The Yale Undergraduate Research Journal


I analyze the parallel constructions of the institution of the United States Forest Service and the idea of fire as a public enemy in the first half of the twentieth century. From where did this fire-as-enemy construction emerge, and what purpose did it serve? I draw extensively from Yale collections for my research, including glass slides of early-1900s forest fire prevention posters, a pamphlet of eerie children’s songs from 1928 with violent language about punishing those who start forest fires, and a Yale School of Forestry student’s 1934 thesis. I argue that equating forest fire with a public enemy has logical roots in the connections between fighting fire and fighting war, especially following the 1910 Great Fires. This construction both came from and bolstered the United States Forest Service (USFS) as it transformed from a fledgling government agency to a department marshaling the resources of a sizable army. The power of propaganda entrenched this construction in the public conscience by connecting forest fires and waste of natural resources, a particularly impactful link during the economic crisis of the 1930s. The fire-as-enemy construction justified a policy of total fire suppression by equating fire suppression with waste prevention, casting the ultimate enemy not as fire, but as the waste of resources.