methods or public land, there are lessons to be gained.

Throughout his account of the Cerro Grande, Ribe emphasizes the importance of collaboration and striving to make good decisions, particularly in a time of a crisis.

For instance, he decries the initial lack of manpower on the fire as a contributing factor to the devastation that would later occur.

“As the next few days unfolded with the focus on fire fighting closer to Los Alamos and with minimal personnel on the site of the prescribed fire … perhaps if the south containment line of the fire, along State Road 4 had been properly patrolled, the fire would never have escaped from Bandelier National Monument  and roared toward Los Alamos.”

It’s this universal message that allows “Inferno by Committee” to be useful and valuable to readers.