Wildfire and Americans

How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars

Roger G. Kennedy

Hill and Wang

Three years after Roger Kennedy retired as director of the National Park Service, from his Santa Fe home he watched as the Cerro Grande Fire moved across the Pajarito Plateau and into Los Alamos. Two hundred and thirty-five homes were destroyed, more than 45,000 acres of forest were burned, and the nation's nuclear laboratories were threatened; even before the embers had died a blame game erupted. Kennedy's career as a public servant, which encompasses appointments under five presidential administrations, convinced him that the tragedy would produce scapegoats and misinformation, and leave American lives at risk. That was unacceptable, even unforgivable.

Wildfire and Americans is a passionate, deeply informed appeal that we acknowledge wildfire not as a fire problem but as a people problem. Americans are in the wrong places, damningly because they were encouraged to settle there. Politicians, scientists, and CEOs acting out of patriotism, hubris, and greed have
placed their fellow countrymen in harm's way. And now, with global warming, we inhabit a landscape that has become much more dangerous. Grounded in the conviction that we owe a duty to our environment and our fellow man, Wildfire and Americans is more than a depiction of policies gone terribly awry. It is a plea to acknowledge the mercy we owe nature and mankind.


Read an Excerpt

Wildfire and Americans
PART ONEPeople in Flame Zones1. THE PLAN OF THE WORKLos Alamos is a bomb factory set in a firetrap. It was put there by scientists adept at physics and chemistry but not universally wise. They could make nuclear weapons, and they could teach others how to deliver those weapons to their targets. They were not, however, good at everything their country asked of them, or at solving every problem about which some of them felt impelled to offer advice. Few of them, for example, were trained in the biological sciences or the dynamics of wildfire. Nevertheless, on their recommendation,


Praise for Wildfire and Americans

"Roger Kennedy has written a valuable book that all taxpayers in the country should read. Long standing policies designed with the best intentions encouraged many Americans to build houses in unsafe places. When threatened by fire and flood the taxpayer is often called upon to bail them out. Kennedy rightfully calls for a rational approach to our policies supporting home construction to ensure that we are not jeopardizing lives and property, while imposing high burdens on the US taxpayer."--Theodore Roosevelt IV
"Eloquent and incisive, old-government-hand Kennedy shows how a set of wrong policies can do increasing harm for decades, yet become entrenched despite gross failure. The book is a masterpiece of details, not only of the specifics of fire and land-use misplanning, but of the whole historic narrative that got us into the fix. That perspective enables him to show a way out." --Stewart Brand, President, The Long Now Foundation

"Equal parts detective story, Cold War mystery, environmental history lesson, and policy treatise, Roger Kennedy's Wildfire and Americans offers an unsurpassed investigation into the root causes of runaway wildfires." --Don Chen, Executive Director, Smart Growth America

"Americans seem increasingly determined to locate in the path of natural disaster, be it flood or fire. Kennedy's almost renaissance review of the dangers and the solutions is must reading, especially in light of Katrina and the recent great fires of the West and Southwest." --Parris N. Glendening, Governor of Maryland 1995-2003

"It's the most enjoyable thing I've read in a long time [and] will simply require everyone to get serious about the intellectual and historical dimensions of our fire landscape, which is to say, ourselves. Well done!" --Steve Pyne, author of Tending Fire. Coping with America's Wildland Fires and Fire: A Brief History

"A wonderful contribution! Kennedy reaches into the depths of public policy, ethics, and ecology to draw out practical solutions that will allow us to respect each other, respect fire, and live more lightly on the land." --William L. Baker, Professor of Geography, University of Wyoming

"I would like every architect, planner, developer, real estate sales person, and public administrator and elected official to read and contemplate this work." --W. Cecil Steward, FAIA, President, Joslyn Castle Institute, Dean Emeritus and Emeritus Professor, University of Nebraska College of Architecture.

Praise for Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause:

"Forces us to reconsider settled opinions." ---Wall Street Journal

"Well-researched, well-written and provocative." ---Santa Fe New Mexican

Praise for Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson:

"Roger Kennedy comes out of a lengthy political career and writes with the authority of a man who has walked the corridors of power." ---Men's Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Roger G. Kennedy

  • Roger G. Kennedy has served as director of the National Park Service and director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The author of nine books, he lives in Boston, Massachusetts.


Available Formats and Book Details

Wildfire and Americans

How to Save Lives, Property, and Your Tax Dollars

Roger G. Kennedy

  • e-Book